State Agencies Often Resist Pedestrian Safety Fixes on Urban Roads

By: - December 8, 2022 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Audrey Wennink’s name and to clarify her comments on highway development. Irving Park Road is an IDOT arterial road, not an interstate highway.

CHICAGO — Peter Paquette was a fixture in the 47th Ward, his North Side neighborhood in Chicago. The 75-year-old gathered coats for the local donation drives and invited older adults to join an annual caroling celebration. 

This past June, Paquette marched alongside hundreds of Chicagoans demanding safer streets following a spate of pedestrian deaths, including two toddlers killed by drivers in the same month. Later that day, Paquette joined Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, state representatives and Chicago aldermen for an early vote rally at O’Donovan’s, a nearby bar on Irving Park Road. 

He never made it home.

Leaving the gathering at O’Donovan’s, Paquette and his wife were crossing Irving Park Road when a driver struck him in the middle of a marked crosswalk. He was thrown into the air, and though bystanders jumped in to help, he was pronounced dead a half hour after the accident, recalled Alderman Matt Martin, who represents the 47th Ward.

Local politicians and residents had flagged the four-lane state road, which bisects a residential neighborhood with three schools, two older adult living facilities and an L train station, as a hazard for pedestrians. In fact, Martin had pushed for safety improvements such as pedestrian refuge islands and curb extensions near the area where Paquette was struck. 

But the Illinois Department of Transportation, citing state regulations, declineFd to make many of those improvements

“I know folks who have said, ‘I avoid crossing Irving Park altogether,’ or ‘I avoid crossing it at particular intersections or particular times of day, because I’m not willing to accept the risk associated with crossing,’” Martin told Stateline. “No one should ever be in that position.”

Conflict between municipal transportation departments and their state counterparts is not unique to Illinois. Attempts to slow traffic and improve pedestrian safety on busy state roads within urban areas often meet strong headwinds from state transportation departments, whose raison d’être is moving cars quickly and efficiently. 

“This is the only thing we have seen for 70 years in every jurisdiction in America. It’s not a trend. It is the standard,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a transit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “Undoing 70 years of standards takes real work. And even if you start to make procedural improvements now, you have to retrofit every single roadway.”

When designing state roads, department engineers prioritize getting as many cars on the road as possible, according to Audrey Wennink, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based transportation advocacy organization. 

“There’s increasing awareness of the issue of how interstate highways like this one didn’t always exist,” Wennink said. “They got dropped into cities in the 1960s and did a lot of harm to communities.”

Transportation departments still use metrics such as levels of service, which measures congestion, to determine where investments are made, Wennick added. Whether a state road crosses rural farmlands or a crowded city, speed is the primary function. 

The design of these roads matters: A 2022 study from Ohio State University showed that serious car crashes in urban areas were 48% more likely on city streets that looked like highways than on residential streets. The study’s findings suggested that a road’s design shapes the driver’s behavior; the authors recommended narrowing roadways, adding sidewalks and even planting greenery to make them less dangerous. 

But those revisions would be antithetical to the mission that most state transportation agencies have held for the past 70 years: moving people quickly and efficiently, Osborne said. Up until the past decade, efficiency and mobility were considered ahead of safety, according to Victoria Barrett, a transportation planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

“Efficiency and mobility were associated with economic progress and people’s contentment and the independence of the American driver getting where they want quickly,” Barrett said. “But we’ve seen that mission really does not serve us well, particularly in areas where we have people walking, people bicycling, people with mobility challenges who travel at much slower rates than people in cars.”

Deadly Byways

The old mission of state DOTs that prioritized efficiency turned deadly during the pandemic. When state roadways that were built for speed were relieved of their normal congestion, fatalities spiked. Pedestrian deaths have shot up across the country, reaching a 40-year high in 2021. 

In recent years, pedestrian safety advocates in New York, Oregon and Tennessee have pushed for traffic-calming measures on state roads, especially in high-density, urban areas, only to face cross-jurisdictional snags and fiats from state transportation departments to keep cars moving. 

In Wisconsin, for example, West Fond du Lac Avenue and Capitol Drive are deadly state roads cutting through Milwaukee. In 2017, 16 of the top 25 high-crash intersections in Milwaukee occurred on Fond du Lac Avenue or Capitol Drive, Wisconsin Watch reported. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, or WisDOT, must approve plans that would slow traffic.

The department is working with the city of Milwaukee on fast-tracking pedestrian safety projects, including curb extensions, high visibility crosswalk markings and fewer travel lanes, WisDOT said in an email to Stateline.

In Macon, Georgia, four pedestrian deaths spurred a road safety audit from the city’s zoning commission. But it took reporting from The Macon Newsroom six years after the audit was completed for the Georgia Department of Transportation’s traffic operations to address the audit. The Macon-Bibb County traffic engineer also complained that the bureaucracy of dealing with the state agency slowed pedestrian safety upgrades.

In March, after a woman was killed crossing Pio Nono Avenue, the city’s sixth pedestrian death of the year at the time, a county official told a local news station that only the state can lower speed limits on state highways.

GDOT told Stateline that the agency is paying attention holistically to regional traffic safety.

“We do not feel that the information published by The Macon Newsroom accurately represents the partnerships in the MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization], which have been focused on safety throughout the region,” GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale wrote in an email to Stateline.

Dale outlined multiple ongoing safety efforts within the Macon-Bibb area, including pedestrian infrastructure on Pio Nono Avenue.

In Chicago, Rony Islam, an organizer with the advocacy group Chicago, Bike Grid Now, analyzed police department crash data between Jan. 1, and Nov. 11, 2022. The crash sites reported by Chicago police affected cars, parked cars, bikes, other mobility devices and people.

