More red light cameras? A radical redesign?
For years, the intersection of North/Damen/Milwaukee has been a tried and true hazard for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s heavily congested, awkwardly designed, and densely populated—a combination of cars, buses, and foot traffic spilling out from the surrounding nightlife and the Damen Blue Line. It’s also the site of dozens of accidents that occur annually.
Recently, for example, a 76-year-old man in a motorized wheelchair was thrown from his chair when a truck hit him as he crossed the intersection. Luckily, he sustained non-life threatening injuries, but his case wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.
The Chicago Department of Transportation hosts a public meeting tonight to talk about reconfiguring the much-fraught intersection, and it’s the first time the public will have an opportunity to provide critical feedback for what could be a turning point for the future of Chicago’s six-point intersections.
Here are some ideas that could come up, ranked from ostensibly the simplest to the most difficult modifications and implementations.
Eliminate left-hand turns from Damen and North Ave.
Steve Vance of Streetsblog proposed the relatively simple, but exponentially beneficial elimination of left-hand turns by drivers coming from Damen and North Avenues. Vance pointed out that the change could potentially free up about ten feet of roadway “for bike lanes in each direction, wider sidewalks, or a combination of the two.” It would also allow people crossing the street to feel protected from inattentive or impatient drivers, who often jump the gun at the sight of a yellow light.
Vance even went as far as suggesting that right-hand turns should also be eliminated, and while that may be a stretch, it’s indisputable that doing so would allow for a much safer intersection.
Consider more red light cameras
Chicago drivers have had issues with Chicago’s red-light camera enforcement. And there’s no question the city has bungled its operation to a degree. But there’s also no question that red light cameras deter drivers from making hasty decisions.
A study in 2016 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that cities with active red-light camera programs experienced 21 percent fewer fatal red-light running crashes, and 14 percent fewer fatal crashes of all types at signalized intersections. The study also found that of the 79 cities with active camera programs between 1992 and 2014, roughly 1,296 lives have been saved.
What’s more, red-light cameras receive a great deal of public support. A 2012 survey conducted in D.C. found that 87 percent of residents supported red-light cameras.
Establish prominent road markers and “smart” traffic lights
If you’ve been hanging out in Wicker lately, it may feel as though the roads could use a drastic makeover. That’s because they could. As it stands, the traffic signals and road indicators are relatively modest in size and scope.
One solution is to consider a “smarter” approach for getting people’s attention. In Bellevue, Washington, for example, the city has worked with a system of intersection signals that adjust to traffic conditions in real time, known as adaptive signals. According to an article in Time, Bellevue is the standard for which every city should strive to become. Back in 2010, officials in Bellevue began instituting a system called SCATS (Sydney Coordinative Adaptive Traffic System), “a series of wires embedded in city streets that tell the signals how much traffic is moving through the intersection. When traffic is heavier, the green lights stay on longer. Less traffic means shorter greens.”
Costly? Yes. A long shot? Probably. Worth considering? No doubt.
Enforce small infractions/hire regular traffic cops
There’s an inherent risk whenever the city trots out a member of the CPD’s traffic division to direct heavy traffic. For one thing, the officer on duty is putting his/her life at risk. Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood was once patrolled by Joseph Pozell, a volunteer traffic cop who manned the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue—one of the most notorious traffic spots in all of D.C.
One sunny, crystal clear day, as Pozell was directing traffic, he was struck by an inattentive driver and killed. It prompted the city to institute even stricter enforcement of the intersection.
The Pozell tragedy notwithstanding, traffic cops can do what stop lights cannot: enforce traffic and keep people from making bad decisions. It’s worth considering what might happen if the city considered assigning a traffic officer to Damen/North/Milwaukee during rush hour. And if a traffic cop isn’t the answer, what about crossing guards?
Consider a radical redesign
Is it time for Chicago to consider more roundabouts? The intersection is probably large enough, and the purpose would effectively expand on Vance’s proposal: to eliminate left-hand turns. A roundabout might also slow traffic significantly and give drivers a clear path to their chosen direction. But a redesign comes with significant costs and could likely prove to be a logistical nightmare. Still, I would argue that there’s no such thing as a bad idea.