Bicyclist's Death in West Loop Renews Calls for Improved Safety

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Bicycle advocates renewed calls for safety improvements along Madison Street in the West Loop after a cyclist died days after he was struck by a hit-and-run driver.

The crash near Peoria Street threw Paresh Chhatrala into the air from his bicycle Saturday evening, according to a police report.

Chhatrala, 42, was biking west on Madison Street about 10:10 p.m. when an oncoming driver swerved to avoid a metal plate on the road and struck him, police said.

The driver, Courtney Bertucci of Joliet, continued with Chhatrala’s bike stuck under her car but was stopped by several witnesses at Aberdeen and Monroe streets, police said. When officers arrived, a witness was holding Bertucci, 30, against her Volkswagen Jetta.

Chhatrala was hospitalized in critical condition and died Wednesday afternoon at Stroger Hospital.

At the time of the crash, police said they suspected Bertucci was under the influence of drugs. Officers found empty baggies of heroin in her car, according to the police report.

She was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, operating an uninsured vehicle and striking a pedestrian in a roadway. A judge ordered her held on $10,000 bond.

Activists Say Removal of Planters Led to Crash

The section of Madison Street where Chhatrala was hit became more dangerous to cyclists after the city removed concrete median planters years ago, according to Christina Whitehouse, founder of the advocacy group Bike Lane Uprising.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) had the city pay $400,000 to remove the planters in 2019 to ease traffic congestion, according to Block Club Chicago. The planters were installed to beautify the neighborhood by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in the run-up to the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Removing the planters allowed drivers to speed more easily and, in the case of Chhatrala, let a driver cross the median and strike someone, Whitehouse said.

“Alders have the prerogative to change the landscape of their wards, and those changes affect real people. Burnett single-handedly had those planters removed. There was pushback on it. He spent $400,000 in taxpayer funding and made people less safe,” Whitehouse said.

Burnett said it was unfair to pin the crash on the lack of planters. “You can’t say it’s because of a planter,” Burnett told the Sun-Times Thursday. “In many crashes, there aren’t any planters. There’s been many crashes on the planters.

“It’s very unfortunate that somebody lost their life because of this. You can point your finger at many things, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. I think it’s an accident. My condolences go to the family,” Burnett said.

The West Central Association, a neighborhood group, has had the city install stop signs and a stop light along Madison Street to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly, according to association president Armando Chacon.

The West Loop neighborhood has grown significantly over the last decade, bringing increased traffic and more opportunities for accidents, he said. His group has continued to ask the city to consider additional safety improvements, such as elevated intersections, pedestrian islands and bumpout corners.

“Madison has become a main street of the neighborhood,” Chacon said. “We’re asking the city to take the necessary action with infrastructure and anything that will aid us and make us safer.”

Chacon said that blaming the removal of median planters for the crash is an oversimplification. There were fatal crashes along Madison Street before the planters were removed, and the planters had created dangerous blind spots, he said.

At least one other bicyclist and four pedestrians have been struck and killed on Chicago streets this year, according to Streets Blog Chicago, which tracks fatalities.

On Feb. 28, a driver fatally struck a bicyclist, 41-year-old Gerardo Marciales, on DuSable Lake Shore Drive near Buckingham Fountain. In October, another cyclist was struck and killed by a driver while crossing DuSable Lake Shore Drive at Grand Avenue.

Whitehouse said Bike Lane Uprising, which creates “ghost bike” roadside memorials for bicyclists, has seen increased demand for memorials.

“We can’t keep up with it,” Whitehouse said. She said her group has demanded protected bike lanes at the sites of the recent fatal crashes. “Where’s the city? I don’t need the city to give out 5,000 bikes. I need them to build safe bike lanes.”

A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Transportation did not reply to a request for comment.

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