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"Speeding on your street" sausage

This post is probably most informative for Oak Parkers, traffic engineering geeks, and people who enjoy hearing about the misery of local governance. Everyone else, feel free...but even I'm a little bored by it.(!) So why am I writing about it? Because, dear reader, you complain. About something in your life. And--most likely--it has behind the scenes some version of this conversation.

If you're not from Oak Park, I should start with the explanation that our northern boundary is a very busy multi-lane thru-road called North Ave. Our western boundary is a very busy multi-lane thru-road called Harlem. There's your problem. Traffic backs up and people are impatient to get to where they are going so the residences to the south and east of those roads have troubles (don't we all?) with speeding, failing to stop at stop signs, pedestrian dangers, etc.. One by one, the non-collector roads have been blocked off in various ways to appease the neighborhood. Cul-de-sacs, diverters, turn restrictions. Speed bumps have long been off the table in Oak Park, so there is a limit to what the village can do to manage the situation.

A few of you may remember when the Transportation Commission had the discussion in 2015 that I wrote up in "Sausage Being Made." Same block. They've been waiting and--finally!--have a solution that the data shows is working. After some negotiation and lots of meetings, they got a speed table and bump-outs at the alley nearest North Ave. (Bump-outs are a narrowing of the roadway to make the intersection shorter to cross for pedestrians. It has the double effect of slowing traffic.)

Which brings us to last Monday's commission meeting. One of the few streets remaining without restrictions came before us with a petition for a cul-de-sac. Despite the fact that there is currently a moratorium in the village on that until we come up with other solutions and a long-term plan. But the residents on the block were tired for waiting for their petition to be dealt with and asked for the village to act, regardless.

The unfortunate situation is that the solution--which the data says works--a few streets over is not a completely...what is the right word here?...allowable thing. What I mean to say is that the particular street with the working solution...well, that solution isn't something officially in our toolbox of options at the moment. So the residents want a cul-de-sac, we're not allowed to give them what worked a few streets over, and meanwhile there's a street a few down that is about to probably see this same situation. What do we do?

Hold that thought for a moment.

In an unrelated item, the Village Trustees sent the commission a do-over--of sorts--about a stop sign installation we had recommended. For speeding. And if you're a traffic engineer you know that stop signs don't solve mid-block speeding. We'd over-ruled staff recommendations and the Village Trustees were correctly asking us to examine the intersection again to find a better solution. But what? The speed tables from the aforementioned "solution" block are not technically a possible recommendation from us. They're also expensive and bring up the issue of who pays. Does general tax money pay for individual blocks who request traffic calming like that? Or does it come from a special assessment on only those residents? A choke point is a good design alternative. But it's also expensive...especially if drainage issues around the curb come into play. The bump-outs I listed above are also quite expensive as a permanent solution at the intersection. That was our thinking on the stop's the wrong tool but it's also the most cost effective. Yes, a $20,000 speed table will slow mid-block traffic. But that's a steep price to pay.

So now, let's get back to the street who wanted the cul-de-sac. What should we do? In the end, what we recommended is that the regulations governing allowable devices be generally altered to allow the treatment from the "successful" block. Let East Ave have Woodbine's speed table and bump-out and then we probably should also begin studying Linden, too. But wait...the residents at the meeting pointed out that if they're going to be required to pay ALL that money towards traffic calming devices they should be able to pick the device they want! I'm deeply sympathetic to that argument.

One of the comments I made during the commission meeting was that, once again, as a member I often find myself mopping up someone else's mess with an imperfect or impractical solution that probably could have been avoided with planning. But that's not how this works. At the time, Oak Park had the policy of blocking off streets with access to the exterior of the village. It was a bad, backwards policy but now blocks and blocks of Oak Park have permanently designed streets with that configuration.

The commission is just an advisory body. We make recommendations, not final approvals. If I were in the policy-making chair who had final say I'm not sure where I'd fall. I understand the desire for local rule. I also understand the need to use data-driven implementation of policy. The "correct" solution here is probably to look at the fact that cars slow down with the speed table and bump-outs and apply it to multiple streets in an equal, fair way. Rather than, say, letting these blocks decide for themselves based on the whims, income, and particulars of their situation. It cuts to the heart of our American problems right now and the collapse of institutions. If you've made it this far--I doubt many will--it's not a simple right/wrong answer. It's complicated and there are layers of people involved in making the decisions. And one of the sad facts about being in even a volunteer position like mine under today's culture is that you're going to have to make a decision that someone is unhappy with, explain it to them, and do what you think is best even if it may not be and even if you would personally prefer a different outcome. Too often we forget that democracy is a process--a verb. It's very messy and very imperfect.


  1. As a resident of NEOP, I can't tell you how much I hate not having access to my neighborhood. I watch cars blow though the stop sign on my corner and read articles like this and wonder about tickets and fines. Does anyone ever get a moving violation (or heck, even a ticket for not wearing a helmet) in Oak Park? The revenue from helmets alone could pay for pools and classrooms and police. I dream about the day there is development in NEOP (North Ave and/or Chicago Ave, frankly anywhere I can walk with my kids). Certainly all these cul de sacs and bump outs are discouraging any development.

    1. Hi and thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      A few responses...
      -I'm not sure how I feel about the neighborhood access issue. On one hand, the cul-de-sacs were requested over previous decades by residents who live there. On the other hand, it probably wasn't the best solution. But what's done is done? I wish the planning had been more comprehensive rather than block-by-block.

      -I'm 100% in favor of better enforcement. We usually request police presence related to these resident concerns but the reality is that the police can only be there so much of the time. They come enforce, the issue goes away, but as soon as they leave the violations come back. You can feel free to call your RBO (Resident Beat Officer) to discuss.

      -I'm a little confused about the helmet thing. Helmets are not required in IL for motorcycles and not required for adults riding bicycles. There is a youth helmet ordinance recently passed but the penalty for violation is education and meant to encourage use. It's not punitive. (Full confession: I was opposed to the youth helmet law for a variety of reasons.)

      -Most of the petitions to the commission I'm on come from residents. I've rarely seen businesses or business associations petition though they certainly can. (They were the reason we're getting a traffic light at Washington/Wisconsin, partly.) Sometimes businesses come give input to decisions we're making. And one concern we have on the commission currently is what the hierarchy should be when making parking and other decisions. Should residents get priorty? Commercial interests? Speaking for myself, I'd like to see some guidance from the Trustees about what our traffic "mission statement" is when it comes to two conflicting interests which one we should choose.

      Hope some of that helps!


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