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Getting Around: Chicago made big progress improving crosswalks in 2012

39 miles of bike lanes striped, repainted safety zones around 331 schools

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

December 24, 2012

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Worn-out crosswalk striping and other poorly visible pavement markings have impaired safety in recent years on Chicago streets, where about 3,000 vehicle-pedestrian accidents occur annually, but the problem is starting to disappear, according to city officials.

The city had planned to spend $2.3 million in 2012 on refreshing pedestrian crosswalk bars, vehicle lane lines, stop bars at traffic signals, speed humps and bicycle-lane striping, the Tribune reported in December 2011. The Tribune reported on how such routine maintenance had been deferred in the midst of budget shortfalls the past four years.

But drawing on local motor fuel tax and bond funds as well as state and federal funding, this year's tally on striping work totaled about $6.2 million, according to data the Tribune requested from the Chicago Department of Transportation. CDOT provided spreadsheets listing more than 58,700 individual markings or locations covering at least 121 miles.

About 39 miles of bike lanes were striped, accounting for almost half of the total money spent, the records show.

"Part of the reason so much more striping was done than in the past was that we did dramatically more street paving this year, covering about 80 miles of arterial streets," said Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. Unspent federal stimulus funds were tapped for some of the work, he said.

The job of hitting every segment of pavement with new paint, reflective tape and thermoplastic markings, which are applied using heat, will take years to complete, as Chicago has more than 4,000 miles of streets, officials said.

One key focus in 2012 was at children's safety zones, officials said. The intersections within a one-block radius of 331 schools were repainted this year.

"In the past years, CDOT would try to resurface the crosswalks at as many schools as requested," department spokesman Pete Scales said. "This year, we began a program that would work to refresh the crosswalks around all of the 900 schools in Chicago every three years."

New or updated crosswalks in the continental crosswalk design — made up of a sequence of thick bars — will be done around at least 300 more schools in 2013, he said. In many locations, the continental markings will replace parallel lines that are not as apparent for drivers to detect that they are coming up to a crosswalk, officials said.

Different paint methods are also being tested to determine the most durable solutions, Scales said. Two coats of paint were put down at intersections near 23 schools this year, and after the winter inspectors will check to see whether they held up better than locations that were refreshed with one coat, he said.

Thermoplastic markings are a more efficient longer-term answer, but a larger upfront investment is required, officials said.

"Thermoplastic is a more expensive process than paint, but it lasts seven to eight, sometimes 10 years," Klein said. A painted asphalt surface generally is good for several years, but it tends to last a shorter time in locations that receive especially heavy wear, including bus stops and areas where other large vehicles brake and make turns, he said.

Thermoplastic work is currently is done in Chicago by private companies because the city does not own the necessary equipment, Klein said.

"But we could lease trucks and do the work in-house. Washington recently moved from paint to thermo for in-house crews," he said.

Under the city's still-developing pedestrian safety program, which includes an array of technology aimed at reducing accidents, pavement markings represent the low-hanging fruit, officials said. But spending on renewing pavement markings declined to a low of $700,000 in 2009, according to city records.

About 80 percent of the approximately 3,000 vehicle-pedestrian accidents in the city each year occur at intersections, according to a recent study.

The more than 250 recommendations in the pedestrian plan call for short- and long-term improvements to boost safety, especially for children and senior citizens around schools and parks, as well as increasing space for pedestrians. Wider sidewalks that were built in the newly completed section of Wacker Drive are one example of the new design philosophy, officials said.

Other new design elements — including pedestrian islands in the middle of multilane streets, more pedestrian countdown timers at crossings, and better signals and beacons — will be expanded upon when streets are scheduled for reconstruction, officials said.

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.