Left turns at some Chicago intersections are getting a makeover as the city installs speed bumps and posts that are intended to make crossing safer for pedestrians, but the changes have led to confusion and online commentary by some drivers.
As pedestrian traffic injuries and deaths have risen in recent years, the city has installed devices at more than a dozen intersections intended to force drivers to take left turns at slower speeds and sharper angles. Barriers have been installed along the roads’ centerlines and topped with vertical posts, and rubber speed bumps jut out into the intersections.
The devices are designed to make drivers more likely to see pedestrians using a crosswalk by preventing them from taking left turns at a diagonal angle, and force turning drivers to slow down, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. But in the months since the installation of the new devices was announced, posts at multiple intersections around the city have already been visibly bent or removed, though CDOT said it has not had to replace any of the installations yet.
Pedestrians said the devices have helped. Still, Pat Henahan said he was nearly hit by a left-turning driver recently as crossed the street near his son’s day care at the corner of North Rockwell and West Division streets near Humboldt Park, where speed bumps and posts have been installed on one side of the intersection.
Despite the near miss, the addition of the left-turn devices makes him feel safer walking home with his 2-year-old son, he said.
“I mean, I’m glad it’s there,” he said. “I bike a lot too, so I think anything that can slow people down. But I think (the driver was) just looking straight, trying to beat traffic.”
Jenny Poore said she found the devices confusing at first as she navigated her car from Rockwell onto Division, because the speed bump felt like it was in the middle of the street. But she understands it was installed far into the intersection as a cautionary tool, and can feel herself slowing down and making extra-wide turns.
“It is something to navigate around,” she said.
Farther north, left-turn speed bumps and posts have also been installed at several intersections along Ashland Avenue near Uptown. But the 47th Ward office, which covers that stretch of Ashland, has gotten only about half a dozen complaints about the devices, said Josh Mark, director of development and infrastructure. Rather, he has heard more positive feedback than expected.
Mark speculated bent or missing posts could be partly due to trucks that can’t make the wide turns required to avoid the posts, or they could have been damaged by city snow plows.
The efforts to slow left-turning drivers come as car crash deaths rose in Chicago and across the country in the years leading up to 2022. Last year, at least 153 people were involved in traffic crashes initially reported as fatal, up almost a third from the 115 initially reported the year before the pandemic, according to city data. However, city and preliminary CDOT data show the number of fatal crashes dropped from 2021 to 2022. That included the number of pedestrian deaths, which fell from 60 to 46, preliminary CDOT figures show.
The left-turn speed bumps and posts are just one recent change to intersections designed to make crossings safer for pedestrians. Last year, about 400 of the city’s more than 22,600 intersections got upgrades such as extended curbs and pedestrian islands, which are intended to reduce the length of a street crossing for pedestrians, force cars to turn slower and improve visibility of pedestrians, CDOT said.
The left-turn devices have also been key, the agency said. At five River North intersections where they were tested in 2019, crashes went down by 24%, according to CDOT.
CDOT did not provide an estimated cost of the installations, and said it varies by intersection.
Other cities, including New York and D.C., have undertaken similar efforts to slow turning vehicles. In New York, where efforts include speed bumps and posts similar to Chicago’s as well as other changes to intersections, the city reported pedestrian injuries were down 18%, and severe injuries fell by 33%.
Those results support Chicago’s use of the left-turn speed bumps and posts, said Audrey Wennink, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council. Speed bumps and posts can also be installed relatively quickly and at lower costs than other traffic measures, meaning benefits can be felt sooner, she said.
Repeated mowing down of the posts could make the measure less sustainable over time, though, she said. And the city can’t rely solely on the left-turn devices to improve traffic safety. Officials must also consider strategies such as raised crosswalks, pedestrian islands at busy intersections and lowering traffic speeds, she said.
“Anything that causes a driver to have to pay closer attention and not just sort of mindlessly cruise at high speeds, and causes them to be attentive, is helpful,” she said.
Already, Kevin Thacker said he has noticed a difference at Rockwell and Division since the speed bumps and posts were installed.
“People used to kind of fly through the crosswalk and they don’t anymore,” he said, walking to pick his son up at day care. “Especially because the day care’s right here, I’m very happy that it seems like traffic has slowed down.”