January 28, 2005

New speedbumps highlight pedestrian safety concerns

With the newest additions of the Comer Children's Hospital and the Graduate School of Business, and the commercial developments in surrounding neighborhoods, Hyde Park's growth has led to concerns over traffic safety.

The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC)—a neighborhood organization—has voiced concerns over traffic safety in the past, especially for local elementary and high schools. In coordination with Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, parents and school administrators have pressured the city to ensure safer roads for children, resulting in the installation of stop signs, speed bumps, and police presence in many areas.

In response to the heightened security concerns, a number of speed bumps were installed on Kimbark Avenue in the parking lot shared by the GSB and the Lab School. The installations were initiated by Lab School Facilities Director Tony Wilson, in coordination with the Parents' Association, after months of talks with the city. This past week, however, the speed bumps—which are rubber—were removed to prevent interference with snow plowing.

The speed bumps reflect a more general concern for traffic safety in Hyde Park, especially after a serious hit-and-run accident that happened last quarter in front of the Social Services Administration building on the Midway Plaisance. With plans for a new residence hall south of the Midway and the administration's commitment to "breaking the Hyde Park bubble," residents view safe transit from central campus to across the Midway as a priority.

Safety in school zones is just one part of the ongoing traffic issue in Hyde Park. Along with traffic of residents, the neighborhood must cope with traffic for hospital patients and staff, construction vehicles, commercial trucks, and public transportation buses.

According to the University's website, traffic volumes on the main streets adjacent to campus reach from 10,000 to 20,000 vehicles per day, which are not considered unreasonable for four-lane streets. The website also mentions major delays at the intersection of 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, while short-term congestion frequently occurs at 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue, 59th Street at the Lab Schools, and 57th Street at Hyde Park Boulevard.

The University is primarily bounded by Cottage Grove Avenue on the west, Woodlawn Avenue on the East, 55th Street on the North, and Midway Plaisance on the South. With the exception of Woodlawn, these are multi-lane streets that tolerate large traffic loads and high-turning volumes, according to University sources.

Jeff Collier, the assistant director of the University Police Department (UCPD), observed that pedestrians were a large part of the problem. "People come from areas where, if they step off the curb, the cars have to stop. So they come here [to Chicago] and expect the same, but the cars here won't stop," he said.

Collier noted several cases of pedestrians who cross streets without looking for oncoming vehicles. "Pedestrians often feel they had the right of way, even when outside of crosswalks and on a ‘do not walk' sign," he added.

Despite wanton pedestrians, Collier has remained optimistic about the general traffic situation. "Things have been normal in terms of incidents," he said. "Other than the one major incident, there hasn't been much to report."

With winter in full swing and driving conditions at their worst, pedestrians and motorists share the challenge of getting around safely. Despite more stop signs and speed bumps around schools, Collier emphasized the importance of the community's cooperation.

"Of course, people always have to be careful, and that goes for both pedestrians and motorists together," he said. "It's everyone's responsibility to be safe."

District 21 Sergeant Scott Oberg of the Chicago Police Department has been closely involved with St. Thomas and Ray Elementary Schools, noting the legitimate concerns of parents. "By far, the biggest traffic problems are the areas around elementary schools, where children are present," Oberg said. "Parents are the biggest traffic-blockers, especially during pick-up and drop-off times."

As part of the Community Policing department, Oberg said he oversees "limited enforcement missions," where officers control school traffic for two or three days at a time. "Does it work all the time? Of course not," Oberg said. "But I think it has definitely helped in the big picture."

Oberg's Community Policing team said speeding and stop sign infractions are the highest causes of complaints by parents.