A silver lining of the pandemic year was the increased number of people enjoying the outdoors. Now Bike Walk Oak Park (BWOP) is pushing the village to do more to make streets safer for recreation — this summer and thereafter.
“People overwhelmingly like the Slow Streets program, so we’re looking to do it a second time,” said BWOP’s Jenna Holzberg. “But really, at the end of the day, what we want to see is full implementation of the Greenways plan.”
Slow Streets, which debuted last August on a pilot basis at the request of BWOP, was a pared down, temporary version of the greater Greenways program that BWOP has been lobbying the village board to implement since 2015.
To make it safer for pedestrians, cyclists and skaters, the board last year limited vehicular traffic in certain parts of the village through the Slow Streets pilot. The Greenways program calls for a much larger network of low-traffic residential streets designated as safe areas for outdoor recreation.
Results from the Slow Streets pilot survey indicated that 60 percent of the 915 people who responded to the survey support the program, but those results were never presented to the village board. BWOP only obtained the results through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, as did Wednesday Journal.
Slow Streets offers a chance to evaluate Greenways more closely, according to Holzberg. Last year the village nixed one of the streets in BWOP’s proposal, believing it unsafe for outdoor recreation. The same street was also included in the Greenways proposal.
“It allows the opportunity to test out routes to see if those routes are appropriate for Greenways,” she said.
With the new village board in place, it appears Greenways is finally gaining some momentum. Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla requested that the village board include the execution of the program among its list of 2021 goals.
“Last budget cycle, we had to fight just to get a very small portion of the Greenways project in this capital improvement plan,” Walker-Peddakotla told Wednesday Journal.
Under the leadership of Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, the previous village board bumped the project up from lowest priority to second-lowest priority in the capital improvement plan in the 2020 budget.
It also helps that the current village board has a number of members who are avid cyclists and runners. Along with Walker-Peddakotla, BWOP has been in communication with Trustees Susan Buchanan and Chibuike Enyia regarding Greenways.
“I’m in full support because what they’re asking for is not unreasonable,” said Walker-Peddakotla.
In a proposal sent May 10 to the Transportation Commission and village staff, BWOP asked that the Slow Streets program return this summer and last through fall. The proposal also called for a full review and analysis of the Slow Streets pilot program survey results by the village board and use the results to inform the development of Slow Streets and Greenways.
“I’d be interested to see the results of that survey,” said Enyia, who noted that he often used Slow Streets last summer to take his children on bike rides.
Village President Vicki Scaman told Wednesday Journal she wanted to hear from the Transportation Commission before throwing her support behind the return of Slow Streets. Scaman said she is a regular cyclist.
Within the May 10 proposal, BWOP laid out how it would like to see the village proceed with Greenways.
“We want it funded through the capital improvement budget,” said Holzberg. “We want a reoccurring line item every year that commits to building out and then maintaining the full network of streets.”
In the 2020 budget, financing for Greenways was to come from the village’s sustainability fund instead of money set aside for capital improvement projects.
Using the sustainability fund for that purpose was unpopular with Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan, as well as BWOP, all of whom would like Greenways funding to come out of the capital improvement budget.
“The problem I have with it coming from the sustainability fund is we are trying to work really hard on a long-term plan to mitigate climate change,” said Buchanan.
While Greenways could encourage more people to walk or bike rather than drive, many believe the program falls more under the umbrella of transportation, not sustainability.
Whether the village finally gets around to implementing Greenways in full, Buchanan has some thoughts on how to improve on what was done during the Slow Streets pilot. The barricades used to cordon off the streets she found unattractive, as well as possibly confusing to those unfamiliar with the concept of limiting traffic for increased recreation space.
“If we decided to go forward with something permanent, we could definitely make them more aesthetically pleasing.”