CHICAGO — As Chicago faces the highest number of traffic-related deaths and injuries in years, the Chicago Department of Transportation is launching public forums to address pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
The Chicago Mobility Collaborative will gather quarterly, with the inaugural meeting planned virtually for 3-4:30 p.m Thursday.
The transportation department created the group to give residents and community organizations a seat at the table with CDOT, the department’s Complete Streets division announced earlier this month.
The group will keep “key aspects” of the former Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council and Pedestrian Advisory Council to create a forum “that will look at our infrastructure system more comprehensively,” according to the Complete Streets announcement.
The announcement comes more than two years after the city’s only public pedestrian and bike-focused committees stopped meeting.
Both the bike and pedestrian advisory councils haven’t met since 2020, though both councils’ members and stakeholders are supposed to convene four times a year to advise local officials on infrastructure, safety issues and other topics that affect bicyclists and pedestrians in Chicago.
After the bike group met in March 2020, the rest of that year’s meetings were canceled once the pandemic hit.
“People want answers,” said Christina Whitehouse, founder of Bike Lane Uprising and a vocal advocate for the return of bike council meetings. “This better be some committee after two years.”
“I’d really like to think they spent those two years digging into the problems with” the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, but only time will tell, Whitehouse said. “Those meetings were not the right format for a real conversation.”
Whitehouse said that often residents who attended Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meetings would have “attend multiple times over” to get a chance to speak during public comment and is hopeful that the new collaborative will plan out time for “actual, honest, frank conversation” between residents and city officials.
“A big chunk of the people who came took off work to be there because they saw the meetings as important,” Whitehouse said. “Which means you’re invested in the solution, not just there to complain.”
“I didn’t feel like the city was putting in the same caliber,” she said.
Kyle Whitehead, a spokesperson for the Active Transportation Alliance, said he’s “excited” by the city’s creation of “a forum where these issues can be discussed publicly” and “where there’s an opportunity for dialogue.”
“Ever since the MBAC and MPAC meetings halted, we’ve been asking questions about when they’ll come back and when they’ll replace them,” Whitehead said.
“The lack of information and dialogue” between CDOT and the public has been a source of frustration for street safety advocates over the past few years, he added.
Since the end of the bike council, there’s been a lot of “one-way communication” where advocacy organizations like Active Trans reach out to the transportation department “for certain changes or asking questions” and the response often comes “in the press or in media statements,” Whitehead said.
“There has not been real, constructive dialogue happening where people have an opportunity to talk through these issues and ultimately try to work together to create safer streets,” Whitehead said. He’s hopeful this forum “will provide that opportunity.”
“All residents are welcome to participate” in the new meetings, CDOT spokesperson Erica Schroeder said.
‘We need cooperation and collaboration’
The general goal of the new Chicago Mobility Collaborative is to “provide an opportunity to stay informed about CDOT projects and initiatives, hear from community members representing a broad spectrum of backgrounds about transportation and mobility issues, and discuss ideas and priorities surrounding biking, walking, and getting around safely in Chicago.”
Looking at a larger-scale protected bike lane network is essential to “not just making a block safer, but to making an entire corridor safer,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead is hopeful the new public forum will be an opportunity to look at the development of infrastructure from a city-wide perspective, not block by block or ward by ward.
“Many trips extend beyond just a few blocks, even beyond a single neighborhood, and the system that we have with 50 different gerrymandered wards often makes it difficult to have those cross-community, cross-ward conversations,” he said.
To make all modes of transit in Chicago “truly safe and comfortable,” Whitehead said,
“we need cooperation and collaboration” between city officials, residents, and aldermen.
“Oftentimes, our system isn’t set up to support that type of collaboration,” he said.
“We’re hopeful that this new forum will provide an opportunity for advocates, the city and elected officials to discuss those kinds of citywide, cross-neighborhood problems and potential improvements that we think are really needed,” Whitehead said.
In the time since the bicycling- and pedestrian-focused council meetings have come to a halt, the rate of bicyclists killed and injured in Chicago has gone up.
An average of five to six bicyclists were killed every year from 2012-2019 in Chicago, according to state data. But nine bicyclists were killed in 2020 and 10 were killed in 2021, including 16-year-old Jose Velásquez.
Seventeen pedestrians and five cyclists have been killed this year alone, including 2-year-old Raphael “Rafi” Cardenas, 3-year old Elizabeth “Lily” Grace Shambrook and 11-year old J’alon James in the past month.
Earlier this month, hundreds of people marched in Lincoln Square to demand safer streets after the children were killed. A 75-year-old man was killed just hours later when a driver hit him as he crossed the street.
The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency reported a more than 25 percent increase in the number of bicyclists and pedestrians seriously injured January-September 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
Whitehead said the recent rise in traffic crashes and fatalities in Chicago is not only “devastating” but it also makes “it difficult for people to walk and bike for transportation,” which has “plenty of other negative effects” in terms of pollution and health and equity.
“We are a stronger city and a better city when more people are walking and biking, but safety issues right now are a barrier for many people,” Whitehead said.
Though some expressed concern on social media that the bike and pedestrian councils will now be combined into one mobility council, Whitehead said Active Trans is “encouraged by the approach of focusing across modes.”
“Most of us do not just use one mode to get around,” Whitehead said. The mode a person chooses to get around, whether it be walking, biking, by transit or by private car, depends often “on the trip or upon the time of day,” he said.
“Many people frequently [bike, walk and drive] and the issues that impact people biking impact everybody,” Whitehead said. “Generally, the types of street design changes that we push for to protect people walking and biking have benefits for everybody who’s traveling on the road.”
The new council also incorporates public transit, a side of the safety conversation Whitehead said is “often underappreciated.”
“Everybody is safer when more people are riding public transit,” Whitehead said. “Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a really dramatic decline in transit ridership. That is very troubling for the future of our city.”
How we can “get more people riding the bus and more people riding the train” is a “key aspect of safety and health equity” that Whitehead said “can often over be overlooked in discussion.”
“When we’re making the streets safer for people to walk and bike, we’re often making it safer for them to access transit and more likely they’ll choose transit,” Whitehead said.
“For these first couple of meetings, I’m sure there’s going to be lots of questions and lots of feedback coming from the public, and lots of information that the city wants to share,” Whitehead said. “We’ll have to see how that facilitation works.”
The collaborative’s inaugural meeting will “likely take a different shape than future meetings,” according to Schroeder.
The current fluid structure of the meetings is due in part to the fact that “agendas for upcoming meetings will be developed after feedback from participants,” Schroeder said.
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