CN Nov 20, 2014


The most critical moment when you’re approaching a traffic signal is when the light turns yellow and you have to decide – go forward or stop? All kinds of information factors in. Are there cars close behind you? How fast are you going? And while your brain is calculating all of this, the clock is ticking. Will you get into the intersection before the light tuns red?

In Chicago, unless the speed limit is higher than 30, you have 3.0 seconds to figure it out And if your decision is wrong – and you hit the line at 3.1 seconds – there’s probably a ticket in the mail from one of those friendly red-light cameras.

You might be surprised to know that in most other places in America the yellow light is actually longer. Sometimes a full second longer.

That’s what WBEZ’s Odette Yousef found out when she researched her excellent piece on traffic light timings. Turns out there’s also something called the “all-red” – a moment when all the lights are red, to allow traffic the clear the intersection. Chicago, she discovered, does it very differently. Chicago makes the all-red longer. Look at her graphic.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 21.41.06

The top line is what federal and industry experts recommend. The bottom line is what you encounter every day at Chicago intersections.

“If you look at that whole total as the amount of time you have to clear a intersection they’re pretty much giving you the same amount of time that engineers would recommend,” Yousef explains. “The problem is that they’re misallocating that between the yellow and the red. So if you enter the intersection during the time when it’s actually during the safe period but it’s turned red, you’ll get a ticket.”

So, think fast. Decide quickly. The unflinching robot eye is watching you. And counting. And, says Yousef, it comes down to a conflict between safety and fairness. Nobody’s arguing that Chicago’s system is less safe, just that it doesn’t seem fair.

“There have been studies that say if you extend the yellow light by one second, for example, the number of violations goes down quite dramatically,” she tells us.

Here’s an interesting conundrum. The Lucas Museum, we’re told, has insisted that it must be built on the lakefront. But when the project’s designers showed us their first renderings, the huge, mountain-like building essentially had no windows.

There may be lots of reasons why a building devoted heavily to film might exclude natural light, but couldn’t it then be built just a little bit further away from the legally-protected shoreline?

That’s the issue Friends of the Parks is dealing with, and President Cassandra Francis joined us to talk about their lawsuit against the proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East.

As you probably know, the site the City selected is currently occupied by parking lots for Soldier Field and McCormick Place.  The museum would occupy this space, after, presumably, sinking the parking lots underground.

“What we would call the flawed argument that they are just parking lots is a concept that we would like to revisit,” Francis tells us.  “They’re revenue producing. They are very actively programmed. They were sold by the Chicago Park District when Soldier Field was being built as useful and very viable ongoing uses. We like them because they provide open space in that area, because once you put a building in that area it will be forever precluded, especially a building that is iconic and single-purpose-designed. It would be very difficult for that to revert back to open space in the future.”

Francis advances the idea that, in this situation, parking lots are more beneficial to the lakefront than another structure. In time, she says, they could be “greened”, making them more visually acceptable and adding park space.

Their lawsuit argues that the site is protected from projects like the Lucas Museum in several ways, including both city state and state law.

“The City and the Chicago Park District don’t have the authority to dedicate that land,” she explains, “even though they may, in fact, own it. The use of the land is actually arbitrated by the State for the benefit of the public. And it’s not just Chicagoans. It’s also any citizen of the State of Illinois.”

Citing recent studies from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Francis predicts that, in about the next 25 years Cook County will grow by almost 800,000 residents and that several hundred thousand more people could live and work near the lakefront. That, she says, will create intense pressure to develop the lakefront with buildings and attractions. It’s a battle that’s been going on for more than a hundred years, and it won’t diminish any time soon. That’s why Friends of the Parks doesn’t want to see another major structure at this location.

“If we let this one happen it could very well lead to shoreline sprawl.” she claims. “So the argument of why an iconic museum – we’re thrilled it’s in Chicago – has to be on the lakefront when there’s no windows in a place where we already have way too much traffic congestion, is a challenge.”

An alternative Friends proposes – one which has been articulated very effectively by Tribune Architecture critic Blair Kamin – is to move the project across the street and immediately south of McCormick Place. It could be built on a deck over the
“marshaling yards”, a massive open parking area for vehicles serving the convention center.  Kamin and FOP argue that site preparation would be less expensive, because with decking you’re essentially creating “virgin land”, and that the resulting museum would actually be closer to the lakefront. In addition, the new attraction could stimulate other developments, such as Bronzeville and whatever eventually rises on the old Michael Reese site.

Screenshot 2014-11-22 08.31.28

In this Google shot, you can see the proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick place (the circular, light-colored Waldron parking deck and the asphalt surface lot to the south) and the alternate site, the long, grey strip immediately south of the Stevenson interchange, with LSD to the east.


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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