by John Greenfield
(Pedestrians at the Looptopia all-night arts festival in downtown Chicago)
Last Wednesday I dropped by the Sears Tower, ran my messenger bag and pannier through the x-ray machine and headed up to the offices of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning for a meeting of their Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force.
CMAP is the regional planning agency for Northeastern Illinois, responsible for issues of land and water use, transportation, economic development and housing in the seven-county region.
The bike and ped task force is made up of advocacy organizations, community groups and businesses, plus representatives from local, regional and state government working to improve conditions for walking and biking in Chicagoland. The quarterly meetings are open to the public; e-mail Tom Murtha, Senior Planner with CMAP at email@example.com if you’d like to receive meeting announcements and other bike and ped news.
To be honest, most of the meeting content went over my head but afterwards Murtha and Randy Neufeld, Chief Strategy Officer with Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, brought me up to speed on two of the major topics of discussion.
New pedestrian guidelines for IDOT?
CMAP is recommending that the Illinois Department of Transportation add more guidelines for pedestrian-friendly design to its Bureau of Design and Environment Manual, the design bible for all construction projects. “We’re proposing to IDOT that they adopt national practices that they need to work on catching up on,” Murtha said. “They know the manual is really short on pedestrian safety."
The historically auto-centric transportation agency has made strides toward improvement lately, Murtha said. The state’s Safe Routes to School program, which encourages kids to walk and bicycle, is finally off the ground and IDOT has become a leader in funding bike facility projects. “We’re hoping to extend that to more basic, day-to-day projects,” said Murtha.
The manual needs to be updated because the state adopted a Complete Streets policy last fall, according to Neufeld. The new policy mandates that roadway projects must accommodate the needs of all users including pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities, not just motor vehicles.
The updates to the IDOT manual would be based on a new pedestrian design guide that is likely to be adopted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which sets the national standards for road design. “The AASHTO guide is very good,” says Neufeld. “It’s going to change the way a lot of intersections are designed so bicyclists and pedestrians can safely navigate them.”
“That way you won’t have a road like North Avenue in DuPage County, where you end up having a lot of fatalities,” he said. “Where people try to cross the street where it’s not planned because there’s no other option.”
Making all road projects pedestrian-friendly from the get-go will keep IDOT from having to retrofit dangerous streets, says Murtha. “So you won’t have a situation where somebody burns the toast and then somebody comes back and scrapes it. We need to get it right the first time.”
More bike trails for Northeast Illinois?
Neufeld wants you to remember three numbers: 500, 1,000 and 2,500.
500 is the number of miles of bike trails (including off-street paths and on-street bike lanes or signed routes that connect segments of a path) that existed in 1997. That quantity has doubled over the last decade. 2,500 is the number of miles of trails CMAP wants to see built by 2040.
The planning agency is now updating the Northeast Illinois Greenways & Trails Plan map, originally published in 1997, which helped get those 500 additional miles constructed in the last ten years. The map shows all the regional trails that CMAP is proposing to be built over the next three decades. You can view the map online at:
The bulk of the update is the addition of proposed Kane County trails and new greenway proposals in Chicago. The new urban paths would include the Calumet Sag Channel Trail on the city’s southern border and an extension of the Burnam Greenway on the Southeast Side.
More visionary, expensive Chicago proposals included on the map include the extension of the Lakefront Trail south through the former site of the U.S. Steel plant; expanding the Loop’s riverwalk; and rails-to-trails projects like the Northwest Side’s Bloomingdale Trail.
“The trails plan is key because it draws a line in the sand establishing the importance of trails,” Neufeld explained. “It has the ability to change how money is spent. If a road project comes along, the map has power to influence its design.”
“We’re trying to put a trails system in place that makes sense for the region,” added Murtha. “We’ve already got a backbone of off-street trails.” He cited Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, the Illinois Prairie Path, the Plank Road Trail, The Fox River Trail, The Green Bay Trail and the Virgil Gilman Trail as mainstays of the existing system.
CMAP wants to see the trails network expanded with new greenways built as part of new housing developments; county and forest preserve projects; and road construction. For example when an extension of I-355 opened in the southwest suburbs last fall, the bicycle federation’s Roll the Tollway ride raised $70,000 to help build a 10.5 mile bike path paralleling the interstate.
Well, shouldn’t the path have been paid for as part of the highway project instead of requiring “bake sale” funding?
Murtha explained that the road project’s bond covenance prevented the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISHTA) from building the path. But ISHTA did a lot of the bike path engineering, provided the right-of-way for the path and completed the rough grading of the trail.
Plus, a temporary bridge constructed over the Des Plaines river to facilitate construction of the highway is going to stay in place for the bike path, tentatively called the Veteran’s Memorial Trail, a donation worth several million dollars.
To help get bicycle projects included in future road construction, after the updated regional greenways plan is approved CMAP will include it with materials sent to IDOT when the state agency plans streets and highways. “But IDOT’s not going to go to the mat for this,” Murtha cautioned. “It’s going to have to be local communities who spearhead the bike trails.”
Fortunately, the existence of the greenways plan is helping to build political support for new trails in Northeast Illinois, Murtha says. Local agencies, municipalities, county governments and park districts are getting positive feedback about trail plans at community meetings and via letters and e-mails from residents. “They’ve been able to voice that support by spending money and implementing the plans,” he says.