Another fatality involving Metra and a pedestrian occurred on the South Side of Chicago, and one of the possible factors was distracted walking. A recent article in the Injury Prevention journal  found 116 fatalities involving car versus pedestrian or train versus pedestrian between 2004-2011 where headphones played some role. The study's authors acknowledge some weaknesses in their methodology, such as "It’s also not clear whether headphones directly caused pedestrians’ injuries, or whether driver fault, alcohol, mental illness or suicidal intent could have contributed to the crashes". However, given the current federal government's push to promote high speed rail and other improvements, enhanced incident tracking and record keeping geared towards injury and deaths involving trains should be undertaken. A detailed database would be necessary when prioritizing safety improvements along planned improvement corridors.
The crossing at 95th and Vincennes as shown above lacks pedestrian gates that are featured at some level crossings. While such gates are by no means intended to prevent people from crossing the tracks (it is quite easy to duck underneath them) they do serve to enhance the perception of the crossing as a dangerous area. Another benefit is preventing people who might be distracted from crossing the tracks even when bells and lights are sounding. Noise-canceling and sound isolating headphones can be quite effective at rendering people unaware of their surroundings; bumping into a gate can snap people back into reality. A pedestrian crossing gate could possibly have prevented this tragedy and many others from occurring. The aforementioned enhanced surveillance of level crossing incidents is needed in order to identify crossings that seem to be prone to incidents of pedestrian risk, intentional or not.
A crossing gate for pedestrians does block someone's path, but it is still a somewhat passive measure in that people can easily circumvent it by simply walking around it (like cars often do at simple two-gate crossings where the gates only block the approaching lane on either side). A person routinely walking around such lowered gates as part of their commute could have the instinct to avoid them ingrained in their consciousness. This behavior in the presence of a pedestrian crossing gate could be circumvented by installing various measures intended to keep people on the sidewalks or paths. One simple method could involve thick bushes lining the approaches, keeping people from going off the sidewalk. The gate could be surrounded as well so that circumventing it would require some degree of hassle. A more direct approach could involve L shaped fences on either side of the sidewalk, one of which could connect to fencing along the railroad right of way. This would actively prevent pedestrians from getting around the crossing gate.
All of the above measures are no substitute for common sense, but with the proliferation of smart phones and electronic music players instances of distracted walking are surely going to increase.
Placing tracks below-grade to eliminate the threat to pedestrians and vehicles has been done before, Winnetka being a notable example in the Chicago area . In a 25 year period before 1937 there had been 29 fatalities which comes out to an average of slightly over 1 per year. An unfortunate number, yes, but not necessarily a crisis. The decision to place the railroad tracks below grade in Winnetka likely had a lot to do with community image and aesthetics—not just pedestrian safety—considering the socioeconomic profile of this particular community. Concerns about future pedestrian fatalities were not entirely without merit however; today the historic commercial core of the village is bisected by the train tracks. In Chicago much of the trackage on the North Side of the city is elevated; the South Side on the other hand is a mixed bag. The crossing at 95th and Vincennes is the first grade crossing heading south on the Rock Island District main line; the entire line north of here is elevated. The entire length of the Metra Electric main line is elevated while its stub branches are at grade. In terms of pedestrian and vehicle safety Chicago is in pretty good shape compared to many suburbs where the train runs almost entirely at grade, which makes yesterday's incident particularly notable. There are only about twelve or so grade crossings on the Rock Island District Main Line, which is only served by rush hour trains. This is a somewhat manageable number if safety improvements as described previously were to be enacted.
The fact that the Rock Island District main line is only served during rush hour, with most trains routed via the Suburban line to the west, provides some background into people's behavior near the main line crossings. Only seven trains  pass through the crossing at 95th and Vincennes before noon, which means that pedestrians and vehicles here wouldn't be as attuned to the operation of the train as residents to the west. It's a matter of conditioning; the more trains that pass through a community, the more conscious people would be of their presence and the necessary safety measures at grade crossings. In simpler terms: people that cross lightly used lines probably won't think about them as much. Crossings like 95th and Vincennes should probably have more safety measures for precisely this reason.
