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Seniors Get 'Er Done

They're a bit slow crossing the street, but boy are they efficient when it comes to collaring public officials.

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On July 26, 2001, 79-year-old Sid Bild was crossing State at Van Buren with his friend Marjorie Feren when he noticed that the pedestrian signal had started flashing. He remembers warning Feren, who was a few steps behind him, that the light was about to change. Then he felt a nudge and an intense pain in his right arm. He dropped to his knees before he could reach the curb. "My arm looked pretty mangled," he says. "It was dripping blood and grossly torn." When he realized he'd been clipped by a vehicle he turned to look for Feren. She was lying motionless on the street about 30 feet south. The driver eventually agreed to settle out of court with both Bild and Feren, but Feren suffered permanent neurological damage. She no longer knows Bild's name.

Six months after that accident 73-year-old Charles Spears was crossing Randolph at Clark with the light when he was struck by an SUV. He landed hard on his face, battering his nose, breaking his glasses, tearing up the inside of his mouth, and injuring his right knee, ankle, and hip. The driver was never caught.

Bild, Feren, and Spears all happened to belong to Metro Seniors in Action, an advocacy group with 100 members ranging in age from their 50s to their 90s, and after the three were run down the group made pedestrian safety one of its top issues. "We tapped into a national problem," says executive director Amanda Solon. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, a pedestrian gets hurt in a traffic accident every eight minutes. Old folks are the most at risk. According to the insurance industry, in 2004, the last year for which there are statistics, the death rate for pedestrians 70 and up was twice that for younger pedestrians. Metro Seniors tried to find out how many accidents in Chicago involve pedestrians, but the police statistics were outdated, and they couldn't find anyone else who kept such numbers.

The group decided to start attacking the problem by figuring out what the city could do to its infrastructure to improve pedestrian safety. They identified five intersections where they felt particularly vulnerable. Two were on the north side (Sheridan and Foster, and Foster and Marine), three on the south side (47th and Lake Park; 79th, Stony Island, and South Chicago; and 87th and Stony Island). At most of these intersections the painted crosswalks had faded, and when the sun hit the stoplights it was hard for motorists to see which light was illuminated. Pedestrians could get across the street before the light changed only if they walked at four feet per second. That meets the standard in the federal Manual on Traffic Control Devices, but in 1997 two Canadian researchers studied the walking speed of older people and concluded that it averaged just 3.2 feet per second. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials assumes an even slower rate of 2.8 feet per second.

Metro Seniors gathered info on how to improve safety, but they had a hard time figuring out which city official to ask to make changes. That's not surprising, since three city departments--Transportation, Streets and Sanitation, and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications--control different components of intersections: the lights, street signs, pavement markings, signal timing, pedestrian signals. And each department has subdivisions--the Traffic Management Authority, the Bureau of Electricity--that control pieces of those components.

When Metro Seniors finally found the right people to talk to, they had a hard time persuading them to consider changes. "The city of Chicago is very traffic focused," says Rhea Byer-Ettinger, the group's lead organizer. "They said, 'No, we can't do that--we have to move traffic.' But once they saw we were building community participation with seniors and aldermen, they started backing down."

In November members of the group walked through the five intersections with around 15 city officials. Brian Steele, transportation department spokesman, says the intersection of 79th, Stony Island, and South Chicago--a six-legged monster with easy-to-miss traffic signals under the Skyway and lights within 30 feet of each other that give drivers mixed messages--was already on the city's radar. In 2003 more traffic accidents occurred there than at any other intersection with traffic signals in Chicago, and the city had just completed a $2.5 million reconstruction project to make it easier and safer to travel through. But Metro Seniors member Dan McGary says the day he and officials were there they watched two drivers run a red light they apparently still couldn't see.

A couple months before the walk-through at Sheridan and Foster a CTA bus struck and killed an elderly woman in the intersection. A few years earlier a bus had crushed the skull of a ten-year-old girl as she crossed holding her mother's hand. "The Sheridan and Foster intersection was the perfect example of how departments don't work together at all, and they just go in and randomly make changes with no coordination," says Metro Seniors' Amanda Solon. "You saw some new technologies, some old technologies, and no painting on the street. Some of the signs said no turn on red between 7 and 7. Some of them were just no turn on red."

"The issues they were talking about were legitimate," says Steele. The first changes to be made based on the group's recommendations were at Sheridan and Foster. The transportation department synchronized the street signs, and when the weather gets warmer it will repaint the pavement markings. OEMC changed the timing of the lights to give pedestrians longer to get across the street and installed a "leading pedestrian interval," which keeps traffic stopped in four directions for several seconds after the walk signal is illuminated to give pedestrians a head start in beating turning cars. Streets and Sanitation replaced incandescent bulbs with LEDs--which are brighter and easier to see in direct sunlight (and 90 percent more energy efficient)--and installed LED pedestrian signals. Similar changes were made at Foster and Marine, and the city has agreed to improve the south-side intersections as well.

Metro Seniors hopes the city will start assessing all of the city's intersections. "It should not be the responsibility of not-for-profit groups to rally the community to get the changes that our elected officials and city-appointed employees are supposed to be taking care of," says McGary. "It is their responsibility."

Steele says the city is always looking for improvements it could make. "We have public-way inspectors assigned to all 50 wards," he says. But he points out that they have roughly 3,800 miles of street and 36,000 intersections--2,800 of them with traffic lights--to check. "We certainly do depend on the public to bring our attention to issues we might not be aware of."

Metro Seniors thinks the city still isn't taking the issue seriously enough, and its members intend to ask Mayor Daley to hire a traffic engineer for a year to work just on intersection safety--someone who wouldn't have to go through three departments to design a plan. "This should be at the head of someone's list," says Bild, "just as gang crimes and muggings are."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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