Getting around: 40% of pedestrians, cyclists would cross train tracks despite warnings

Age appeared to be a contributing factor, the study said. Twenty-five percent of respondents over 70 did not notice any warning signs or devices, compared with 9 percent of those between 61 and 70 years old, who topped all others in awareness of signage. People under 21 and between 21 and 30 were the next two age groups with reduced awareness, the study said.

While 86 percent of pedestrians studied at the crossings were walking without having their attention focused on any distractions, 7 percent were listening to music on earphones and 2 percent were talking or texting on mobile phones, the survey reported.

"It is a big concern when you have people who are both distracted and involved in a platoon type of behavior, like large groups of pedestrians getting off of trains and crossing tracks,'' Metaxatos said.

"There is a greater tendency to just follow the other people instead of paying attention to safety signs, and an increased risk of crossing while a second train is coming from the other direction,'' he said.

Fifty percent of respondents on mobile phones indicated they had not noticed a warning device or sign, the study reported.

"Among users listening to music on earphones or pushing a stroller, 1 in 4 showed a lack of relevant awareness. Moreover, 1 in 5 walkers and 1 in 12 bicyclists showed a similar trait," the study said.

The large number of rail "quiet zone" crossings in the Chicago area where trains do not sound horns likely puts distracted pedestrians and cyclists at a disadvantage, the study said.

"Distracted non-motorists, especially when traveling in groups, in such an environment may not be sufficiently alerted to an incoming train, especially when a second train is coming from the opposite direction," the report said.

For those who noticed the warning devices and signs, pedestrian gates appeared to have attracted their attention the most, followed by flashing lights as well as electronic signs at two of the 10 locations that displayed "second train coming" warnings when trains were approaching from opposite directions, the study said.

"Other warning signs or devices did not appear to have left a lasting impression on respondents,'' the study said, although active electronic signs at crossings did seem to be noticed more frequently than static signs.

The two "second train coming" signs are at crossings in Glen Ellyn and Villa Park, both on the Metra Union Pacific West Line.

Metra has also focused on working with municipalities to build more pedestrian underpasses in recent years to separate foot traffic from trains, including a pedestrian tunnel that was part of the new design at one of two Tinley Park stations on the Metra Rock Island Line, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

One recently opened underpass is at Belmont Road on the Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line. In addition, an underpass is being planned for Lombard on the Metra Union Pacific West Line and an overpass is being planned for Wheaton on the same line, Gillis said.

"In Northbrook, we shifted a bike path so that it did not directly lead across our tracks, but instead forced cyclists to make two turns to cross, increasing the likelihood that they will be alert at the crossing,'' Gillis said.

At Telegraph Road between Lake Forest and Deerfield on the Metra Milwaukee District North Line, Metra plans to add gates to the existing flashing lights and bells at the pedestrian crossing.

The video observations at crossings by UIC researchers showed that 1,021 pedestrians broke the law by going around crossing gates or trespassing on the tracks when warning bells or lights were activated.

The study pointed out that safety upgrades at dedicated pedestrian crossings do not receive the same funding priority as improvements at roadway-rail crossings without pedestrian infrastructure such as sidewalks. It suggested that Illinois could learn some lessons from California, which is leading the way to develop engineering standards for safety improvements.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

CHICAGO

More