California Pedestrians And Drivers Square Off On Crosswalks
By TODD S. PURDUM
LOS ANGELES - No one would ever mistake this car-crazy city for a
pedestrian paradise. Even its grandest art deco emporium, the now-defunct
Bullock's Wilshire, had its main entrance on a ``motor court'' in the back,
and shoppers at more ordinary stores today sometimes find street-front
doors locked with chains, with signs advising, ``Enter at Parking Lot in
But for years, walkers in California have enjoyed one slender haven: When
they step into the humble, white-striped crosswalk, even the brawniest BMW
And unlike most places in the United States, California has a reputation
for strict enforcement. In one two-hour operation in nearby Glendale last
month, police officers wrote 37 tickets, each carrying a $103 fine, to
motorists who had failed to stop.
So it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that some Southern California
crosswalks are disappearing these days - at intersections without
stoplights or stop signs - because traffic engineers believe that they can
do more harm than good by lulling pedestrians into a false sense of security.
As streets are repaved, longstanding lines are simply being buried and
rolled over, leaving some pedestrians yelping in protest.
``If we don't address this issue now, we're really moving into `Blade
Runner' territory,'' said Norman Merrill, an actor who found the crosswalk
that had stretched across his oceanfront intersection in Santa Monica for
20 years suddenly obliterated after a routine repaving last month.
A Los Angeles Times article about Merrill's complaint prompted a minor
furor last week and became grist for talk-radio programs heard - where else
- in countless cars.
``I think it's obviously a much bigger issue than actual crosswalks,'' said
Merrill, who has pestered Santa Monica city officials for a year and a half
about pedestrian problems. ``We're becoming Darwinized. It affects
everybody. We're not like some subspecies. Everybody in a car eventually
becomes a pedestrian.''
As it happens, there is a crosswalk two blocks away from Merrill's corner
on Ocean Avenue, a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean near a retirement
home, the Pritikin Longevity Center, and scores of cyclists, strollers,
surfers and roller skaters. And it is legal for him to cross at any
intersection, marked or not, if he shows due deference to the stream of
oncoming cars, transportation officials note.
But that is cold comfort to the pedestrian advocates who see something
``The automobile reigns supreme in Los Angeles, and pedestrians are at the
very bottom of the food chain,'' said Gloria Ohland, Los Angeles project
manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nationwide
nonprofit advocacy and research organization. ``Yes, there may be a
crosswalk two streets up, but the streets are hostile to pedestrians, and
the blocks are long.''
The twist is that Santa Monica is one of the few places in greater Los
Angeles where it is actually possible to live without a car. It has a large
pedestrian mall within easy distance of its many apartment buildings, and
city planners are looking at ways to widen sidewalks and to get more
sidewalk cafes, bus shelters and the like.
But the move away from crosswalks has been growing since 1970, when a study
by traffic engineers in San Diego found that placing the lanes at
``uncontrolled'' intersections could cause pedestrians to drop their guard
and step into the path of speeding vehicles.
Since then, the trend throughout California has been to remove such
crosswalks as streets are repaved, said Brian Gallagher, a traffic engineer
in charge of signal timing and research for the Los Angeles Department of
Transportation. A 1994 study by the California Department of
Transportation, Caltrans, reached similar conclusions.
Vincent Moreno, a Caltrans spokesman, said that state law, which gave
pedestrians the right-of-way over vehicles in all circumstances, was
changed in the early 1990s to require pedestrians to yield in heavily
trafficked areas without signals. ``The bottom line,'' he said, ``is
proceed with caution.''
Some traffic engineers question the prevailing wisdom. Charles Zegeer,
associate director of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University
of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, is conducting a comprehensive study of
crosswalk safety for the Federal Highway Administration. He says past
studies of accident rates at crosswalks without signal lights or stop signs
may have been skewed, since the crosswalks may have been installed at such
intersections specifically because of high accident rates.
``It's a question that nobody really knows the answer to,'' Zegeer said.
``It has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.''
Three years ago, Santa Rosa, a city of 128,000 in Sonoma County, north of
San Francisco, took the opposite approach to Santa Monica's. It became the
first place in the nation to try to prevent traffic fatalities by adding
midblock crosswalks, marked by flashing yellow lights embedded in the
pavement and flashing yellow signs flanking both sides of the street.
The design, which mimics the landing approach lights at airports, was
proposed by a local pilot after a friend accidentally killed a pedestrian
with his car.
``We think we've come up with a system that's going to allow drivers to be
more aware,'' said Gene Benton, Santa Rosa's traffic engineer.
Los Angeles is experimenting with similar flashing signs, to be activated
with microwave technology when a pedestrian steps into the crosswalk. They
can cost $5,000 to $10,000 per signal, compared with up to $100,000 for a
full-fledged traffic light, Gallagher, the traffic engineer, said.
``We have a lot of requests to take care of the pedestrians,'' Gallagher
said. ``And we try.''
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