This fall my fourth-grader began riding his bike to school. He’s of an age where he sometimes still depends on what he calls the “luck factor” when crossing streets so I go along to prevent what I term the “splat factor.” One of our more hair-raising problems is crossing South 4th Street (Route 23). Five lanes with traffic traveling at 35 to 40 miles per hour can be tricky even for the grownup.

Because S. 4th is so dangerous, my son actually is eligible to take the bus to school. After all, we taxpayers are footing the bill for at least two buses–at an estimated annual cost of $70,000*–that we wouldn’t need if not for the hazardous crossing designation. But the trip is less than a mile, and I want to teach him to depend more on pedal power, less on petrol power. We’ve felt resigned to living with S. 4th as it is–until now, when I discovered that we may not have to.

Background & the Color Code

The Protanos, of Protano’s Auto Parts, have gotten out of the salvage business and would like to sell their land. After 50-plus years of business, however, their two acres along S. 4th are saturated with pollutants like oil and lead. The City of DeKalb called in the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) for an evaluation and, sure enough, it’s been designated a brownfield site. At this point it is not clear whether the city will get stuck with the costs of remediating the land.

But there were interesting side effects to inviting the IEPA. They took a look at the other efforts the city has been making to revitalize, such as the Comprehensive Plan and the Hitchcock Main Street Plan. They were impressed by our public transit system. They also noted that some of the businesses located along DeKalb’s South Corridor have contributed to a “grayfield,” meaning that there’s a perception of blight that discourages investment in new development. Combine this with the realization, borne of experience, that in order to prevent brownfields and grayfields, smart planners must change the conditions that lead to them in the first place. The result is a partnership between IEPA and the City of DeKalb and a $43,000 Sustainable Community Redevelopment Plan that the city did not have to spend a dime for. It focuses on the S. 4th Street Corridor and the S. Pearl Street neighborhood (which also contains a possible brownfield) and is way too big to handle properly in one posting. This one will concentrate on the parts that would get the kids who have to cross “The Big Speedy” to their schools more comfortably and safely.

The first thing to know is that S. 4th is much, much wider than we need either now or in the future. The Illinois Department of Transportation (I-DOT) classifies it as a principal arterial road with capacity for 39,000 worth in Average Daily Traffic (ADT) counts but currently handling less than 10,000 ADT and projected to see this figure rise to only 14,700 by the year 2030. *

The prescribed remedies are a “road diet” and a view to making the street “complete.” “Road diet” means we “reduce” from five auto traffic lanes to three including a left-turn lane. “Complete” is a bit more complex.

The Complete Street

Most transportation planning projects begin by assessing automobile-related performance measures and needs, and then add on facilities for other travelers as a secondary concern. With a complete streets approach, the needs of all road users are included in the first assessment of the project. For example, planners may ask “Are there children walking to school? Is there a large population of senior citizens walking to the bus stop? Is it a busy transit corridor?” The final design should accommodate all the identified road users, closing gaps in the system (such as missing sidewalks) and balancing the needs of the various users. In the broadest sense, complete streets also consider the stationary users of the street–the businesses, homes and institutions that are located along it.*

That gap in the sidewalk in front of the Dekalb High School teachers’ parking lot drives me crazy, almost as crazy as the ugly, ugly exterior of the Recreation Center. Don’t get me started. Here are some of the other ideas for remaking S. 4th into a “complete” street that better accomodates bikers and pedestrians:

  • Speed limiting
  • Bike access, both on- and off-road, some new & some filling gaps
  • More/more visible crosswalks with refuge islands
  • Street signals to create a couple more de facto 4-way intersections
  • More trees
  • The suggestions for off-road paths include one that would run from Lincoln School to DHS and another along Taylor Street to Huntley Middle School. There’s also an idea for a “neighborhood service center” at the Sullivan’s site that would house facilities for buses, mini-buses and bicyclists.

    The Sustainable Community Development Plan comes up very soon for consideration by the DeKalb Plan Commission, with the City Council taking it up along with Plan Commission recommendations after that and deciding whether to adopt the plan. I hope that they do. Doing so would not obligate us to undertake any of the ideas presented, but it does give us an attractive and sustainable framework for thinking ahead, something we need to see more of.

    *Any assertions including numbers that are not linked come from a paper copy of the Sustainable Community Redevelopment Plan developed by the St. Louis planning firm Hellmuth & Bicknese. Mr. Hellmuth has LEED certification.
    If a .pdf file becomes available at the city’s website–which I assume will happen if the city adopts the plan–I will link to it as well.