The Oak Park Transportation Commission was unanimously supportive of implementing the proposed “Slow Streets” plan during its June 9 meeting, the commission’s first since the COVID-19 crisis drove the village to shut down.
Drafted by the Bike Walk Oak Park group, the “Slow Streets” proposal seeks to provide space for more socially distanced outdoor recreation and exercise without congregation by limiting vehicular traffic on certain streets to only that of residential, delivery and emergency vehicles.
“These ‘Slow Streets’ strategies also create safer, more comfortable places for people to get along on foot and on bike. That’s going to be important even after social distancing becomes less of a concern,” said Ron Burke, chair of the commission.
Since social distancing is still very much a concern as the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to pass, Burke also directed the commission to consider how to put the plan into action quickly.
“We should think about not only how this type of ‘Slow Street’ design might be implemented but also how the board and staff might go about doing so administratively,” Burke said. “If we need to go through the usual channels, we’re probably looking at months down the road before any slow street can be implemented.”
When asked if there was an opportunity for the village board to give staff authority to make these decisions, Village Engineer Bill McKenna said it was “ultimately up to the village board.”
Burke asked the commission and staff to comment on ways to encourage the board to expedite the process, “not to the exclusion of public input, but in ways that really allow us to meet the need that exists today.”
He mentioned that the city of Chicago recently debuted a similar program called “Shared Streets” that has proven popular so far.
Commissioner Aaron Stigger supported the ‘Slow Streets’ project and had wanted to dedicate more road space to cyclists and pedestrians for some time but felt the village might feel otherwise.
“I’m definitely in favor of it personally,” said Stigger. “From the village’s standpoint, they may see it differently. But if we want to be serious about being a bike-friendly community, which is something that we advertise, then this proposal in some degree is a no-brainer.”
Stigger did not know how large the ‘Slow Streets’ network would be but thought getting it started was a “must” in becoming a bike-friendly community.
Commissioner James Thompson spoke in favor of “Slow Streets” project, saying he thought it was a “great thing for the village long-term to have something like this in place.” The pandemic presented the perfect opportunity to pilot the program, Thompson said.
Thompson also praised Bike Walk Oak Park for putting together the proposal.
“Bike Walk Oak Park has done a really good job putting together a proposal,” he said.
However, Thompson called the first of the proposal’s recommended “Slow Streets” networks “somewhat” ambitious and questioned the village’s ability to partially block off that many streets.
“It struck me as a fairly significant undertaking to do that,” he said.
He suggested doing a partial closure on a portion of those streets to pilot the program on a smaller basis.
Commissioner Garth Katner proposed using the proposal’s second, more minimal recommended street network, which has fewer “slow streets,” as a jumping off point for a pilot.
“I guess where we have to decide is how minimal we want these pilots to be,” he said.
Stigger thought it would be an unduly burdensome amount of work to village staffers to only pilot the program during weekends.
“Putting up signs and taking down signs every weekend would just be very over the top,” he said.
McKenna agreed and said a full implementation of the first recommended street network would be too difficult to staff, which is not yet at full capacity due to COVID-19.
The commission also had concerns regarding how to adequately inform the public about restricted traffic roadways, dubbed “slow streets.” With no police enforcement, concerns were also raised about the potential for people driving to ignore signs marking off the “slow streets.”
With all of the commission in support of implementing “Slow Streets” in some form, Burke requested to start the program off small at a few streets with plans for expansion to more streets at later dates.
The commission directed staff to evaluate portions of Kenilworth Avenue, Harvey Avenue, Thomas Street and Van Buren Street for a pilot implementation of “Slow Streets;” once in place, staff and the commission will evaluate the results of the pilot at a later date.