L.A. Crosswalks: Increasingly a Walk on the Wild Side

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the street, they took away the crosswalk.

And strange as that may seem, doing so might actually have improved your odds of getting to the other side.

According to a landmark traffic study of "uncontrolled" corners--those without a signal or stop sign--one of the most dangerous steps you can take is into a marked crosswalk. Pedestrians in such crosswalks are twice as likely to be hit as those in unmarked locations, the study found. (Pedestrians have the right of way even when no lines are drawn.)

Since results of the San Diego Public Works Department report were published in 1972, many cities have moved to eliminate marked crosswalks, especially on wide, high-volume streets.

In the city of Los Angeles, 200 crosswalks were phased out when streets were resurfaced over the last three years; 300 more are scheduled for removal because traffic planners say they give pedestrians a false sense of security.

Despite the San Diego report, since confirmed by several other studies, the demise of the crosswalk continues to confound pedestrians who express surprise and anger at its disappearance.

Opposition Afoot

Some Los Angeles city officials also are voicing opposition, and there is now a move afoot to change the crosswalk-removal policy.

In a measure due to go before the City Council this month, Councilmen Michael Woo and Marvin Braude have proposed revoking the city Transportation Department's authority to eliminate crosswalks. The measure would require the department to get council approval for each proposal to remove a crosswalk.

"Especially in cases of pedestrian areas where there may be senior citizens or disabled people or children, crosswalks are important," said Woo, who with Braude serves on the three-member transportation committee.

"Also, we can't expect pedestrians to shoulder the whole burden of safety. Drivers have to learn to respect pedestrians."

To Betty Osterberg, 61, the decision to eliminate the crosswalk at Melrose Boulevard and Mansfield Avenue in Hollywood proved perplexing, not to mention inconvenient.

It used to take her a minute or so to walk from her home to Faith Lutheran Church, where she sings in the choir and works in the office. But that was three years ago, before the city removed the painted crosswalk at the busy intersection.

Now, Osterberg says, getting across Melrose has become so dangerous she walks two blocks east to Highland Avenue to cross at a traffic light, then backtracks two blocks west to church, a trip that takes her at least five minutes.

"We asked for the crosswalk back and they said if people have crosswalks they walk right in front of cars," she said. "It doesn't make sense, but that's what they say."

Another part of the problem, said Bruce Herms, who directed the San Diego study, is that pedestrians have become more aggressive and assertive in marked crosswalks.

"They think the car not only must stop for them, but will stop for them," he said.

Aggressive Drivers

Compounding the situation, say Los Angeles officials, are greater numbers of cars on the road, increasingly aggressive driving and foreign-born motorists who are unfamiliar with laws pertaining to pedestrians.

Tom Conner, one of the Transportation Department's five principal engineers, is charged with promoting the crosswalk-removal program.

"It's a tough sell," Conner said. "This is not a popular issue with the public. They want painted crosswalks. When they're removed, they complain to their representatives. . . .

"It's like telling people smoking is hazardous. People resisted the idea that smoking causes cancer and heart disease until (they) saw enough evidence that finally changed their minds. There is evidence that crossing in marked crosswalks is hazardous to your health."

Of the city's 8,000 crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections, only 500 have been targeted for removal, he said. There are more than 11,000 crosswalks at controlled intersections.

Graciousness Falling Away

Conner and his critics agree on one point: The streets of Los Angeles are much less gracious than before.

"I have said for a long time that we are breeding an aggressive, undisciplined group of drivers and pedestrians in our city," Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates wrote in a recent letter to the City Council.

Foreign-born drivers are part of the problem, said Sgt. Greg Meyer of the Police Department's traffic coordination section.

"There are a lot more people from different backgrounds that didn't learn their driving habits in California," he said. "They didn't attend driver education in school. They just are not learning the same safety habits as people used to."

Jaywalking Contributes

Last year, 142 pedestrians were killed in Los Angeles, up from 131 in 1986. Most were jaywalking. It is illegal to cross the street between two signal-controlled intersections or not to yield the right of way to vehicles while crossing between two intersections that are not signal-controlled. In the same period, non-pedestrian traffic deaths declined from 233 to 225.

A disproportionately high percentage of pedestrian deaths took place in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, Conner said.

