Transportation officials get input about plan to make city more pedestrian friendly

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Members of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) gave a sparsely attended presentation about the Chicago Pedestrian Plan at Austin Town Hall last week.

Though there were more government representatives and activists ready to answer questions about the plan than there were residents to ask them, the few Austin citizens to attend adamantly supported the city’s plan, which will make city streets more friendly to pedestrians.

In all, there were nearly 25 government representatives, six reporters and eight residents. Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) also attended, lending her support.

According to the Chicago Pedestrian Plan’s Web site, the tentative goals for the plan are “to make the city’s streets safe for Chicago’s youngest and oldest pedestrians … improve the connections between neighborhoods and … create a healthier and more livable city.”

Additionally, city transportation officials say the plan will entirely eliminate pedestrian fatalities and reduce pedestrian accidents by 50 percent every five years.

It’s a goal that transportation experts laud, but don’t see as being particularly attainable.

“I think this is ambitious, really ambitious,” said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University. “It’s a worthy policy, but it’s a bit out of reach.”

Schwieterman, who is director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, says pedestrian accidents and fatalities can be reduced through pedestrian scrambles, or diagonal crossings, where traffic is stopped for a period of time while pedestrians are allowed to cross in every direction, including diagonally.

However, Schwierterman says innovation can only do so much.

“Technology can get us part of the way there,” Schwieterman said. “[A complete] reduction [in fatalities] would be fabulous, but it may prove unattainable.”

In 2009, the most recent year data are available, there were 3,000 accidents involving pedestrians, which in turn caused 34 deaths total, according to Chicago transit officials. (Statistics for 2010 are expected to be available in a few weeks, said Kiersten Grove, pedestrian safety coordinator for CDOT.)

At tables helmed by CDOT, Active Transportation Alliance and the CTA, residents were encouraged to walk around and talk about their individual experiences as pedestrians, and how they could be improved.

Once all of the Chicago Pedestrian Plan meetings are complete – Austin’s was the fourth of seven held across the city –  CDOT will take the information and form a more cohesive pedestrian plan, which will be posted in full by October.

Doing so will help create a better city-wide environment, according to John MacManus, an urban designer and landscape architect at Altamanu Inc. who participated in the July 13 presentation.

In a pre-presentation interview, MacManus emphasized that streets that look better and are more pedestrian-friendly will make people feel safer and draw them outdoors. In the process, MacManus said residents will spend money, thereby boosting the local economy.

“It’s not about drivers versus pedestrians,” MacManus said during the presentation. “It’s about protecting, helping and respecting each other.”

Respect was a common theme for Austin residents, who say that, far too often, their neighbors ignore rules, to the detriment of the area’s quality of life.

“I try not to walk a whole lot,” said Austin resident Julia Flowers. “Some of the things in the neighborhood — there’s pit bulls walking around. People are supposed to keep them on leashes — that’s the law. But they don’t. So if you go for a run, you really might be running.”

Flowers’s line drew knowing laughs from attendees.

Margaret Johnson, an Austin resident who lives near the intersection of Cicero Avenue and Lexington Street, says she’s most concerned about the carelessness and hostility of some drivers.

“As much as I’d like to gain momentum during exercise, cars don’t stop at all,” Johnson said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been hit or cussed out [by drivers] even though I had the right-of-way.”

Flowers and Johnson also individually expressed concern about broken glass on sidewalks in Austin and  potholes in the roads

Ald. Graham told attendees any potholes or other concerns, such as uneven sidewalks, should be reported by dialing 311.

Graham also recommended residents hold onto the tracking number for the reported complaint, saying once a resident reports an issue for the second time, 311 makes a new record of the call and cancels out the old one.

By holding on to the tracking number, Graham says residents can make sure their complaint is being followed up on by the proper authorities.

After the presentation concluded, MacManus and other representatives asked Flowers what they could do to ensure a higher turnout at future meetings. Flowers, emphasizing a greater presence at community gathering places like churches and libraries, gave a direct answer.

“Good things happen when things happen,” Flowers said, referring to her general support of the plan. “But you gotta know your community. What the Gold Coast needs ain’t got nothing to do with what Austin needs.”

Sarah Ostman contributed to this report.

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