Right about now, Chicagoans are stir-crazy: anxious to get outside without a puffy coat and enjoy the few warm months the city offers between winters.
Once that first warm day hits, Chicagoans flock to the lakefront trail. It’s where they train for marathons, where they bike to work, where they walk their dogs. Day or night.
With as many 30,000 people a day visiting stretches of path between Ardmore Avenue to the north and 71st Street to the south, there’s never a dull moment. And while the majority of the activity that takes place there is unremarkable, there also are reports of police activity. So, how safe is one of Chicago’s most popular warm-weather destinations?
The question is difficult to answer because of the way the police department keeps its data. The trail is not a location category that officers can check in a police report, which means crimes there are not easily searchable.
“In terms of overall safety, we think the lakefront trail is a safe facility to use,” said Jason Jenkins, education specialist for the Active Transportation Alliance, an advocacy organization that promotes walking, bicycling and taking public transportation. “There are common-sense steps users can take to increase their own safety.”
Using city crime data, RedEye plotted police incidents reported near and along the trail in 2013 and compared them to the numbers for the year prior. In 2013, there were roughly 120 crimes reported in close proximity to the 18-mile path, compared to about 100 the year before. In both years, the incidents represented less than 1 percent of crime reported in the city overall.
While it may not be a comprehensive look at all crimes reported near the trail, the limited data does provide some insight.
Theft was the most commonly reported crime near the trail, which meanders past beaches, harbors, Soldier Field, Navy Pier and McCormick Place. Others ranged from narcotics to battery to more serious offenses, such as robbery. In July, police issued a community alert after three robberies were reported along the trail.
Both Chicago Park District security and the Chicago Police Department patrol the lakefront.
“The Chicago Police Department is committed to the safety of all residents and visitors and, while we don’t discuss deployment specifics, we do have seasonal bike teams, cars and officers on foot along the lakefront to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone,” the department said in a statement.
The warm weather brings more people outdoors, which can provide greater opportunity for crime, said Arthur Lurigio, psychology and criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago. People who are having a nice time relaxing may not be as vigilant, he said. But crowds can also increase protection, he said. If a lot of people are around, there are a lot of witnesses, which could increase the likelihood of getting arrested, and that could be a deterrent for committing a crime, he said.
“I would think especially during daylight hours, you’re actually safe on the trail,” he said.
It’s important to be mindful of your surroundings, said Wendy Jaehn, executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association.
“I definitely think it’s safe,” she said of the trail. She runs along the lakefront nearly every day and often alone. “We wouldn’t put runners out there if we felt it was unsafe.”
Safety involves more than crime. The trail is used widely by cyclists, joggers, walkers, kids and tourist —and it can become a congested collision course.
Clashes between bicyclists and pedestrians are difficult to measure, but they do happen.
Physical safety due to traffic on the path is a concern for users as well, said Julie Hochstadter, director of The Chainlink, an online networking site for cyclists in Chicago.
Some of the worst bike accidents have happened on the trail, she said. She has seen a cyclist and runner get carried off the trail on stretchers. At times, kids dart across the path and pedestrians walk four across as cyclists try to speed by.
“Unfortunately, there’s only so much real estate and it’s really like the Kennedy [expressway] during rush hour in the summer,” she said.
The Chainlink and CARA post information using their social media networks or websites to keep members informed of incidents reported on the trail.
While trail users don’t want to discourage others from taking the path, they did suggest safety precautions. They recommend having a running or biking buddy, using the trail when it’s light out, telling people you are going to be on the path if it’s late at night or making sure people know your route.
Other tips include glancing around periodically, turning down volume on headphones or not using them at all, leaving valuables at home, carrying a cellphone in case you need to call for help and reporting any incidents to police.
“It’s such a serene, beautiful place. Although it’s an absolutely beautiful part of the city, there’s just things you need to be aware of when it comes to your safety and security,” Hochstadter said.
Breaking down the data
There is no easy way to search and pull a list of crimes reported on the lakefront trail.
RedEye set out to provide a snapshot of the data using the city’s online portal to search for all crimes reported in the vicinity of the trail in 2013 and 2012. The data represent crimes reported within 200 feet of the trail on park or lakefront property. To simplify, RedEye extracted incidents listed as occurring on Lake Shore Drive or the streets that intersect with it.
Incidents were mapped according to the approximate coordinates supplied by the police department.
Mind your manners
Since the trail is used by everyone including pedestrians, runners, cyclists, rollerbladers and even segways, there are five etiquette tips for users to safely share the trail. Source: League of Illinois Bicyclists
- Stay on the right so other users can pass you on the left.
- Let users know that you’re passing on the left.
- Don’t block the trail if you stop or are going with a group.
- Yield to others when entering, crossing or turning onto trails.
- Be predictable, but expect other users to be unpredictable.