Tuesday, March 09, 2010
CityWatchLA - Slow Down for Julia
CityWatch, Mar 9, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 19
Julia Siegler stood on the north side of Sunset Boulevard and looked at her school bus, parked on south Cliffwood Avenue. She looked to her left, began to cross the street and hesitated, getting knocked to the ground by one vehicle and then run over by a second vehicle.
Much can be made of the fact that Julia crossed the street against a red light, and it has. But not much has been made of the fact the two motorists left the scene of the traffic collision before the Los Angeles Police Department arrived.
The first LAPD press conference offered up incorrect information of the crash and of the motorists, sending the public and the LAPD on a goose chase that was resolved later that day when the two motorists made contact with the LAPD. Much could also be made of the speed of the motorists, but it wasn't. Questions as to the speed of the motorists were rebuffed with "Not an issue!" responses. (The question was "What was the speed of the motorists?)
Much could be made of the environment, but it wasn't. Sunset Boulevard is a very fast street with lots of motor vehicle traffic. Sunset and Cliffwood, the scene of the tragedy, is signalized so I asked the obvious question "Was the demand actuated ped crossing button working?" I didn't get an answer.
That prompted me to go and take a look at the traffic signals at Sunset and Cliffwood, along with the signals at the intersections to the east and to the west. Here's what I found.
Sunset and Cliffwood is an intersection with demand-actuated signals at all four corners, requiring pedestrians to use a push button to call for a pedestrian "walk" phase.
When I pushed the button, the response was immediate and countdown started for the east west traffic, shifting to amber and then to red. I've never seen such a responsive traffic signal. I tried it with traffic, without traffic, with cars on Cliffwood and with none. In all cases, that signal offered an immediate response and a ped "walk" phase within seconds. Was this signal operating like this on February 26 when Julia Siegler attempted to cross Sunset?
Further confusing, Cliffwood has four demand-actuated signals but the east/west ped "walk" phase is set for fully-actuated timing. In other words, it is always a walk phase unless shifting to red.
Sunset and Kenter, just to the east of the tragic crash, is an intersection with demand-actuated signals used to cross Sunset and fully-actuated signals to cross Kenter. That means peds only need to push the button to cross Sunset.
I pushed the button and waited. Nothing happened. No countdown, no chirping for the blind, no indication that I had done anything meaningful, significant, or likely to result in an opportunity to cross Sunset supported by the "walk" phase of the traffic signal.
I tried it several times and in the video you can see that it took almost a full minute and the arrival of three motor vehicles on Kenter to get a "walk" phase to cross Sunset. Kenter also only has crosswalks on three sides of the intersection.
Sunset and Burlingame is an intersection to the west of Cliffwood and it has one demand-actuated signal to cross Sunset and one demand-actuated signal to cross Burlingame. This intersection is odd in that the default setting for the intersection is an all red, yet anybody approaching from any direction gets instant recognition.
Motorists don't need to slow down or stop, the signal simply turns green as if to "approve" of their passage.
Pedestrians approaching the "all-red" intersection simply push the buttons and get an instant ped "walk" phase with no hesitation or countdown. I tried it several times, with and without oncoming traffic and it was uncanny.
If ever a pedestrian needs to feel powerful, simply come to this "first-come, first-served" intersection and hit the ped button. "Walk!"
Sunset and Bundy is a busy signalized intersection farther to the east of Cliffwood that gets fairly decent traffic from south on Bundy as well as both directions on Sunset.
This intersection also features fully-actuated signals for east/west pedestrians and demand-actuated signals for north/south pedestrians. The white "walk" phase is quite fast , requiring pedestrians to be in place and ready to move. Not really the hospitable environment for pedestrians.
On either side of Cliffwood, there are traffic signs with speeds posted, some white (regulatory) and some yellow (advisory). Traveling east, on the approach to Cliffwood where Julia attempted to reach her school bus, motorists are greeted by a yellow sign that "advises" motorist that the "comfortable" speed is 25 mph.
