On December 8, the Chicago Department of Transportation zip-tied buckets of six bright-red safety flags to poles at ten intersections around town. The crossings lack traffic lights or stop signs and are near senior centers, schools and hospitals. Walkers are supposed to grab a flag, wave it to signal drivers to stop in accordance with state law, cross the street and leave the pennant in the container on the opposite side. It’s the latest initiative of CDOT’s $495,000 “It’s Up To You” safety campaign.
But days after installation, we staked out several of the locations and found people seemed to be ignoring (or stealing) the flags as often as they were using them.
Near Brunson Elementary, in Austin, the canisters were in place, labeled with directions for use (including the caveat “Use at your own risk!”), but all the flags were gone. “Somebody probably snagged them over the weekend,” explained school engineer Joseph Pondelicek.
In West Englewood, near Claremont Academy, all six flags were disregarded at 64th Street and Western Avenue. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” Deirdre Hatten said. “Drivers aren’t going to stop, because they’re ignorant.” Despite her skepticism, she gave one of the pedestrian flags a chance. Motorists slowed down as she waved the pennant and sashayed across the street in knee-high boots, a Betty Boop jacket and a Santa cap.
At the nearby Churchview Manor senior apartments at 63rd Street and Talman Avenue, a concrete pedestrian refuge island in the middle of 63rd had chunks missing due to speeding cars that had crashed into it. Four flags remained in the bucket. “The flags are a good idea, but people are gonna take them just for the hell of it,” said resident Odelia Gardner as she prepared to cross. She grabbed one, waved the banner and stepped into the street. Cars sped toward her and stopped just before the crosswalk. Safely arriving on the other side, Gardner greeted crossing guard Gail Williams, who had just showed up for her shift. “I got to do your job today!” Gardner crowed.
Over at Tarkington Elementary, at 71st Street and Spaulding Avenue, all six flags were present. At 79th Street and Loomis Boulevard in Gresham, near St. Sabina Elders Village, only two remained. “They’re already taking them,” said a female crossing guard at the intersection who declined to give her name. “You shouldn’t have to use those flags because the law says cars are supposed to stop.”
At Belmont and Kilpatrick Avenues in Kelvyn Park near the Belmont Place senior apartments, manager Esmeralda Campos told me she brings the flags in at night so they don’t get swiped. Senior resident John Santiago said the pennants are a hit. “Everybody’s using them because people around here drive like they don’t give a damn.”
Up north, at the Croatian Cultural Center at Francisco and Devon Avenues, across from Anmol Barbecue Restaurant, all the pennants were missing. Three remained at the hectic six-way intersection of Elston Avenue and Grace and Bernard Streets, across from the Abbey Pub, near Murphy Elementary. The next day, they were all gone.
CDOT pedestrian program coordinator Kiersten Grove isn’t fazed that the flags are disappearing so quickly. She said the department expected to have to restock them. “This was meant to be a temporary campaign,” she said. “The idea was to…spark conversations, and we’ve definitely done that.”