Mayor Daley

Balancing the Pragmatic with the Aesthetic

"My goal continues to be to improve the quality of life for all Chicagoans. By aggressively upgrading our infrastructure, working to improve traffic and pedestrian safety and continuing to work closely within our communities to address their individual needs, we come closer to meeting this goal."
- Mayor Daley

Since becoming Mayor in 1989, Richard M. Daley has made improving the quality of life for all Chicagoans the focal point of his administration. Successfully addressing issues such as traffic and pedestrian safety have been an essential part of this overall effort.

In addition to providing the necessary services and improvements it takes to make a big city run well, Daley has placed a strong emphasis on project aesthetics, public outreach and tailoring improvements to fit the individual needs and character of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods. It’s one thing to upgrade transportation infrastructure so that it’s functional and meets code requirements, but in Chicago it has become standard practice to do so with thought and style.

Some of the most "concrete" examples of this can be seen throughout Chicago from the lush planted medians on high profile roadways such as Michigan Avenue, LaSalle Street, and Lake Shore Drive to the smaller landscaped traffic circles that have recently sprung up at more than 90 residential intersections throughout the city.

"The Mayor’s premier issue is quality of life. He is always looking for the best solution, a real solution to an issue, not just a political band-aid." said Chicago Alderman Mary Ann Smith, whose 48th ward served as the testing ground for the city’s initial venture into residential traffic calming circles. "The Mayor’s people said that this was something we want to try, we want to learn how it works, we want to solve these problems for the communities."

Mayor’s Emphasis Upon Input

Indeed, the greatest push for bringing long-lasting solutions to the problems faced by Chicago’s communities comes directly from Mayor Daley’s Office on the fifth floor of City Hall. Daley is a hands-on Chief Executive who insists that things get done promptly and correctly.

"The Mayor’s philosophy is to bring as many city departments and agencies together as necessary to make sure that there’s proper coordination of both planning and implementation," said Thomas R. Walker, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). "The Mayor has made it clear that there should be no unnecessary duplication of effort, that funds are to be leveraged, and that you attain greater impact over a geographic area by focusing resources." According to Walker, "This approach ensures the success of each project because we are able to build a critical mass that won’t be overwhelmed." Walker also noted that Mayor Daley has issued a mandate to his department heads to notify and solicit ideas and opinions from affected communities in both planning and execution phases of key projects.

The demand for improvements in traffic safety infrastructure in Chicago has been growing steadily over the past five years. This is directly attributable to the rapid growth of Chicago’s neighborhoods. According to CDOT Deputy Commissioner Tommy Smith, Walker’s Chief Traffic Engineer, "It’s a sign that communities have chosen to control more of their own destinies, and so we have to look at what devices are available to help them to address these neighborhood problems." In addition to the widespread implementation of landscaped traffic circles, CDOT has made effective use of other traffic calming devices including cul-de-sacs, neck downs, diverters, landscaped traffic medians, and speed humps.

Traffic Calming Devices

Chicago is quickly becoming well known for her lush, beautiful median planters. The same tourists who have been quick to compare what they see here with the flourishing street gardens they’ve seen in Europe would probably be horrified to learn that these planters are, in effect, well-decorated traffic safety devices. You don’t find people gawking at the beauty of a Jersey Barrier, but Chicago’s landscaped medians essentially perform the same function. This is just one further example of how the Mayor’s push for a balance between the practical and aesthetic can enhance the quality of life in a community while still providing an effective safety function that benefits the community.

Another traffic calming method that has become especially popular in Chicago is the use of speed humps. Speed humps were initially used as an experiment to slow down traffic in Chicago’s residential alleys. Now they have quickly become a standard feature in all of Chicago’s newly repaved alleys. A great many residential garages in Chicago are accessible only from the alley. Combine that with the fact that many children still play in alleys, and it becomes clear that it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep alley speeds down.

CDOT has begun to expand the uses of speed humps and is now experimenting with placing them at strategic points on certain residential streets known as "super blocks." These "super blocks" are more than double the length of traditional streets and are sometimes used by drivers who want to move through an area quickly. If their success in Chicago’s alleys is any indication, speed humps will work just as effectively on residential streets to counter the "heavy feet" of impatient motorists.

Signal Modernization

In addition to the use of traffic calming devices, Chicago has been involved with a steady program of traffic signal modernization. There are approximately 2,700 traffic signals in Chicago. Like most older big cities, Chicago still has many signals that were installed at a time when technology was much less advanced. For the past decade CDOT has modernized an average of 120 signalized intersections per year at a cost of approximately $150,000 per intersection. This modernization includes the installation of new signals with wider, 12" lenses, and mounting these the signals above the intersection for better visibility. While the bulk of the city’s funding comes from federal sources, there are some initiatives in place by the state and city governments to pay for some of the signal modernizations.

The results indicate that signal modernization has played a key role in making Chicago’s streets safer. A quick review of CDOT data found that accidents dropped an average of between 50 percent to 60 percent at intersections that have been modernized.

