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Bronzeville, Near South Side

How Do You Slow Down Speeders On Oakland’s Ellis Avenue? Residents, Alderman Clash Over Plan To Reverse A One-Way Street

An ordinance to make the 3900 block of South Ellis Avenue a one-way street headed north is being debated by neighbors and Ald. Sophia King.

A sign condemning the proposed ordinance by Ald. Sophia King (4th) hangs on a street post near 40th Street and Ellis Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood on the morning of April 30, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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OAKLAND — One quiet block in the Oakland neighborhood is at the center of a heated battle between a group of residents and Ald. Sophia King (4th) as some aren’t thrilled about the alderman’s plan to prevent speeding in the area.

Two years ago, King introduced an ordinance that would reverse the flow of traffic in the 3900 block of South Ellis Avenue, converting it from a one-way southbound street to a one-way northbound. When the pandemic happened, the project stalled.

King reintroduced the plan this fall, hosting a virtual town hall to get input from residents. How did that go? Well, depends on who you ask.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Motorists cross the intersection at 40th Street and Ellis Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood on the morning of April 30, 2021.

“It was limited to a group of about 50 [speakers]. She posted the Zoom meeting but apparently failed to post the chat comments, and failed to disclose that she, perhaps, selected who could speak on that call,” said Nathalia Granger, a longtime resident who believes the plan would affect the “quality of life” for her and others in the neighborhood. “Why are you getting input on an ordinance you’ve already pushed through City Council?”

Granger and other residents have called for speed bumps to be installed instead, with one even starting a petition in hopes of persuading King.

Another longtime resident who spoke to Block Club echoed Granger’s concerns.

“I’m not quite sure how it’s addressing the issue, because a big part of the town hall conversation was about Holly Park, but if you go her rerouted way you can still speed past Holly Park,” said the resident, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. “I’m certain there are folks supportive of this, but I think a stop sign and a speed bump would probably take care of it.”

King said it was a pilot program to test its feasibility, and the people selected to speak were residents who would be directly impacted.

“We took the first 75 people and spent an hour or so figuring out where they were. We didn’t know who was for or against it, and those were the people in the room. If you see the video, you’ll see there were certainly people in opposition and those who were for it. This isn’t something that was done in the dark of night,” said King, adding she and her staff held a number of focus meetings on the issue after residents came to her with their concerns.

A larger issue: Drivers using Ellis Avenue as a thoroughfare when coming off Lake Shore Drive, using the street to gain faster access to 51st Street, King said.

“It’s a residential street. It’s not meant to be a thoroughfare. You’re supposed to take Cottage Grove [Avenue]. This would divert 80 percent of the traffic there, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” King said.

Brandi Kenner-Bell, who has lived on the block for seven years, has seen hundreds of drivers speed down Ellis Avenue, one nearly rear-ending her sister as she was parking nearby. She fears for her children, who regularly walk the family dog to a nearby park.

“When we first moved here, there was a giant hole in the street that had a huge steel plate over it, which you would think would make people slow down. It didn’t. They’d speed right over it and it would sound like people were crashing into it on the street. I don’t think speed bumps would make a difference because we had an inadvertent one that didn’t seem to slow anyone down whatsoever,” Kenner-Bell said.

P.S. Siraj, director of the Urban Transportation Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes other options should be explored, as a traffic reversal could make things confusing for drivers.

“From a planning perspective, one-way streets work best if there’s a coupling happening. If there is one northbound street, then the one adjacent to it should be southbound, similar to what we see Downtown,” said Siraj, who teaches classes on transportation systems management.

Siraj suggested a fix could be something as simple as stationing a Police Department squad car nearby or installing speed cameras at the intersection. He also points to the effectiveness of speed bumps as a deterrent.

“There are studies that show that they work if placed on residential streets. Typically, one-way streets are created to improve speeds, but in this case speeding is the problem. I would cast a net wider than the two city blocks, and go upstream and downstream on both sides to see what is happening in those particular areas — a half mile on either side — just to see what the speed limits, the traffic patterns, and what the accident numbers look like,” Siraj said. “And based on that, there may have to be interventions done on both sides of the corridor.”

While some may be inconvenienced, the overall goal — which is to keep residents safe — is still altruistic in nature, Siraj said.

For now, the conversion has been postponed as King works with residents on alternative solutions, according to a Department of Transportation spokesperson.

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