Southbound traffic on Interstate 25 in Denver on July 29, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
By Leigh Giangreco
CHICAGO — Peter Paquette was a fixture in the 47th Ward, his North Side neighborhood in Chicago. The 75-year-old gathered coats for the local donation drives and invited older adults to join an annual caroling celebration.
This past June, Paquette marched alongside hundreds of Chicagoans demanding safer streets following a spate of pedestrian deaths, including two toddlers killed by drivers in the same month. Later that day, Paquette joined Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, state representatives and Chicago aldermen for an early vote rally at O’Donovan’s, a nearby bar on Irving Park Road.
He never made it home.
Leaving the gathering at O’Donovan’s, Paquette and his wife were crossing Irving Park Road when a driver struck him in the middle of a marked crosswalk. He was thrown into the air, and though bystanders jumped in to help, he was pronounced dead a half hour after the accident, recalled Alderman Matt Martin, who represents the 47th Ward.
Local politicians and residents had flagged the four-lane state road, which bisects a residential neighborhood with three schools, two older adult living facilities and an L train station, as a hazard for pedestrians. In fact, Martin had pushed for safety improvements such as pedestrian refuge islands and curb extensions near the area where Paquette was struck.
But the Illinois Department of Transportation, citing state regulations, declined to make many of those improvements.
“I know folks who have said, ‘I avoid crossing Irving Park altogether,’ or ‘I avoid crossing it at particular intersections or particular times of day, because I’m not willing to accept the risk associated with crossing,’” Martin told Stateline. “No one should ever be in that position.”
Conflict between municipal transportation departments and their state counterparts is not unique to Illinois. Attempts to slow traffic and improve pedestrian safety on busy state roads within urban areas often meet strong headwinds from state transportation departments, whose raison d’être is moving cars quickly and efficiently.
“This is the only thing we have seen for 70 years in every jurisdiction in America. It’s not a trend. It is the standard,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a transit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “Undoing 70 years of standards takes real work. And even if you start to make procedural improvements now, you have to retrofit every single roadway.”
When designing state roads, department engineers prioritize getting as many cars on the road as possible, according to Audrey Wennink, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based transportation advocacy organization.
“There’s increasing awareness of the issue of how interstate highways like this one didn’t always exist,” Wennick said of Irving Park, which also is Illinois Route 19. “They got dropped into cities in the 1960s and did a lot of harm to communities.”
Transportation departments still use metrics such as levels of service, which measures congestion, to determine where investments are made, Wennick added. Whether a state road crosses rural farmlands or a crowded city, speed is the primary function.
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