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The Trib Shows How the Speed Cameras Are a Mess. Is There a Better Way?

It’s a mess of the administration’s making, but one that reflects our conflicted priorities about pedestrian safety in America.

Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune data journalist Abraham Epton and reporter David Kidwell, who’s done astonishing reporting on the city’s speed and red-light camera programs, just dropped an intensive three-part investigation on more problems with speed cameras.

It’s incredibly detailed, impressive given the immense amount of data they were working with. And some of those details are revealing, especially about how the administration boxed itself in by focusing on the safety of schoolchildren. It also shows the awkward balance we strike between traffic flow and street safety.

Quirks in the Law

Because the focus has been on kids, speed cameras are subject to narrow, often confusing restrictions.

For instance, to be valid under state law, the 20 mph school-zone rule is in effect only when the speed camera documents the presence of a child. And not just any child: “The revised guidelines changed the rules to stop ticket processors from counting a child in a stroller or in an adult’s arms as evidence of a violation.”

Another headscratcher: Parks are supposed to be protected by the speed cameras, but is a bike path a park?

It also leaves the administration open to criticisms like this (emphasis mine):

Administration officials say the speed cameras are placed where crash statistics show the biggest safety problems. The data posted on the city’s website to justify the camera placement show more than 47,700 accidents from 2009 through 2012 with a connection to speed but that include a broad definition of when speed is a factor and count all types of crashes, involving not just pedestrians and involving people of all ages.

By one way of looking at it, this is kind of perverse. Shouldn’t the city want to prevent crashes of any kind? That’s the point that John Greenfield makes at Streetsblog, defending the program as broadly successful using preliminary CDOT data: “The department found that injury crashes dropped 18 percent within the 21 safety zones where speed cams were installed in 2013–a major improvement. Fatal and severe crashes within the safety zones went down a full 22 percent.” But the political balance struck to get the program in place—not just rhetorically, but baked into the structure of the program—puts child safety at the center.

CDOT defended using broad crash data to the Trib, arguing that “we are not going to wait for a kid to be killed before putting the cameras up somewhere where we see a high risk and significant evidence of traffic crashes and speeding problems.” Which makes a certain amount of sense—why wait for the problem to arise, when the problem is injured children?

But Kidwell and Epton counter with a very important point:

The Tribune examination of Chicago Police Department crash data from 2004 through 2014 revealed 108 children on foot or on bicycle were injured in accidents where the police cited “exceeding the authorized speed limit” as a contributing factor. The majority of those accidents happened on side streets, not on the major streets where speed cameras are typically placed.

It’s a small part of the article, but critical. What would targeting those crashes look like?

How the Dutch Make Streets Safer for Pedestrians

A couple years ago I talked about this with Peter Furth, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. I wanted to talk to Furth because of his expertise in Dutch traffic engineering, and the Dutch are often considered to be the gold standard in the Western world. We mostly talked about how to create a safe city for cycling, but the Dutch have created safe streets for pedestrians and drivers as well. And it came about because of an explicit movement to stop the killing of children in traffic. Literally: “Stop de Kindermoord,” or “Stop the child murder.”

It’s a strong word, especially when you consider that active-transportation advocates in America are still trying to persuade the media to use the word “crash” instead of "accident.” But it worked. The Dutch took the implications of the word seriously, and used diverse strategies to make their streets safer.

  • They invented the “woonerf,” which has come to America as the “living street” or “complete street,” which allow cars, but only at “walking speed.”
  • For a few months they banned the use of motor vehicles on Sundays. Though it had more to do with the OPEC crisis of the early 1970s, it opened the streets up to alternative forms of transportation. (Meanwhile, in Chicago, one member of the media floated the idea of having bike-free days.)
  • They built sophisticated, safe, separated networks of bike lanes throughout the country. This video, “How the Dutch Got Their Cycle Paths,” shows not just the cycling infrastructure, but who uses it, as a result. The elderly and young, riding casually in dress clothes without helmets, in contrast to American bike traffic, which is typified by young men decked out in don’t-hit-me yellow.

    Today Dutch cycling infrastructure is so good that it almost seems like they’re showing—the latest addition being a solar-powered bike lane, which is different from their glowing Van Gogh-inspired bike path, both of which go nicely with their glow-in-the-dark highway.

  • And there were legal changes. The Dutch are cracking down on misbehaving cyclists, including ones without lights and reflectors; cycling is part of the school curriculum. Furth told me that checking for a cyclist before opening your door is part of the driving test—if you don’t, you fail.

Perhaps all of that is terribly ambitious in an American context, but it does cast our exceptionally mild attempts at traffic calming into stark relief, like Chicago’s guidelines for verifying that a speeding violation takes place.

For instance, the guidelines say not to forward a ticket when it’s “questionable” whether a pedestrian photographed is a child, or when a pedestrian doesn’t “fit the physical description and features of a child.” It lists specific items to look for: “Children’s clothing and accessories, such as a school uniforms or school team uniforms, lunch boxes, bags.”

Kidwell and Epton document the astonishing detail with which the city pores over speed-camera photos to meet these legalistic burdens. From one hearing officer’s ruling: "Of the individual that I can actually see in the video that I reviewed at 300% four times, there does not appear to be any individuals that appear to be under the age of 18.”

The administration is getting pounded for this, but it’s worth considering the entire process of back-and-forth—of politics—that led to this complex, burdensome system that is easily misused, intentionally or not. There are other ways of going about it. They’re hard, but when you examine our speed cameras as closely as Kidwell and Epton do, they seem a lot easier.

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