Tagcrosswalk

Going to worship at The Beer Temple takes too long

Minor suggestion to improve Elston-California-Belmont

A map of Belmont, Elston, California with lines and labels that show how I get to The Beer Temple and where I think the city should add car parking.

The Beer Temple opened two blocks from my house in Avondale last year, at 3185 N Elston Ave, on the six-way intersection of Belmont Avenue, Elston Avenue, and California Avenue. This intersection is beastly.

And it’s timed wrong. Since I live southwest of the great craft and imported beer store and it’s on the northwest corner of Elston (a diagonal street) and California, I have to cross twice. I make the first crossing, east-west across California at my street, and then walk north to the second crossing, north-south across Elston.

I cross at my street across California because there’s no light to wait for, and the crossing isn’t diagonal like my other option at Elston (which would mean I walk north, then diagonally south and east). Once I get to Elston, though, I’m screwed because the walk signal is about 15 seconds long but the wait for the next walk signal is about 90 seconds long.

It’s so long because the green for Elston is held for Elston traffic, but also held green for eastbound Belmont traffic that makes a right turn onto southeast-bound Elston. Instead of the walk signal being green for two phases of the cycle (for two of the three streets), it’s green for only one cycle: California’s.

This is because this six-way intersection is the less common type, the type with an island in the middle. It’s got the island because the three streets cross each other at different points and don’t share a common cross point. I’ve got to wait for two phases because Elston needs to stay green for Belmont traffic because you can’t have drivers waiting in the island area – too many cars may stack up and block cross traffic during another phase.

(At many intersections I would just cross whenever there’s a gap between fast-moving cars, but with six-way intersections you don’t always know from where a car will be speeding towards you.)

I get that, but that makes it suck for walking in this area. This design also makes it suck for people biking and driving to turn left from certain streets to other streets because they can’t make the left turn and keep on going. They make the left turn and then have to stop and wait for a second phase to keep going.

I’ve racked my mind for ideas on how to improve this intersection just mildly, in such a way that few would oppose (because that’s really the threshold you can’t cross to have a nice outcome in Chicago).

My idea? Add car parking in front of Dragon Lady Lounge in the “non-identified lane” there. It’s used as a travel lane, or a right-turn lane, depending on who’s driving and how they choose to maneuver their vehicle. It’s not needed for either because of the way traffic moves southbound on Elston past Dragon Lady Lounge and that Elston only has one travel lane in each direction on either side of this big intersection.

The parking would have the obvious benefit of putting customers closer to their destination, but would have the less obvious benefits of protecting people on the sidewalk, buffering noise and speeding vehicles from sidewalk users, and slow traffic past Dragon Lady Lounge when people are parking.

Why are children getting hurt in the street because of “looming”?

Adults are better than children at detecting the speed of a car that’s traveling faster than 20 miles per hour and are more likely to avoid crossing, thus not getting hit. 

Director of New York City-based Transportation Alternatives Paul Steely-White asked on Twitter for a plain English translation of this three-year old journal article about vehicle speeds and something called “looming”.

The article is called “Reduced Sensitivity to Visual Looming Inflates the Risk Posed by Speeding Vehicles When Children Try to Cross the Road”.

Skip to the end if you want the plain English translation, but I’ve posted the abstract below followed by excerpts from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic.

ABSTRACT: Almost all locomotor animals respond to visual looming or to discrete changes in optical size. The need to detect and process looming remains critically important for humans in everyday life. Road traffic statistics confirm that children up to 15 years old are overrepresented in pedestrian casualties. We demonstrate that, for a given pedestrian crossing time, vehicles traveling faster loom less than slower vehicles, which creates a dangerous illusion in which faster vehicles may be perceived as not approaching. Our results from perceptual tests of looming thresholds show strong developmental trends in sensitivity, such that children may not be able to detect vehicles approaching at speeds in excess of 20 mph. This creates a risk of injudicious road crossing in urban settings when traffic speeds are higher than 20 mph. The risk is exacerbated because vehicles moving faster than this speed are more likely to result in pedestrian fatalities.