From the west, motorists are informed by a white sign that the speed limit is 35 mph and also advised that the "comfortable" speed is 30 mph. There is no better time than now to look at all of the signage on Sunset and ask "Why?" Is this the limit of LA's attempts to control traffic.
More "suggestions" and "advice" to motorists traveling too fast to even read the signs which then prompts the LADOT to embark on a billboard campaign advising motorists to keep their eyes on the road. "Slow Down" must be a regulation, not simply a suggestion.
Traffic engineers can probably explain the three-sided crosswalk configuration over the four-sided crosswalk. They can probably use a slide rule to justify the short white "walk" phase and the longer "flashing hand" phase of the three part crossing signalization.
They can even offer up the "Crosswalks give pedestrians a false sense of security" demonstrating that even traffic engineers make mistakes. (It was a question, not a conclusion, at the end of the infamous Berms traffic study.
Often misquoted and always misunderstood, it has served the LADOT well but the pedestrian community has suffered. Traffic engineers and law enforcement officers can work all day to explain the complexities of using radar/laser tools for speed limit enforcement, they can talk all day about through-put and congestion and capacity and friction and conflict and eye lines and they can try very hard to impress me with how complex the world of traffic control really is for the professional, forget about the amateur.
But the real question is this: Do pedestrians need a degree from MIT to cross the street?
Would it be too much to have some sort of "pedestrian" logic applied to the traffic signals at the four neighboring intersections on Sunset Boulevard? The pedestrians walk down streets like Cliffwood with no sidewalks.
They are trained to walk in the street with motor vehicles. They push buttons that may or may not respond, they stand and watch the world go by, sometimes reminded that on the food chain of Los Angeles transportation, they rate right up there with the trash (can) and that if they really want to cross the street, they need to get in an automobile like everybody else.
In the days immediately following Julia's tragic death, the LAPD and others put the emphasis on pedestrian and their responsibility for their safety. Good advice, but not enough.
When there is a traffic collision, it must be standard operating procedure to test the street signals, not just for demand-actuated responsiveness but for all phases and for all modes.
As a cyclist, I encounter intersections such as Sunset and Park or Sunset and Rosemont that won't recognize cyclists and won't cycle green unless a motor vehicle approaches.
Ever wonder who trains cyclists to run reds? LADOT. By the way, it's the law that signals recognize all modes, it's just not common in Los Angeles. The current failure rate for LA's parking meters is 20% which begs the question, "What's the failure rate for traffic signal sensitivity and accuracy?" Anyone can guess but why guess when people are dying.
When there is a traffic collision, it must be standard operating procedure to investigate speed as a factor. Nothing about LA's traffic will change without data and when I called to get the speeds of the motorists, the question was dismissed.
Standing at the corner and watching the oncoming traffic from the east, vehicles traveling 35 mph would have been slowing down traffic. That street is fast. If cars are moving, they pose a threat. The faster they move, the great the threat. We must have data.
The City of Los Angeles has an underground bunker below City Hall East where the LADOT operates the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) system [LINK] but the LADOT doesn't play well with others nor does it share its data. That must change.
When there is a traffic collision, it must be standard operating procedure to evaluate that street, the community, the behavior of the people who use the street, and to ask the hard questions. Are we working together to make this street safe for all people? Are we making the safety of our most vulnerable a top priority?
Julia Siegler's death is tragic. It shouldn't have happened. It has resulted in a sense of helplessness in the larger community made up of Julia's neighbors and family and friends and schoolmates and even strangers.
An impromptu memorial of hundreds of flowers, candles, photos and stuffed animals, sits at the accident site at the corner of Sunset and Cliffwood, along with a sign that reads “Slow Down, For Julia.”
In Los Angeles, we name buildings after politicians, and we name intersections after children who get killed trying to get to school. That must change!
(Stephen Box is a transportation advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net)