Cities, Activists Collide Head-On Over Removal of Crosswalks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day it was there. The next day it was gone.

Somebody had crossed out the crosswalk in front of Norman Merrill's apartment in Santa Monica.

"They just disappeared," Merrill said of the glistening pedestrian crossing lines that had stretched across Ocean Avenue at its intersection with Strand Street. "Workmen came in and ground them out of the pavement."

The vanishing last month of crosswalk markings from the busy corner near Santa Monica's beach left a pair of dark grooves across the avenue where the walkway lines had been.

The grooves have turned into something of a line in the sand for pedestrian-rights advocates who worry that crosswalks are becoming an endangered species in Southern California--even as cities take steps to entice motorists out of their cars by making roadsides inviting to walkers.

Santa Monica has launched a campaign to widen sidewalks to make room for pedestrian kiosks, bus shelters, expanded cafes and even street performers.

At the same time, the city is eliminating pedestrian crosswalks from "uncontrolled" intersections--street corners without four-way stop signs or traffic signal lights.

"I can't believe Santa Monica is doing that," said Los Angeles pedestrian-advocate Gloria Ohland. "So many people walk there. They're usually so politically correct there."

Traffic engineers have long contended that marked crosswalks at such intersections give pedestrians a false sense of safety, encouraging them to walk in front of cars without looking.

Cities such as Los Angeles have been removing such secondary crosswalks for years. Traffic engineers simply do not replace them when intersections are resurfaced or old crosswalk paint fades or peels away.

The crosswalk removal pace is picking up, however, thanks to a new pedestrian safety analysis being made available to traffic planners throughout the state.

In the past, traffic experts have based their crosswalk policies on a pioneering 1970 San Diego safety study suggesting that pedestrians were safer without marked crosswalks than with them at uncontrolled intersections.

San Diego officials began removing crosswalks at their own uncontrolled corners after they published the federally funded analysis.

"Our study was groundbreaking. It changed the way people look at crosswalks," said Stephen Celniker, senior traffic engineer for San Diego. "We still get inquiries about it."

The state added its weight earlier this year when the Department of Transportation published results of a 1996 study of urban intersections between San Diego and Fresno.

The study concluded that "there is a propensity for accidents to take place" in crosswalks because pedestrians do not pay attention to oncoming traffic, said Caltrans spokesman Vincent Moreno.

But the anti-crosswalk movement is colliding with campaigns for pedestrian-friendly streetscapes throughout Southern California.

Urban planners are calling for widened sidewalks, decorative tile crosswalks and other amenities to entice motorists out of their cars in places such as Westwood Village and along the San Fernando Valley's Ventura Boulevard.

In recent weeks, pedestrian advocates have lobbied Los Angeles officials for more crosswalks--and better marked ones.

City planning staffers writing a new transportation element for Los Angeles' general plan were urged to require ladder-like cross-hatch striping or rough-surface paving at crosswalks to make them more noticeable to motorists.

When traffic engineers objected, the recommendations were toned down by city planning commissioners earlier this summer. Pedestrian advocates now plan to ask the City Council to take their fight to the council's planning and land-use and transportation committees.

"I call transportation engineers 'plumbers.' That's because they think of streets as pipes," said Los Angeles city planning staff member Deborah Murphy, an advocate for pedestrians. "Some traffic engineer manuals even refer to pedestrians as 'traffic flow interrupters.' "

Ohland, Los Angeles project manager for a national coalition of public interest groups called the Surface Transportation Policy Project, said pedestrians have been scorned long enough by an area designed to pay homage to the automobile.

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"Pedestrians have a hellish time as it is in Los Angeles," she said. "So it's critical to employ things like traditional lines as well as cross-striping and alternative paving."

Los Angeles traffic engineers disagree. They point out that legal "crosswalks" exist at every intersection, whether or not they are marked.

"Studies have shown that pedestrians are more cautious crossing intersections that do not have marked crosswalks," said Jack Reynolds, a senior transportation engineer for the city.

The city will add a traffic signal or stop signs and replace eliminated crosswalks if there is "an outcry" from residents through petitions or complaints to a City Council member's office, Reynolds added.

Glendale traffic officials do the same thing.

"Whenever we can, we like to eliminate uncontrolled crosswalks," said Wayne Ko, senior Glendale traffic engineer.

When people complain about missing crosswalks, "we take a look and if we have to put them back, we put them back," Ko said.

A highly publicized Glendale police crackdown last month on motorists who failed to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks took place at the uncontrolled intersection of Brand Boulevard and Garfield Avenue. Thirty-seven citations (each carrying a $103 penalty) were issued in two hours July 9.

Ko said the Brand-Garfield crosswalk lines remain because officials need to "identify a path" for pedestrians so they don't jaywalk across Brand in the middle of the block.

"Sometimes, it's hard to tell what is best," he added.

Santa Monica officials might agree with that.

City traffic engineer Ronald K. Fuchiwaki said inattention by drivers using cellular phones is one of the reasons he feels secondary crosswalks need to go.

Contractors resurfacing Ocean Avenue mistakenly put the crosswalk lines back, city officials advised Strand Street resident Merrill. When the error was noticed, workers were dispatched to grind the lines out.

Merrill, an actor who has lived nearly 20 years at the corner, has joined a group called Citizens for Pedestrian Rights to fight the crosswalk policy. He contends that elimination of crosswalks sends a message to motorists that "it's no longer necessary to look out for pedestrians."

Santa Monica Planning Commissioner Lou Moench said the crosswalk issue will be examined when the city begins discussing the "circulation element" of its own master plan late this year or in early 1997.

"How do you make crossing streets safer? I say leave crosswalks in or replace them with textured pavers" that make them more noticeable to drivers, he said.

City Councilman Michael Feinstein said those on foot and on wheels need to "share public rights of way in a spontaneous and coordinated manner."

"We need to shift our culture of expectations," Feinstein said. "But in the meantime this may cause us to redesign those intersections with signalized crosswalks or . . . [by extending] the sidewalk to make the pedestrian crossing area shorter."

Those might be viewed as tentative, cautious steps.

Which makes them perfect for pedestrian crosswalks.

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