"One of the problems that I believe occur if you grow up in a city where streets are narrow, like New York or Asian cities, (is that) pedestrians will make a run for it because they have to cross only a couple lanes of traffic," he said. In Los Angeles, where the streets are generally wider, he said, "making it to the other side is tougher."

Conner also thinks crosswalks and pedestrians are becoming less visible to drivers.

Too Much to Observe at Once

"The streetscape has gotten so cluttered as the city grows, with signs and billboards and traffic, that a person crossing the street is just another part of the big mass you see and doesn't register so well as in a rural setting. A driver can only assimilate so much information and react to it at one time."

In addition, traffic officials note, drivers of all backgrounds are growing less courteous.

"People's frustrations are coming out," Meyer said. "More people are running red lights, more people are failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, more people are in hurry to get where they're going."

Still, it is difficult to convince pedestrians that they are safer without a crosswalk.

Customers Complaining

"It's a very bad idea," Elias Takla, manager of Esquire Liquor, said of the removal of a crosswalk at Santa Monica Boulevard and Kingsley Drive.

"Everyone complains about why there is no crosswalk here. At least drivers see the crosswalk. Now, no one can cross because the cars won't stop."

Glenn Wilcox, manager of Bob Gamble Photo across the boulevard, said aggressive drivers have made getting to the other side of Santa Monica all but impossible for pedestrians.

"(Drivers) get angry if you step out into the street and make them stop," he said. "They'll run you over."

Marc Bovee, manager of the Cinerama Theatre at Sunset Boulevard and Morningside Court, said customers who once used a crosswalk in front of the theater have been forced by its removal to walk east to a crosswalk at Cahuenga Boulevard.

Must 'Dart Into Street'

"I think there should be one," he said. "Otherwise people have to dart into the street or go out of their way."

Those who question the results of the San Diego study suggest that fewer pedestrians are hit in locations without marked crosswalks because few use them.

Herms, project manager of the 5-year study, responds: "Our first results showed that six times as many pedestrians were hit in marked as compared to unmarked crosswalks.

"Then we did extensive 24-hour counts of usage of marked and unmarked crosswalks. In terms of usage, there still were twice as many pedestrians being hit in marked as in unmarked crosswalks."

In fact, Herms said, the study's result were ironic because "we were trying to make a case for extending our marked crosswalk program."

Results Confirmed

Other studies have reached the same conclusion.

Conner said the Los Angeles Transportation Department reviewed 41 intersections where crosswalks were not restored after street resurfacing and found that accidents involving pedestrians at those locations were cut by half.

To determine whether pedestrians were being hit in nearby crosswalks, accidents within a block of the intersections were tabulated and showed no significant increase, Conner said.

Meanwhile, traffic planners say that pedestrian safety comes through implementation of the "three E's": engineering, enforcement and education.

Directing Foot Traffic

Conner said the reason there are crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections has more to do with traffic engineering than with alerting drivers to be wary.

"We do use painted crosswalks to channelize pedestrians and that's their only real value," he said. "It tells pedestrians that this location is safer than some other nearby part of the street."

In the enforcement area, the Police Department has stepped up the ticketing of jaywalkers. In 1987, pedestrian citations numbered about 108,000, up from 82,000 in 1986. Jaywalking tickets cost $10.

In the same period, citations to drivers for violating the rights of pedestrians rose from 10,847 to 11,888. Enforcement of crosswalk safety did not appear to be a top priority, however, as the number of tickets for all violations increased by a far larger percentage.

Seen as a portion of total Los Angeles citations, tickets for interfering with a pedestrian's right of way dropped from 2.25% to 2.01%. The violation costs $86.

City Leaning on DMV

In the area of education, the city Transportation Department has asked the council to urge the state Department of Motor Vehicles to toughen the pedestrian safety portion of the licensing test.

Even if the City Council puts the brakes on crosswalk removal in Los Angeles, other municipalities plan to continue their programs. Traffic officials in Santa Monica, San Diego and Santa Barbara said they support the concept and are in various stages of implementing it.

But to Sophie Masters, a bookkeeper at California Medical Pharmacy, it still doesn't make sense. Masters said she has worked at the location--Temple and Lake streets near downtown--for more than 30 years.

"A woman was hit and killed here 20 years ago," Masters said. "That's when we called the city and asked for the crosswalk. No one was killed since then, and now they take it away."

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