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Stop Sign Quest Can Be Tough Going

Fourth in a series on Los Angeles city services.

October 17, 2002|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

There's a new stop sign at the corner of Blue Canyon and Picturesque drives in Studio City, posted by city traffic engineers after neighbors said the hillside intersection wasn't safe.

There's just one problem.

The sign is on the opposite corner from where residents had requested it. So instead of stopping motorists on Picturesque Drive from whizzing down Blue Canyon to Ventura Boulevard, it stops them on the way up, where drivers already go slowly up the steep slope.

"They were very quick and very efficient, but it wasn't the sign we wanted," said Charles Dennis, a screenwriter who lives on Blue Canyon Drive with his wife, Kim, and 2-year-old daughter.

"It's very confusing," Kim Dennis said.

The Dennises and their neighbors had run into a common frustration of Los Angeles residents who try to regulate traffic in their communities: Their idea of an unsafe street doesn't meet city standards for installation of stop signs or speed bumps. The city will install a sign if an intersection meets any of 10 conditions. If it doesn't, such as the Picturesque Drive case, the request is typically denied.

Supporters of the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession proposals say these small conflicts are more than debates over traffic and safety. They argue that the city is inattentive to detail and unresponsive to community concerns such as those involving street signs. And that attitude, they say, has helped fuel a larger discontent with city government, convincing many residents that their problems are not taken seriously.

Stephanie Spikell, a Studio City resident who is running for a seat on the Valley city council that would be created if secession is approved in the Nov. 5 election, said that a Valley city would be more flexible, and more responsive to neighbors' concerns.

"They're very kind; they come out and listen to you and then go back to those very specific criteria and deny it -- regardless of whether you had a good reason for the request," Spikell said of city transportation engineers.

Spikell said that she recently requested a street light after an armed robbery on her block, but was turned down.

"If you call back and try to revisit the issue, you may get them to reconsider, but it takes a long time," she said.

One reason for the rigidity is sheer volume.

Last fiscal year, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation fielded 18,446 demands for stop signs, traffic lights and the like, and responded to 17,832 of them, according to principal traffic engineer Jack Reynolds. Of the total requests, about 800 were for stop signs, Reynolds said.

For years, the focus of transportation planning in Los Angeles was finding ways to speed up and smooth out traffic, Reynolds and others said. So requests for everything from speed bumps to traffic lights were judged in part on whether they would unnecessarily slow traffic.

The Dennises live at the corner of Blue Canyon and Picturesque drives, in an older house that has no front lawn and a narrow sidewalk. Cars pass just a few feet from their garage and front steps. The same is true for their neighbors.

"The traffic is so bad you can't even cross the street," said Paul Yarmola, a retired construction worker who lives next door to the Dennises. "They've got a phone in one hand and a coffee or whatever they're drinking in the other, and I don't know what hands are driving."

The neighbors figured that a stop sign on Picturesque Drive would be the solution. After a few phone calls, a city worker said they had to write a letter to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, describing the problem and requesting the sign.

Yarmola's daughter-in-law, LaVerne, and Charles Dennis wrote letters in February. That set in motion an evaluation of the traffic patterns at the intersection.

Citywide, according to Reynolds, 4 1/2 months elapse on average between a request for a sign and the installation. The time varies by neighborhood depending on the number of pending requests, Transportation Department staffing in that part of town, and the complexity of the given traffic study, he said.

The city is aiming for a 60-day turnaround on the whole process, Reynolds said, but budget cuts have kept staffing levels low, and that has slowed down the work.

Secessionists say a Valley city would respond more quickly. And some other cities do appear to carry out the process more efficiently than Los Angeles.

San Jose, for instance, has a Web page devoted entirely to stop signs. It tells residents how to apply for a sign, how to ask that a damaged sign be repaired, and how to appeal if their requests are turned down.

Los Angeles has Web-based information on stop signs, but it is less detailed and harder to find.

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