This announcement from City Hall in Chicago concerning the police department has this blogger thinking:
While this order will provide a welcome boost to the local economy, it also highlights the fact that the Chicago police are a primarily vehicle-borne force. In an era of rising gas prices this has undoubtably made law enforcement more expensive in such a vast city like Chicago.
One problem with a police force that uses vehicles extensively compared to more visible methods like foot patrols is the psychological mindset that develops. This article about operations in Afghanistan (1) makes a note of the effect of introducing more heavily armored vehicles to troops: it makes them safer but distances them from the population they are supposed to develop a rapport with and protect. There are certainly parallels to the use of vehicles in police work. Police can cover more ground in a car during a patrol compared to walking a beat but they distance themselves psychologically from the populace. Police in a cruiser cannot make their rounds in the neighborhood and check-in with major business owners or community leaders as easily as they could if they were on foot; frequent stops and slow travel is inefficient for a motor vehicle, and excessive idling is wasteful.
Traveling by cruiser also makes it harder to spot trouble developing unless it is overt. On major roads the police have to travel at the speed of regular traffic which can make them overlook a crime in progress simply because they were looking in the wrong direction (i.e. the right direction for driving which is straight ahead).
The psychological distance is created by the image of police that results from heavy vehicle use: police cars instead of actual officers. Police officers spending a great deal of time in cruisers aren't exposed to the dramatic temperature changes in the Chicago climate, where the temperature varies by as much as 100 degrees in the span of six months. This could create resentment between citizens and the police, especially those who take public transportation and have to wait for buses. Police officers who walk the beat during the winter or summer would have a little bit more to work off of when trying to communicate with people.
A simple solution could involve the creation of smaller police stations surrounding the central district stations so more officers could be deployed on beat patrols instead of cruiser routes. This would require more infrastructure but there are plenty of vacant properties on the South and West sides that could host community police stations.
More ideas to come...
Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River is famous for its traffic jams, with buses competing for road space along with private cars and taxis. Given how closely packed vehicles can be at times, it's inevitable that a crash could occur faster than anyone could respond to even when fully alert. The hazard of this stretch of road was demonstrated quite well in this latest incident:
This stretch of roadway, which serves some of the largest hotels and shopping centers in the city, hosts twelve bus. The number of full-time routes is five between Ontario and Chicago, dropping to four north of Chicago. This is still a significant number of bus routes on one street, justified by the shear demand (I've often ridden a 147 that filled up completely before entering Lake Shore Drive).
The problem with so many bus routes is that it creates a lot of demand for the right hand lane (in order to pick up passengers). The problem is that the taxi cabs need to use the right hand lane as well to pick up passengers. This can create a lot of lane switching from the left lane to the right lane which provides ample opportunity for collisions.
One simple solution would be to prohibit private cars from using Michigan Avenue north of Ohio. Cars could be directed to use Ohio to reach Lake Shore Drive via Columbus and Grand. For those starting their trips from the Loop it would be a simple matter of directing them to go east on Jackson, Monroe, and Balbo. This would complicate trips for many travelers but it would be the most effective method of utilizing limited capacity: reducing the number of vehicles. There is still some flexibility and opportunity in the downtown lakefront area for modifying streets. Michigan Avenue has no such flexibility; expanding the capacity would either require demolishing the median which has some cityscape value, or destroying sidewalks.
A second solution would be to designate the right hand lanes of Michigan Avenue for buses and taxis exclusively. This could be combined with using articulated buses to increase the capacity of the routes without adding more vehicles.
Another problem with so many routes on the same street is that there is a bus on almost every block stopping to pick up and discharge passengers. This essentially brings 33% of Michigan Avenue's capacity to a dead stop. Converting North Michigan Avenue to free area would dramatically reduce boarding times; any lost revenue could be made up elsewhere.
Boarding times could also be reduced by installing a system similar to Curitiba where passengers pay to enter the bus shelter and then board the bus through platforms. The wider sidewalks on North Michigan Avenue could allow for such a system.
The overall problem with North Michigan Avenue is that there are simply too many vehicles. New residential developments and economic growth will only make this situation worse.