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Safer by Design

Cook County, Illinois, is working to integrate proven safety features into road upgrades and maintenance projects improving comfort and safety for those who walk and bike.

By Nate Roseberry | Assistant Superintendent, Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways

Over the last 20 years, a more holistic approach to transportation design has emerged across the country. This approach aims to create a more level playing field between operations and safety. While working on operational targets, there is a continued focus on safety as it helps to support local economies and the needs of a broader base of users. We’re not only focused on the safety of vehicles and the people inside them but also answering questions such as: How comfortable is it to bike? How secure is it to walk? How easy is it to access transit?

In Cook County, such questions are particularly important because of the density and diversity of our population. Cook County is the second-most populous county in the nation, an economic leader and a vital transportation hub. The county’s road infrastructure is fully built out, so everything we undertake must be carefully considered and executed. As a result, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways (DoTH) is dedicated to defining goals and problems early in project development and scoping, because everyone involved must understand what, and for whom, we’re designing.

Safety Moves to the Forefront

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration there were an estimated 328,946 people injured in speeding-related traffic crashes in 2021. Across the country, there are efforts underway to reduce the negative impact of motor use and incorporate ways to reduce vehicle speed in transportation design to improve safety.

Cook County is looking at roadway reconfigurations (lane repurposing) to create more separation between opposing traffic, reducing head-on crashes by adding center turn lanes. Those projects include simply narrowing existing lanes or reducing the number of through lanes to make space for a center turn lane. Creating space for left-turning vehicles helps reduce rear-end crashes, and the reclaimed space can provide room to add bike lanes and refuge islands for pedestrians. We can also use traffic signal timing as part of the roadway network design, timing lights for vehicle progression based on the speed at which we want people to travel.

Intentional design leveraging roadway geometry can also help make drivers feel like they should be traveling at a certain speed, even if they don’t consciously know why. This may include adding concrete at intersections for improved channelization and organization of modes or shaping corners with a radius that encourages safer speeds for all vehicles, helping to protect vulnerable users. Other cues, such as sidewalks, trees and public seating areas can set expectations for travel at slower speeds. Good design can deliver better results than speed limit signs alone.

Safety and Comfort, To and Through

It’s important to differentiate between safety and comfort as they relate to roadway design. Improving safety is all about reducing the frequency and severity of crashes. Comfort relates to how secure and welcome people feel when traveling within the public way, regardless of mode of transportation.

Busy intersections with crosswalks offer a good illustration of the interplay of safety and comfort. If people don’t have confidence that they can walk or bike safely in an area, it restricts their ability to go where they want and can diminish economic and community vitality. In 2021, nearly 2,900 people were involved in pedestrian crashes in Cook County. DoTH is committed to using every tool available to improve resident safety while using the roadways outside of an automobile.

Roadway design needs to support the safe, comfortable movement of both vehicles and people. Depending on the project, planners may vary a roadway design to optimize the impact on the local economy.

Two Wheels, Countless Enthusiasts

Every year, more people become aware of the benefits of biking. Cook County has a vital ecosystem of biking advocates, and public agencies are starting to get more involved with initiatives that help riders and drivers more comfortably and safely share roadways. It only takes a few showcase projects to build momentum and show people that biking is practical and fun.

For example, during the peak travel period near the Chicago Loop, about half of the trips taken on Milwaukee Avenue are by bicycle. In the past 25 years, that corridor has been upgraded from shared bike lanes to buffered bike lanes, and now, Chicago is committed to installing separated bike lanes as a best practice. This gradual evolution demonstrates the demand for improved safety, innovation and comfort.

Cook County is building out its bicycling infrastructure as part of our commitment to complete streets, and we’re leading project coordination across jurisdictions and agencies. It’s great to see individual municipalities plan and develop their own biking trails, but it’s more powerful when all assets are linked to create a dynamic network that can serve people across the entire region. A great example is Cook County’s collaboration with various agencies and municipalities to connect the City of Chicago and the Village of Burnham via the Burnham Multimodal Connector, closing a 2.5-mile gap that includes roadways and railroad tracks. DoTH works hard to foster the partnerships and resources that make cross-jurisdictional projects possible.

Progress, Not Perfection

Regardless of the scope of a project, there is no replacement for earning the trust and participation of others. DoTH aims to create a sense of ownership among partners, so they’re prepared to acknowledge competing goals and maintain momentum by keeping the big picture in mind.

Change takes time, and it requires patience to weave innovations involving safety, complete streets, or other goals into the work that we undertake every day. In the future, we’ll no longer think of safety as a strategy that’s overlaid on a project; rather we hope to see every plan and project move forward with safety concepts integrated at every step. With this approach, we’ll bend the curve to reduce crashes and provide people with outstanding transportation experiences.


Nathan “Nate” Roseberry, PE, is Assistant Superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways (DoTH). DoTH has jurisdictional authority over 568 center line miles of highways, maintaining 1,620 lane-miles of pavement, 132 bridges and 360 traffic signals, among other facilities.

Nate is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois Chicago and previously held positions at the City of Chicago, the Chicago Department of Transportation, T.Y. Lin International and the Village of Hoffman Estates. An avid bicyclist, he was the lead engineer for the bicycle program in Chicago, designed multi-modal streets on the Northwestern University and University of Illinois campuses, and managed and designed transportation in suburban settings.

Nate received a Bachelor of Science of Education degree from the University of Iowa and a Master of Science in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Iowa.