The Illinois Prairie Path has been a fixture in portions of the Western suburbs for 50 years, but that doesn't stop users, traffic engineers and police from seeking new ways to make the trail safer where it crosses busy streets.
Aurora and Lombard are among communities discussing pedestrian safety and whether additional signs would help ease concerns, while Warrenville is among towns that recently made safety upgrades to the trail.
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Police in several towns say accidents at Prairie Path intersections are exceedingly rare, but agree taking another look at ways to increase safety -- especially at four- or five-lane roads and locations where visibility is poor -- never hurts.
Police Chief Ray Turano said new signs are in place to promote safety at the Prairie Path crossing with Batavia Road in Warrenville, which is near the intersection of the path and Rockwell Street, where a bicyclist was killed after being hit by a van in 1996.
The city is dealing with other hazards in the form of road construction where the path crosses Winfield Road at Butterfield Road, but so far Turano said there have been no accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians along Warrenville's stretch of the $70 million roadwork project.
"Both the motorists and the pedestrians and bicyclists using the path have been very aware of each other," he said.
Warrenville, Villa Park and Elmhurst also have made another helpful change, said Bob Sobie, president of the Illinois Prairie Path, the nonprofit group that maintains the trail.
"In all three, they moved the path, not too far, but just so it won't cross mid-block," Sobie said. "In my opinion that can make a huge difference."
Crossing Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora has been the most frustrating Prairie Path experience for Lynn Mitchell of Sugar Grove, who has traveled the entire length of the 61-mile trail on two wheels.
She bikes the path once or twice a month, and on a trip with her cousin earlier this year, Mitchell said the duo struggled for at least five minutes to find a safe time to cross.
"I was just very frustrated trying to get across Farnsworth," Mitchell said. "We tried to wait for traffic to clear up and no one was seeming to stop for us."
She later emailed Aurora Alderman Abby Schuler, whose ward includes the intersection of Farnsworth and the Prairie Path, asking for additional signs to remind drivers of the state law requiring them to stop for pedestrians inside marked crosswalks.
Schuler brought the request to Aurora's traffic engineer, Eric Gallt, who studied the crossing and suggested a solution: signs that light up when path users push a button to alert motorists to their presence. Such signs already are in place where the Waubonsee Creek trail crosses Montgomery Road.
"We're just trying to make motorists aware of where there are pedestrians crossing," Gallt said. "It's a difficult location from a standpoint that Farnsworth carries a significant amount of traffic on a regular basis, and it's a five-lane roadway, so it's fairly wide to cross."
Schuler said she is putting about $5,000 in ward funds toward purchasing and installing the signs and Mitchell said she is satisfied with the extra safety feature.
"We'll have the crossing lights for safety for everyone who uses the path," Mitchell said.
The Prairie Path crosses four-lane roads at two Lombard locations -- Westmore-Meyers Road and Main Street.
Deputy Chief Pat Rollins said police don't hear many concerns about Westmore-Meyers, as there are no buildings adjacent the path, so pedestrians and drivers have clear lines of sight. But Main Street is a different story.
"It has an island in the center so it makes (the road) a little bit wider, and it has less visibility at the edges where the Prairie Path and the street meet," Rollins said.
The island was added a few years ago as a safety measure, but Rollins said its presence has created new hazards.
"It provides a false (sense of) safety to the pedestrian or bicyclist," he said.
The danger arises because a driver in one lane may stop for a path user, but a driver in the next lane may not be as aware.
The Prairie Path's Sobie said issues with safely crossing multiple lanes of traffic remain despite motorists' increased awareness of their responsibility to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
"Since that law changed, there are a lot more cars that will stop or slow down to allow people to cross the road at the Prairie Path intersections," Sobie said. "(But) people behind those cars are not expecting all of a sudden a vehicle in front of them to slow down and stop. I've seen some close calls where somebody has almost gotten rear-ended."
Lombard police are planning a public awareness campaign next spring to remind people of the crosswalk law.
"There's a burden on both pedestrians and motorists to exercise caution," Chief Ray Byrne said. "Pedestrians can't step in front of traffic and create a hazard, but drivers have to stop for those that are in the crosswalk. It really requires everyone to pay attention."