A report released in August by the watchdog group, the Chicago Transportation and Air Quality Commission, declared the North Side intersection of Devon Avenue and Clark Street to be the most dangerous intersection in Chicago for pedestrians, based on 1996 accident statistics. That was before signal modernization. In 1997 the introduction of new signals and a minor reconfiguring of the intersection helped bring that number down to 3 pedestrian accidents. Even more dramatic was the drop in vehicle accidents going from 51 in 1996 to 32 in 1997. "I think it’s a movement of definitely improving safety," said Smith. "If you compare the new accident rates with the lesser visible signals at the same locations, our data clearly shows that accident rates actually go down."

Light Emitting Diode (LED) Signals

Not only does Mayor Daley insist that his departments make effective use of the most up-to-date technology available, but he strongly encourages them to continue to seek out new technologies, techniques, and materials to improve the delivery of city services and make scarce dollars go even further.

This is one reason that the City of Chicago has begun to experiment with the use of LED traffic signals. The program is a joint venture between CDOT and the city’s Bureau of Electricity. "Visibility is the key to the study, " said Smith who noted that approximately 20 LED signals are in presently in operation citywide. "LED has the advantage of providing you with a better light source and a lower operating cost. Energy costs are significantly lower. We are observing them and we are going to be collecting data on their energy consumption and visibility ratings."

Another advantage to LED signals is that they generally last longer and are more reliable. "Once a standard incandescent signal bulb burns out, it’s out completely," said Tom Kaeser, Smith’s chief assistant in the Bureau of Traffic. "One thing a LED does, a section of the lens can breakdown or burn out, but you still have all these other diodes in the lens that are still lit up. If you do have a little spot that burns out, the rest of the lens will still be working."

Actuated Traffic Signals

One technology that CDOT initially experimented with, and now has begun to make widespread use of, is activated or actuated traffic signals. By making use of a growing network of vehicle detectors, CDOT can automatically detect traffic movement and patterns and then influence the way that a traffic signal operates at any particular intersection. "What that means is that on the main street you can keep your traffic signals better coordinated which means your traffic flows are better coordinated," said Smith. "And a more predictable traffic signal operation leads to a decrease in accidents because people are dealing with the known rather than the unknown." Smith added that Michigan Avenue is probably the best example of a Chicago street where these signals are in use and working "very, very effectively."

Modernization of Traffic Records System

Another area that has allowed CDOT to more aggressively pursue increased traffic safety is the recent modernization of the traffic records system. This information database was developed as part of a collaborative effort with the Chicago Police Department and took about three years to implement. It provides officials with better computerized statistical data on crashes citywide. Once trends are spotted, CDOT’s engineers can begin to develop remedies.

Often, CDOT shares this information with outside sources to elicit their expertise. "We work with some of the university hospitals in particular since they’re very good at being able to take the statistical data and get a better understanding of the effectiveness of some of the things that we do" said Tommy Smith. "It also provides us with a unified voice coming out of the city when we begin to talk with the state and federal agencies in terms of being able to provide funding for some of the programs that we routinely try to put in place."

Mayor’s Traffic Management Task Force and Other Collaboration

The Daley administration’s emphasis on sharing information and combining traffic management efforts provides the area with perhaps its most proactive and effective traffic safety tool. The Mayor’s Traffic Management Task Force meets weekly to review major construction projects and special events that are likely to have significant impact on area traffic. At this meeting designated members of CDOT, the Mayor’s Office, and other key city departments and agencies work with representatives from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and local media outlets to devise workable solutions.

Task Force recommendations include alternate routes, road closures, the need for additional signage and personnel, and whether or not to issue Traffic Advisories. The results are published and distributed in a document called the Mayor’s Weekly Traffic Bulletin. In addition to the main circulation list of traffic officials, civic organizations and media outlets, CDOT posts this document prominently on "Chicago Mosaic," the City’s main Web site ( One recent count taken during an average week showed that the bulletin received close to 800 hits from traffic-minded web surfers.

CDOT also meets regularly with key representatives from the Chicago Police Department, other city departments and agencies, IDOT’s Traffic Safety Division, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to determine how to best use this federal agency’s 402 safety grants. These dollars have been put to good use in the past for prevention and enforcement such as seat belt enforcement, and promoting bicycle safety.

And because there is strength in numbers, the Mayor’s Traffic Management Task Force has made it easier for the Chicago area to "leverage" major safety acquisitions such as the "Batmobile," a mobile unit that can perform a number of specialized drug and alcohol tests. This has proven invaluable in the ongoing effort to keep chemically impaired drivers off of our roadways.

Future Plans

In the future the Daley Administration will continue to work in collaboration with the public and private sectors to make sure that issues such as traffic and pedestrian safety are aggressively addressed. Chicago’s transportation infrastructure, including traffic signals, will continue to be upgraded. New methods of traffic calming will be explored and traffic calming devices installed as necessary. The administration will also take a closer look at the new T21 package to see what funds will be available toward all of these efforts.

Mayor Daley remains steadfast on his commitment to boost the quality of life in Chicago’s neighborhoods. He has demonstrated that this is a priority issue and that he expects results from his administration. So not only will things continue to get done swiftly and correctly, you can bet that they will be done with flair. They better be!

Contact: Matt Smith, Director of Communications, Chicago Department of Transportation, 312/744-7261.

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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