By Kelly White
West Loop residents may see changes soon to one of the area’s well known streets.
The West Central Association (WCA) and others are proposing a West Loop Madison Street safety plan as part of the Madison Streetscape Project, which may feature speed bumps on Madison Street along with pedestrian upgrades, but no bike lanes. The idea for change came directly from local bicycle advocates after a car struck and killed Paresh Chhatrala, 42, while he was cycling along Madison Street near Peoria Street on April 16.
The driver, Courtney Bertucci, 30, of Joliet, continued driving after hitting Chhatrala, with his bike stuck underneath her car. Several witnesses eventually stopped and confronted her at Aberdeen and Monroe streets, according to the Chicago Police Department.
An ambulance took Chhatrala to Stroger Hospital, where he was hospitalized in critical condition. He died a few days later.
Prosecutors charged the driver with possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, operating an uninsured vehicle, and striking a pedestrian in a roadway.
“The number of pedestrian and bicycle accidents in our city, particularly in the West Loop, are devastating,” Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward), said. “The Madison Streetscape Project plans prioritize pedestrian safety so we can protect our community members.”
This year, drivers on Chicago streets killed at least one other cyclist and four pedestrians, and this trend raises deep concerns among bicyclists, pedestrians, West Loop advocates, and city officials.
Sigcho-Lopez and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) both heavily support the Madison Streetscape Project, as parts of Madison Street run through their wards.
The section of Madison Street where Bertucci hit Chhatrala became more dangerous to cyclists after 2019, when the City removed concrete median planters originally installed to beautify the neighborhood and ease traffic congestion; Mayor Richard M. Daley had ordered the planters’ placement in the run-up to the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
Removing the planters cost $400,000 and has resulted in more vehicles speeding down the roadway as well as more pedestrian and vehicle accidents.
The West Loop neighborhood’s increasing popularity among residents and commuters has brought more traffic, increasing the likelihood of collisions.
The WCA had the City install stop signs and a stoplight on Madison Street to help prevent cyclist and pedestrian collisions, but that is not enough, according to WCA president Armando Chacon.
“The ultimate motivation and inspiration [for the new safety plan] were the need to improve pedestrian safety,” Chacon said. “These improvements will also improve bicycle safety by reducing vehicular speeds on Madison, which will also lead to less accidents.”
Chhatrala’s death increased urgency around new measures, yet other collisions involving cyclists have occurred in Chicago over the past few years. Earlier this year a driver fatally struck a bicyclist on DuSable Lake Shore Drive near Buckingham Fountain. Last October, another cyclist died after being hit by a car while crossing DuSable Lake Shore Drive at Grand Avenue.
The City’s default speed limit is 30 mph. According to PeopleForBikes, a non-profit organization dedicated to making cycling safer so people will ride bicycles more often, bicyclists who are hit by cars going 20 mph almost always survive, but the survival rate of cyclists drops to only 50% when a car going 30 mph strikes them.
The WCA wants to see a change as soon as possible.
Eliminating speeding and preventing crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians top the West Loop Madison Street safety plan’s aims, although Chacon noted its place within the larger streetscape project will increase benefits.
“The ultimate goal is to improve public safety, and yes, speeding has and continues to be a problem. However, as part of the streetscape project, it’s an opportunity to beautify Madison Row in its own distinctive way that embraces its history while embracing the evolution of the neighborhood,” he explained.
That project, originally announced in 2017, would add speed bumps, elevated intersections, and pedestrian islands to protect pedestrians and cyclists. It also addresses seating, lighting, greenery, and markers to make the street more aesthetically appealing.
“We have been advocating for this project for many years, and we are encouraged by the support it has garnered so far,” Chacon said. “Many have been very vocal about moving this project forward as soon as possible. We very much agree and are doing all we can by building grassroots support with local residents, business owners, and other stakeholders for this very important project. The time to act is now.”
Elevated intersections definitely would present a new trend, Chacon said.
“CDOT has responded favorably to this idea,” he said. “The purpose of elevated intersections is to slow traffic and increase pedestrian safety.”
“Elevated intersections are currently on Harrison Street and Morgan along with a couple other crossings on Harrison further east, however, I’m not aware of results or timing of the Harrison installation,” Rod Burch of the WCA said.
No bike lanes
The plan, however, likely will not include bike lanes.
The reason for that omission is safety, according to the WCA. Madison Street’s width makes it nearly impossible to add bike lanes alongside bus lanes and on-street parking, WCA officials said.
“As we have over many years, we support bike lanes in our community,” Chacon said. “I’m a longtime daily bike rider myself. We have received feedback supporting and opposing bike lanes on Madison. We have also received some good suggestions on how to improve safety for bicyclists in the neighborhood, such as converting the one-way bike lane on Washington to a two-way bike lane which exists on other streets like Clinton. Either way, we will continue to have more discussions on bike lanes on Madison and if the street can accommodate them, given all that we want to achieve.”
Residents and community groups discussed plans with the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) during meetings held over the past two months. If approved, the streetscape project will take place in two phases: constructing pedestrian islands along the median, speed bumps, and landscaping to improve stormwater run-off followed by installing planters, seating, and lighting.
The timeline remains unknown, although the WCA is asking the City to move forward as soon as possible.
“We are in the process of building community support for this project that is among a few others being considered,” Chacon said. “Based on what we have seen so far, it’s received the most support of all the other projects. If the project is given the green light, the city will hire a design consultant to design the street based on feedback from our community, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and City officials including our aldermen.”
The West Loop Community Organization (WLCO) is working alongside WCA to improve safety on Madison Street. According to WLCO board member Julie Darling, no formal plans to make structural changes to Madison exist, however, a community meeting with DPD earlier this month addressed five potential projects across the West Loop.
Darling was on the call during that meeting and offered input from WLCO.
“West Loop is experiencing incredible growth, and along with that comes its challenges and necessary changes,” she said. “We’d like to see safety be addressed across the board, throughout the West Loop, that includes addressing pedestrian safety, wheelchair accessibility across intersections, and areas where children are attending school and parks. The West Loop Community Organization supports both businesses and residents.”
WLCO does not support speed bumps at major thoroughfares, believing they will hamper emergency service vehicles.
“We do, however, support the need for infrastructure to keep pace with the growth of the West Loop including things such as bump outs for stop signs, painted murals on the intersections near schools, and kids areas which are proven effective in other cities,” Darling said.
Friends of Chhatrala have organized a GoFundMe campaign to pay for medical and funeral expenses. See shorturl.at/jqKR5.
Log on to www.peopleforbikes.org for PeopleForBikes. For WCA, log on to www.wcachicago.org. For more about WLCO, log on to www.westloop.org. To contact Sigcho-Lopez’s office, log on to www.25thward.org.