The speedy little subcompact swerves into the Westside intersection, trying to beat a traffic light that has already gone red, making one of those ill-fated, against-traffic left-hand turns Southland drivers are famous for.
Caught in the crosswalk, pedestrian Jeannine Burk stiffens her slender frame and watches helplessly as the car comes on. Instinctively, she raises her hands as though fending off an attacker. The motorist whizzes past, barely looking. Behind her, a semi swings its lumbering head into the lane from the other direction, looming overhead.
A clearly rattled Burk hurries for the curb.
“If you’re a pedestrian in this city, it doesn’t matter if you have the right of way or not,” she says, reaching the corner of National and Sepulveda boulevards. “That’s just the little epitaph they’ll put on your tombstone: “She’s gone. But she had the right of way.’ ”
For urban walkers such as Burk, crosswalks have become a pedestrian no man’s land: Red light or green, the buses, trucks and sport utility vehicles are going to come barreling right on through. Every day on city streets, she says, people play a petty little traffic game that has just one rule: survival of the biggest.
Back in 1946, when Times reporter Gene Sherman went looking for impressions of our driving habits, he looked through the eyes of a pedestrian named Ernest Schmid to describe the fear and loathing people felt in post-World War II Los Angeles over something as simple as crossing the street:
He stood on the north curb of Beverly Boulevard at Westmoreland Avenue and watched the traffic go by. He watched it like a spectator at a tennis match, snapping his head from left to right, waiting for an opening.
A puppy, unconcerned and happy, meandered across the thriving intersection, pausing to yawn largely in the very middle of the street and somehow escaping disaster.
“I wish I had that much nerve,” said an elderly lady waiting on the south curb.
Half a century later, Jeannine Burk has that much nerve.
The 65-year-old retired secretary, a farmer’s daughter who grew up walking the Oregon countryside, has recently embarked on a little pedestrian project: Over the last three years, she has walked every street across Los Angeles’ Westside.
Taking steady steps, her posture ramrod straight, she sometimes walks six or seven hours a day, 50 miles a week, packing a box lunch to enjoy if she finds a nice shady little spot to rest.
Burk has walked through Beverly Hills, Century City, West Los Angeles, West Hollywood and beyond--from the heights of Mulholland Drive to the sandy bike paths along the ocean.
She never walks the same street twice, marking a line on a city map for every avenue or cul-de-sac she’s traversed.
Burk walks for exercise because she can’t stand the close quarters of most gyms. She walks because she appreciates the unique Los Angeles architecture, the towering trees and the urban castles people have built for themselves. You see things walking that others do not notice, she says. You can peer through hedges and over fences into people’s private lives.
You also learn, inadvertently, about the motorists with whom you share city streets.
“People drive too fast,” she says. “And if you go too slow, people honk. I’m not talking little-old-lady slow, I just mean moderately slow.”
There are about 4,200 controlled intersections in Los Angeles--those streets with crosswalks or “Walk / Don’t Walk” signals. The city began installing them in the late 1940s, nearly 40 years after New York City painted its first crosswalk in 1911.
When The Times published its series in 1946, Angelenos were still forced to take their chances at intersections without traffic lights. Many, especially the elderly, could wait a lifetime before seizing the opportunity to cross.
As Sherman’s typical pedestrian told it:
“At first I am scared when crossing the street. I stand and wait on the curb for 15 minutes, maybe 20. But now I do not wait so long, maybe five minutes.
“People do not care. It does not make any difference to them. They go, it doesn’t make any difference what is in the way. I have watched old ladies wait half an hour to cross.”
Even today, even after the light turns green, Jeannine Burk still waits.
She looks both ways, making eye contact with drivers to make sure they see her, before she steps into any crosswalk, into the path of some hurtling hunk of metal.
So does the pedestrian who stands next to her, the woman with the armful of grocery bags--until she suddenly grabs her young son by the hand and hurries across the street before the light changes.
The biggest joke for most pedestrians is that they’re somehow safer in a crosswalk. Even now, city transportation officials are phasing out the pedestrian paths, saying that many streets are safer without the false sense of security crosswalks create.
“When you walk into a crosswalk, it’s like this emotional tug of war with drivers,” Burk says. “Who’s going to stare who down and get to go first. And you know who would lose that standoff? Me. So I just let ‘em go.”
She’s especially careful in West Hollywood, a city where the per-capita pedestrian fatality rate is twice the state average.
By law, motorists turning into an intersection don’t have to wait until a pedestrian is completely out of the crosswalk before proceeding--just out of their lane. Burk finds few drivers are even that patient.
The biggest crosswalk offenders? Those smug sport utility vehicle drivers, she says. “They feel so safe way up there behind the wheel, high above the street, they’ll run you right over.”
But pedestrians play their part in making Los Angeles a dangerous place to tread. Last year, pedestrians accounted for 108 of the 226 people who were killed in traffic accidents in the city of Los Angeles; 55 of them were at fault in the accidents that caused their deaths. The figures from 1946 show a similar pattern: 311 of the 505 people who died in traffic accidents were pedestrians.
“Drivers aren’t always to blame,” said Sgt. Robert Rieboldt of the LAPD’s traffic coordination section. “If a pedestrian steps out into an uncontrolled intersection and doesn’t give a motorist time to stop, bad things happen.”
Burk has a few suggestions for drivers: Disconnect those car phones, or pull over to the curb, where you can concentrate on your call. Stop barreling ahead in wet weather. She would like to raise the fines for traffic offenders and employ more of those cameras that take pictures of vehicles running red lights.
People should also give themselves enough time to get where they are going. That way, even aggressive drivers might pause for a pedestrian, stop for a yellow light, or avoid what Burk says is the bane of all driving safety--that infamous Los Angeles left turn--when several cars piggyback through an intersection after the light has changed, holding up traffic and eliciting horns.
And scaring pedestrians like Jeannine Burk.
“Oh, I get so mad,” she says. “I tell people off, even when I know they can’t hear me. Their windows are closed and they’re already racing off, looking for their next intersection to barnstorm.”