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Cities, Activists Collide Head-On Over Removal of Crosswalks

August 18, 1997|BOB POOL | 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.

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