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Rome wasn't built in a day...and neither was your street

One day last week, I was waiting at the bus stop with my son before school when we heard that sound. You know the one. Crunching plastic and metal that is characteristic of a crash. When we looked down the street, a sporty make/model had been trying to make a left turn out of the alley with parked cars blocking the view. This is exactly the situation we've been trying to prevent with the new traffic light which is due for installation any day (supposedly) at the next intersection down where we were standing.

But it was a long, winding process from the time our local business association asked that the Right Turn Only restriction be removed to the approval of the new traffic light. That initial meeting predates my almost-three years on the Transportation Commission. There's been fighting with the state over the design and funding. The the lowest bid was double what was expected at the time of approval. And my sinking feeling as I watched the drivers sort out their information and a line of cars back up down the road that day was that all that work getting us a traffic light is a drop in the bucket.

The next intersection west of our street is uncontrolled other than a 2-way stop for north-south traffic. Our alley is no different than the alley across the street where the crash happened. A traffic light isn't going to fix the string of locations where drivers are forced, blind, into traffic while blocked by parked cars. I seriously doubt you'll ever see "No Left Turn" signs though a few alleys now have "No Thru Traffic" after junk haulers were careless in their crossing major streets.

As much as I believe good engineering and policy can make the community safer, more alert, and cautious, there is simply no way to craft a perfect solution to road use. Which doesn't mean that we throw our hands in the air and give up. To the contrary, it does convince me that we need focus and perhaps lowered expectations to execute very specific measures even as we think holistically. There's simply not the energy or ability (or money) to fix everything we need to fix. We must prioritize.

Monday's Transportation Commission meeting was a good example of this. We spent 3.5 hours on two topics! There was lots of public comment...which is always good to see. But, combined with another glimpse into Oak Park's ongoing major parking study, showed that there are always trade-offs between neighborhood and community goals, ideal goals and specific accomplishments, and where the limits are. One commission meeting per month via unpaid volunteers isn't going to solve our village's transportation problems.

In this case, something like 18 of 23 streets along North Ave. have had some sort of treatment to reduce speeding and cut-through traffic. Now we're down to 4(?) left and we're stuck between shifting village policy (no more cul-de-sacs) and the desires of residents. They have speeding problems and don't want to see so much parking on their street. But nobody wants to use the meters on North Ave. so they park on side streets. And the meters are on North Ave to match Chicago on the other side. It's like looking down an endless mirror trick. How do you balance the commercial district with residents who want to be able to let their kids play in the street?

Which are, ideally, issues that could be resolved by a more global set of directives for the village's parking vision. But the way that the Village Board has set up their year-long review process it's difficult to tell what input to give...and when. Each month has been divided into study themes. Which I totally understand why and the mechanics. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's the kind of sweeping shift to...fresher...rules and regulations that the public is necessarily looking for. It's also hard to comment on the theoretical. Specifics are easier to know how you feel.

So many conversations about traffic and parking in Oak Park revolve around ownership. Not only of who takes precedence on the street but who owns that piece of policy-making or when the appropriate time/place is to discuss it. One lady--perfectly within her rights--came to address us during non-agenda public comment about the maintenance plan for the high school parking garage. A totally valid topic! Just not one that we have anything to do with at the moment. But it's sometimes the same for us as a commission...related subjects to our work get pushed into limbo because it's not the appropriate time to talk about it or it's part of a larger, major topic that needs to be hammered out collectively.

In my almost-3 years on Transportation Commission my biggest source of both frustration and pride is that we solve problems. But an ongoing dilemma for us as a community is that people have problems that can often only be fixed out of context from other problems...or without regard to a holistic outline for where their problems fit in the larger picture. We can help your block, but we can't (or can we?) help your whole neighborhood all at once. And, to bring this full circle, even if we can fix larger sections of the puzzle rather than a piece at a time it is still no substitute for the complexities of human behavior and our complicated village infrastructure. Drivers on Chicago Ave behave differently than pedestrians on Harrison. How do you treat those as both distinct AND related issues?

And, even more, how to we tackle these things in a way that is both cost and time aware? These are the mysteries of self-government that keep me pondering well beyond local stop sign installations. My children have, literally, grown up in the time it's taken to get a $300,000 traffic light. Now imagine trying to go after something more complicated. It's daunting.