Of the 30 sites with the most crashes in Chicago, all but one included a state road, according to Islam’s analysis. One state road, Stony Island, runs down the South Side of Chicago and counts two of its intersections, at 79th and 95th, among sites with the most crashes in the city. That danger isn’t surprising to Courtney Cobbs, co-founder of Better Streets Chicago.

“This has been known for decades,” Cobbs said. “And there has been no movement to change that, unfortunately.”

Her transit advocacy peers argue the Illinois Department of Transportation is not only slow to respond to pedestrian deaths but also is a huge barrier to any type of traffic safety improvements.

“A lot of these roadways are controlled by the state, and they have traditionally been much more backward-looking, honestly, in terms of the types of roadway improvement designs they’re willing to consider,” said Jim Merrell, managing director of advocacy for the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit pedestrian and public transportation advocacy group. 

Even when pedestrian safety advocates have the support of local aldermen or the Chicago Department of Transportation, IDOT often is reluctant to approve of changes such as physical barriers between car traffic and pedestrians or bicyclists that could protect more vulnerable roadway users, he said. The current state law requires IDOT to give full consideration to bicycle and pedestrian ways in urban areas during a project’s planning phase; however, the IDOT secretary can make an exception for resurfacing projects or what might be deemed as safety issues, excessive cost or absence of need.

“We talk to IDOT all the time and have engaged with the secretary, with the local districts, with the General Assembly and the governor’s office, and it’s clear we have a really big structural issue with the state Department of Transportation and just how it’s set up,” Merrell said. “It’s not set up to build streets for the 21st century.”

In an emailed statement to Stateline, IDOT said it collaborates with the Chicago Department of Transportation to address safety concerns within the city.

“It’s important to note that state routes in the City of Chicago are typically major routes that carry a significant amount of traffic within and through the city. As a result, many of these routes exhibit a higher crash frequency when compared to other routes that see significantly less traffic,” IDOT spokesperson Maria Castaneda said in an email to Stateline, adding that the agency continues to collaborate with the Chicago Department of Transportation to address safety concerns within the city.

“IDOT continually reviews and analyzes crash data to identify possible safety concerns and countermeasures for any possible improvements in an effort to realize our goal of eliminating all fatal and serious injuries on Illinois roadways,” Castaneda wrote.

‘Not There Yet’

The confluence of a record number of pedestrian deaths and a new wave of engineers who have adopted a less car-centric approach could change the direction of state transportation departments. Pedestrian safety advocates point to California and Massachusetts as examples of the new approach. 

In the past, the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, used level of service, traffic congestion or the amount of time a driver is delayed, as the guiding measurements when designing roadways. That approach often pumped up demand: Building more roads to relieve traffic, in fact, led to more drivers using those roads and clogging them up again.

“Eventually, people, employers and others will take advantage of new auto accessibility and move their businesses and homes further away from each other,” said Eric Sundquist, a sustainability advisor at Caltrans. “Then what happens is people then drive more and eventually the roads, because of all the extra driving start to congest again. It’s sort of a vicious cycle.”

In 2020, Caltrans began prioritizing reducing the distance vehicles travel in designing roadways. The new calculation is meant to discourage adding more lanes to relieve traffic congestion and instead support more walkable communities. The shift, the result of a new state law, is in its early days, but its novel approach has given transportation planners and advocates some hope.

“All of this stuff is swirling around,” Sundquist said. “Whatever the new paradigm is, we’re not there yet.”

In Massachusetts, the secretaries of Transportation, Environment and Health and Human Services made a similar shift a decade ago. Under a 2013 directive, all projects from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, or MassDOT, must increase or encourage pedestrian, bicycle and transit trips. If MassDOT designs roads or other infrastructure that doesn’t address the needs of cyclists and pedestrians, then the secretary must approve of that design. Previously, MassDOT engineers only factored in design elements such as lane width or road curvature.

“What has been missing from all those criteria are criteria for non-motor vehicle users of the facility,” said Tom DiPaolo, assistant chief engineer at MassDOT.

The discussions that led to the shift were largely driven by outside advocacy groups, and DiPaolo said he thinks the department has formed a good working relationship with them.

“We treat them more as partners in this than as adversaries,” he said. “So, they were at the table making these decisions with us.” 

In Illinois, a major sticking point is that IDOT and the Chicago Department of Transportation fail to coordinate with each other, said Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner, a Democrat who represents a district on the South Side of Chicago.

“What I usually hear is that CDOT says, ‘We can’t do anything because IDOT won’t, this is an IDOT space.’ And then they just leave it there,” Buckner said. “But if you ask IDOT, often they’ll say, ‘We’re happy to work together to figure it out if they ask us.’ The advocates are talking to both sides, but both sides aren’t talking to each other.”

Buckner is working on legislation for the upcoming legislative session that would lower speed limits in cities. Another bill would give municipal transportation agencies the ability to implement traffic calming and pedestrian safety work on state roads within a jurisdiction that has a population of more than 2 million people, he said. Buckner stressed that any new law would not only require buy-in from IDOT, but the city as well. 

At the municipal level, Alderman Martin has discussed a memorandum of understanding that would allow CDOT to lead on infrastructure-related decisions along state roads.

“Peter’s death happened a number of months ago. We’ve been working on safety issues involving Irving Park for several years now, and we still haven’t locked in exactly what sort of improvements we can see,” Martin said, adding that in meetings with IDOT, he senses that officials genuinely care about safety.

“[Illinois Department of Transportation officials] want to improve infrastructure in light of that commitment to improve safety,” he said, “but we can’t confuse hard work for good work and smart work.”

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Leigh Giangreco
Leigh Giangreco

Leigh Giangreco is a Chicago-based correspondent for Stateline. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian and WBEZ Chicago.