By John Hennelly
My family and I live west of Ridge Avenue. Ridge separates us from beaches, movies, restaurants, shopping, etc…, and so it must be crossed. And crossing Ridge is not something to take lightly. Two narrow lanes in both directions, cars roaring by, drivers darting between lanes, other cars shooting across in the gaps in traffic. When there are crashes the speed of the cars carries them up onto sidewalks, through fences and into lawns.
Along Ridge kids wait to cross, to get to school, to visit friends, to explore their world. Even just standing there, waiting, is dangerous. It is a literal rite of passage for the youth of South Evanston. If a child can face the traffic, and cross safely, then they have won a fair part of their independence and freedom.
But unlike other rites of passage, Ridge is not symbolic. It is potentially deadly. The EPD publishes an annual list of top ten intersections for crashes, and year in year out, Ridge is the clear “winner.” In the period from 2007-2015, a period of 9 years, Ridge intersections (south of Emerson), have taken 44 of the 90 spots. In 2012 Ridge intersections were 7 of the top ten, and in the latest data, from 2013 to 2015, Ridge intersections were 6 of the top ten each year.
And we are not talking about a handful of crashes. Ridge intersections like Emerson, Lake, and Church typically have over 20 crashes a year, each, and between Howard and Emerson, Ridge averaged 125 crashes a year between 2012 and 2015. This is over ten crashes a month. This means that every three days, there’s a crash on that stretch of Ridge. This is not acceptable.
We await the statistics from 2016 and 2017, but we do know from a recent EPD press release that in 2017 there were 22 crashes at Lake and 21 crashes at Greenleaf. For Lake only 22 crashes is actually a pretty good year. There were 27 crashes at Lake in 2015.
What is to be done?
Several parents have recently led efforts to step up enforcement, putting pressure on the city to just do something. The EPD to their credit has responded, and focused enforcement has generated a lot of tickets, including hundreds for cell phone use (that’s right, people hurtle down Ridge texting and talking on their phones. Remember that the next time you are standing on Ridge, waiting to cross).
Alderman Wilson is hopeful that some changes in traffic patterns will prove effective. Last Spring, for instance, new signs at Greenwood and Ridge forbade east-west traffic on Greenwood to cross or turn left at Ridge. Traffic may now only turn right. (Note: I am at that intersection every day of the week, on foot or bike, and I can say that few people obey those signs, and scofflaws include police and city vehicles.)
Alderman Wilson is on it, though. He and others city officials are working with city engineers on a host of possible improvements, including, from the EPD press release:
“…reducing the speed limit on Ridge Avenue, synchronizing the traffic signals, use of speed cameras, and the addition of traffic mast arms at intersections.”
We may be able to slow traffic down on Ridge, but I don’t know if that will make it much safer, because it is not just speed that is the problem. The lane configuration encourages unsafe driving, the intersections don’t do enough to keep other users safe, and the whole feel of Ridge is that of a flood stage river, on the verge of overflowing its banks.
A few years back when my kids were at Dewey, a father and his child were struck by a car on their way to school at Ridge and Grove. They were hurt, but not killed. The reaction, from school officials and parents, was to wonder why the dad chose to cross at Grove. There was no outcry that Ridge is dangerous, that it is wrong to ask young children, even with the assistance of adults, to cross that street, that it is wrong to have an intersection in the middle of a residential neighborhood that is so patently unsafe that it is considered idiocy to try to cross it.
Why do we accept this? Why can’t we live in a community where people matter more than cars? Why should anyone, most especially children, have to risk their lives so others may go 40 MPH for a 1+ mile stretch through town?
I don’t think the police can fix Ridge; there are too many cars and too few police. I don’t think signs and better lights can fix Ridge. On narrow, fast Ridge, who has the time to notice a sign? The City will report new crash data soon, and I am eager to review the numbers. But, given the nature of Ridge, any impacts will likely be marginal, and not assure anyone, especially parents, that Ridge is safe.
We need to redesign Ridge from the bottom up. It may upset some drivers to hear, and some officials may at first dismiss it, but we must reduce the lanes on Ridge: one lane, each direction, a turn lane in the middle, and intersections designed to keep us all safe. Traffic will calm, speeds will slow, dangerous lane changing will cease, crashes will drop, and, for those who live in South Evanston, a sense of relief will prevail.