Friday, February 27, 2009

CityWatchLA - Retiming LA’s Deathwalks

CityWatch, Feb 27, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 17

Gwendolyn Coleman stood at the corner of 5th and Flower in downtown Los Angeles, waited for the signal to change and then stepped into the crosswalk where she was promptly struck by a DASH bus and killed instantly. That was seven weeks ago.

In the days immediately following the tragic incident, a spontaneous memorial was erected curbside and flowers, notes, candles and photos appeared, as strangers came together to pay respect to the victim and to draw attention to the circumstances that took her life.

Since then, the memorial has disappeared, the debate over the walkability of our downtown streets has faded, and the intersection of 5th and Flower is as it has always been, heavily traveled by pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, truck drivers and bus operators, all competing for space and all in a hurry.

Pedestrians standing at the Southwest corner of 5th and Flower look across seven lanes of traffic to the north and six lanes of traffic to the east. Crossing the street here is not for the feint of heart, which is a shame because this is an intersection that invites crossing.

After all, there's a shopping mall on one side, a restaurant, a Starbucks, a bank, the Central Library and a huge park area that simply beckons and invites people, if only it didn't require crossing the traffic sewer.

For the intrepid pedestrian who is determined to cross, it pays to be ready, for 5th and Flower only allows between four and five seconds of "Walk" which means one needs to be standing on the curb and ready to jump. The street is wide and a pedestrian doesn't get very far in five seconds, perhaps across two of the six or seven lanes. Then the flashing hand appears and the real pressure starts, along with the vehicles nudging and nosing into the crosswalk as they compete for their turning opportunity.

The science of signal timing is touted by the LADOT as being quite complicated, requiring a room full of computers, located in a bunker under City Hall, and run by a team of experts who are able to fine-tune and adjust signals throughout the City to keep traffic flowing smoothly and efficiently and at capacity.

All of which begs the simple question, why can't we give pedestrians at the southwest corner of 5th and Flower more than a 5 second "walk" phase? Are we so committed to moving vehicles that we'll squeeze the pedestrians down to the absolute minimum and then tighten it just a tad more? Apparently so.

The high-tech sophisticated signal timing is supported by the low-tech "human touch," the LADOT traffic officers who step into the whirlwind of traffic to coax a little more capacity out of the street. Just one block west of 5th and Flower an officer works his magic, whistling and waving and directing motorists to their respective lanes, all in an effort to move cars onto the freeway quickly and efficiently, clearing the intersection and making room for other motorists. None of this activity has anything to do with protecting pedestrians though, simply getting more vehicles through the intersection.

Elsewhere in the downtown LA area, pedestrians fare better than in the 5th and Flower auto-zone.

DOT staff leaving their headquarters at 1st and Main can cross the street to City Hall with 30 seconds of "walk" giving them plenty of time to think about that pedestrian safety report they're about to deliver to the City Council's Transportation Committee. Lest they dawdle, the countdown signal, a feature not found at 5th and Flower, will remind them that the clock is ticking and the flashing hand will give them 15 additional seconds of encouragement.

Meanwhile, DOT staff on their way to meet with the LAPD brass over at Parker Center will get 30 seconds of "walk" supported by a countdown signal, all in order to safely cross the street at 1st and Los Angeles.

DOT staff have a Starbucks close by, just like the folks at 5th and Flower, the difference being that Starbucks customers at 1st and Los Angeles Street get 30 seconds of "walk" supported by a countdown signal in order to facilitate a safe coffee break.

As for our friends over at the LATimes, the same ones who neglected to note Gwendolyn Coleman's tragic death until pushed by LAist, StreetsBlog and CityWatch, they enjoy 20 and 25 seconds of "walk" in order to cross 1st and Spring streets on their way to City Hall.

Pedestrians on Broadway, one of the busiest and most vibrant streets in the downtown area, fare better than those on 5th and Flower but not as well as those at City hall. Broadway enjoys a more modest 15 seconds of "walk" at 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd streets, leaving one to wonder if the "science" of signal timing is based on any connection to the reality of the local street life in the downtown area or if it's based simply on a commitment to moving motor vehicles as efficiently as possible, pedestrians be damned.

When intersections with heavy pedestrian traffic receive little support and intersections with light pedestrian activity receive favorable signal timing, it appears that the real commitment is to keeping the traffic moats flowing while pedestrians remain isolated and trapped on urban islands. Unless of course, you're on your way to City Hall!

It's not too late to celebrate the life of Gwendolyn Coleman with a tribute that will truly honor her, a pedestrian-safe 5th and Flower intersection complete with signal timing that encourages and protects those on foot. (Stephen Box is a transportation and cyclist activist and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at

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