The full text is free to download, but I think Steely-White needs to learn more now, so I pulled out my favorite book about driving, Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic”.

Page 95-97:

For humans, however, distance, like speed, is something we often judge rather imperfectly. Unfortunately for us, driving is really all about distance and speed. Consider a common and hazards maneuver in driving: overtaking a car on a two-lane road another approaches in the oncoming lane. When objects like cars are within twenty or thirty feet, we’re good at estimating how far away they are, thanks to our binocular vision (and the brain’s ability to construct a single 3D image from the differing 2D views each eye provides). Beyond that distance, both eyes are seeing the same view in parallel, and so things get a bit hazy. The farther out we go, the worse it gets: For a car that is twenty feet away, we might be accurate to within a few feet, but when it is three hundred yards away [900 feet], we might be off by a hundred yards [300 feet]. Considering that it takes about 279 feet for a car traveling at 55 miles per hour to stop (assuming an ideal average reaction time of 1.5 seconds), you can appreciate the problem of overestimating how far away an approaching car is – especially when they’re approaching you at 55 miles per hour.

[Here comes the keyword used in the journal article, “looming”]

Since we cannot tell exactly how far away the approaching car might be we guess using spatial cues, like its position relative to a roadside building or the car in front of us. We can also use the size of the oncoming car itself as a guide. We know it is approaching because its size is expanding or looming on our retina.

But there are problems with this. The first is that viewing objects straight on, as with the approaching car, does not provide us with a lot of information.

[…]

If all this is not enough to worry about there’s also the problem of the oncoming cars speed. A car in the distance approaching 20 miles per hour makes passing easy, but what if it is doing 80 miles per hour? The problem is this: We cannot really tell the difference. Until, that is, the car gets much closer — by which time it might be too late to act on the information.

[the topic continues]

Plain English translation

However, nothing I found in Traffic relates children and “looming”. The bottom line is that children are worse than adults at detecting the speed of a car coming in the cross direction and thus decide wrongly on when to cross the street.

Update: Based on Vanderbilt’s writing, it seems that humans cannot really be taught how to compensate for looming, to build a better perceptual model in the brain to detect the difference between cars traveling 20 and 80 MPH. If this is true, and I’d like to see research of pedestrian marketing and education programs designed for children, it may be that we should stop trying this approach.

Where else is it hard to “be a pedestrian” in Chicago?

I’m researching for an article about the many places in Chicago where pedestrian facilities should be improved. This is not about the lack of pedestrian safety in Chicago, but about deliberate designs that place push buttons or street crossing out of reach for some residents. So far this is what I’ve got.

Jackson Drive to cross Lake Shore Drive. To press the crosswalk signal activation button you have to step in a big mess of mud.

Robinson Street to cross Ashland Avenue. To press the crosswalk signal activation button you have to reach over or through a fence.

Southwest corner of Kinzie Street at Clark Street. There are no ramps at this crosswalk. A short distance west of here on the south side of Kinzie Street there are also stairs to traverse.

Where are there others?

N.B. While the word “pedestrian” is based on the word for “feet” in other languages, a pedestrian is considered anyone who isn’t getting around on a bicycle or automobile and uses the sidewalk. People using wheelchairs are grouped into “pedestrians” along with those who don’t.

For a fair division of commuting space

UPDATE: Transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch (“Hilkie”) published an article today about crosswalk enforcement in Chicago based on a new state law the Active Transportation Alliance helped pass that removes ambiguity about what drivers must do when a person wants to cross the street (they must STOP).

But I’m updating this post because he also writes about the crazy pedestrian situation I describe below at Adams and Riverside. I’ve quoted the key parts here:

The situation can be even worse downtown, where a vehicles-versus-pedestrians culture seems to flourish unchecked. Simply walking across Adams Street outside Chicago Union Station at rush hour can feel like you’re taking a big risk, as pedestrians dodge cars, buses and cabs and then must maneuver around the panhandlers and assorted vendors clogging the sidewalks near the curb.

