The series of stories our transportation expert Marni Pyke provided over the past weekend demonstrated one fact with undeniable clarity -- moving about in the suburbs on foot or by bicycle is more dangerous than it should be. What is not quite so apparent is a direct and uncomplicated strategy to make it less so.
In communities built around the automobile, modifying our streets and intersections to accommodate walkers and bicyclists is sure to be both expensive and disruptive.
Communities that have embraced the effort are testament to the challenges. It took $2.7 million in local and federal money for Elk Grove Village to build a bridge over four-lane Higgins Road to connect trails in the Busse Woods forest preserve. Algonquin secured a $2.3 million federal grant to build a bridge over Randall Road before ultimately scrapping the idea and deciding to pursue an underpass instead -- now considering a $200,000-plus feasibility study and having to start over in the grant process. It took the Lake County Forest Preserve District decades before it was able to close a gap in the Des Plaines River Trail that forced users onto busy Milwaukee Avenue -- even as other dangerous gaps remain on the trail. And Mount Prospect has struggled to find an ideal solution for a crosswalk on Central Road where a bicyclist was killed while walking across the road with warning lights flashing.
Many more suburbs have developed approaches or are undertaking measures intended to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. And the statistics show why it's so important. In her study of 246 suburbs between 2012 and 2015, Pyke documented nearly a death a week caused by collisions between motor vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists - and nearly 10,000 crashes, virtually more than nine out of 10 of which result in injury.
Yet, Pyke's reporting also exposes a host of remaining questions and observations that must be addressed, including:
• that as valuable as recent state laws have been to assure pedestrians the right of way at crosswalks, uneven enforcement, imperfect technologies and confusion about and ignorance of the law remain serious impediments lawmakers and local communities must work to overcome;
• that motorists need to be more aware of people on foot and on bicycles;
• that people on foot and on bicycles need to take more responsibility for their own safety and maintain a defensive mindset when traversing suburban streets and intersections;
• that motorists and non-motorists alike must beware a false sense of security that can arise because towns have made such efforts to improve safety.
In the end, it's obvious that an ultimate solution must give equal weight to two approaches -- one, the expense and effort communities must employ to modify their infrastructures and two, the awareness everyone must employ in sharing suburban roadways. The words of Naperville police Sgt. Ken Parcel have a particularly important ring.
"A whole lot of these (accidents) can be reduced just by paying attention," he said. "Stay in the moment,"
That's advice that will always be acutely relevant, whatever the technological and structural changes we're eventually able to bring about to make walking and cycling in the suburbs less hazardous.