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

July 06, 1988|MIKE WYMA

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

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