It’s a mystery why such mayhem is tolerated by city or Amtrak police. The highest volume of pedestrian traffic downtown is right there at Adams and the Chicago River outside the station, according to a study conducted for the city.

“The cabdrivers have no concern with pedestrians trying to cross Adams in the crosswalk,” said Richard Sakowski, who commutes downtown daily on Metra from his home in Oswego. “They cut in front of other drivers cursing and yelling, pull from the center lane to the curb and stop in the crosswalk, not caring who they might hit. It is a very dangerous situation that the city does not care about.”

Chicago officials disagree, yet they have for years studied the problems around the downtown commuter rail stations without taking major action.

The city has received more than $10 million in grants to develop an off-street terminal on the south side of Jackson Boulevard just south of Union Station to address traffic safety issues and the crush of taxis and buses vying for limited curb space, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

“No timetable yet, but construction could begin in the next few years,” CDOT spokesman Brian Steele said.

Read the full article.


Every weekday afternoon in Chicago, over 100,000 people need to get to Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center to get on their Metra trains and go home. If you’re watching them walk, it seems like they don’t have enough room. The multitude of private automobiles with a single occupant and the hundreds of taxicabs also traveling towards these train terminals block the tens of buses that are trying to get commuters to the stations or to their neighborhoods.

Let’s look at Adams Street between Wacker Drive and Riverside Plaza. Riverside Plaza is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare (privately owned) alongside the west bank of the Chicago River and connects both train stations.

People “wait” to cross to the south sidewalk on Adams Street at Wacker Drive because they want to get to the entrance of Union Station. I use wait lightly – they creep out into the street and jog across whenever there’s the slightest opening (against the crosswalk signal).

Those who didn’t cross Adams Street at Wacker Drive now have to cross at Riverside Plaza. Thankfully, there’s a timed signal here for the crosswalk that stops traffic on Adams Street. It doesn’t always work because taxi drivers park their cabs on all segments of Adams Street here, sometimes on top of the crosswalk stripes themselves.

Take a look at the data (from the City of Chicago Traffic Information website):

  • 41,700 pedestrians, walking in both directions, were counted on Adams Street immediately west of Wacker Drive in one 10 hour segment, between 7:45 and 17:45, in 2007.
  • 14,300 vehicles, westbound only, were counted on Adams Street immediately east of Wacker Drive in one 24 hour segment, on September 20, 2006.

For simplicity, divide the number of pedestrians in half to get the actual number of people walking toward the train station in the afternoon. 20,850 commuters walk on Adams Street to get to Union Station. But trains don’t stop at 17:45. There are several more leaving every 5-10 minutes until 19:00. So add a couple more thousand pedestrians. Imagine that a couple hundred of them will be walking in the street because the sidewalk is crammed (I haven’t photographed this yet).

Now for vehicles. We don’t know how many are delivery trucks, taxicabs, or buses were counted. Only two bus routes come through here. (On Madison Street, in front of the Ogilvie Transportation Center, there are twelve bus routes and fewer walkers.) Some of the vehicles are turning right or left onto Wacker, so we can probably decrease the quantity that’s actually passing by the same count location as the pedestrian count.

Spatial mismatch

So now we know a little bit more about how many people, and by what mode, travel on Adams Street between Wacker Drive and Riverside Plaza. Walking commuters have little room (so little that some choose to walk in the street) on their standard 10-14 feet wide sidewalks and motorized vehicles get lots of room in four travel lanes. Then, the vehicles that achieve the highest efficiency and economic productivity are delayed by the congestion, in part caused by the least efficient vehicles.

Is the space divided fairly? What should change? What examples of “transportation spatial mismatch” can you give for where you live?

Is Chicago ready for Tokyo-inspired elevated pedestrian bridges at intersections? Las Vegas has several of these, as well as every Asian city with a few million residents. I first brought this up in the post, World photographic tour. Photo by Yuzi Kanazawa.

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