Shortly before the third-place finish that sealed her fate as a one-term mayor, Lori Lightfoot convinced the City Council to use a dramatic expansion of video surveillance and automated ticketing to make downtown streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
The controversial plan called for Chicago motorists who block bus lanes, bike lanes, crosswalks or loading zones to be nailed by surveillance cameras installed on CTA buses, city vehicles, light poles and other property pinpointed by City Hall.
But nearly a year after passing the Council, the companion crackdowns known as “Smart Streets” and “Smart Loading Zones” — in zones that stretch from Lake Michigan to Ashland Avenue and North Avenue to Roosevelt Road — have yet to get off the ground, and won’t even start testing until this summer at the earliest.
Despite the pressing need to change driving behavior in a downtown area with the “highest concentration of serious crashes, traffic congestion, public transit service, pedestrian and commercial activity in Chicago,” not a single ticket has been issued. Not even one surveillance camera has been installed.
Newly-appointed Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney and his Complete Streets Director Dave Smith were asked about the lengthy delay while testifying Tuesday before the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety on Chicago’s Complete Streets Ordinance.
Smith said the “first few months” after City Council approval of the crackdown in March 2023 was spent “evaluating different types of technology solutions — fixed cameras, mobile cameras — and really trying to understand what would be the fastest to market and the most scale-able.”
“We’re thinking of a mobile camera method right now mounted on city vehicles. And we’re working diligently to get those installed and up and running,” Smith told alderpersons.
Carney said he’s working closely with the Department of Finance and the CTA to finally get cameras installed on “CDOT, public way inspector and Department of Finance inspector vehicles” as well as on CTA buses “so that they can do the photo enforcement of folks blocking bike lanes or blocking bus dedicated lane.”
“We’re working towards trying have it stood up by this summer so that we can then start testing it out and implementation of the pilot,” Carney said.
Downtown alderpersons Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) joined forces with Lightfoot on the groundbreaking ordinance. Lightfoot had already taken considerable heat for reducing the threshold for speed camera violations to 6 mph over the posted speed limit.
Hopkins was exasperated by the lengthy delay in a crackdown his ward desperately needs as it considers “a couple of pretty big” residential projects “in an area that already experiences traffic gridlock.”
“I can’t add to that traffic gridlock when there’s a good solution to help move it along on the table that we’re dragging our feet on,” Hopkins said.
“Parking lane restrictions and video enforcement of people blocking the right of way is really the low-hanging fruit of resolving traffic congestion. … This is a pilot program. We need to move forward to the extent that we can. If it’s going to be more limited in scope to begin with than we originally wanted it to, I understand that as long as we at least start.”
Reilly blamed the transition from Lightfoot to Brandon Johnson for the delay in a crackdown he has championed for more than a decade.
“The bureaucracy was waiting for clear direction from the [Johnson] Administration on how best to implement the pilot program,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
“I am glad the city will proceed with the pilot program and hope it will be to a meaningful scale that actually deters this illegal & dangerous activity in the Central Business District.”
The first two-year pilot would authorize the city to ticket registered vehicle owners by mail for parking in bike lanes, bus lanes, crosswalks and bus stops. The second would use “license plate-reading camera technology” to more efficiently ticket drivers or companies who double-park or park too long in commercial loading zones.
Cameras mounted on the exterior of CTA buses and other public transit vehicles, city vehicles and light poles were supposed to be used to record offenses. Citations would hit mailboxes no sooner than 30 days after the system is installed. Every offending motorist would get one warning notice before being ticketed.
During Tuesday’s hearing, North Side Ald. Bennett Lawson (44th) challenged the city to adopt a “more universal approach when it comes to loading.”
“Frankly, I don’t know that we need the super-large semis in our city at all. Or maybe not east of Western. But we need to have a plan. And it’s not just on our commercial streets, but also on our residential streets,” Lawson said.
Chicago’s “delivery economy” is here to stay, Lawson noted.
“I don’t think we’ve planned for loading as part of the street. It’s tight streets like Broadway and wide streets like Western, too. And then, residential streets,” he said. “Our zoning code, our business code, doesn’t require loading zones for most businesses that may be getting some of the largest deliveries. There’ve been some pilots downtown with loading zones. But every neighborhood is gonna need them. We could probably have one-per-block for daytime hours and they would be fairly well-used.”