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You Tell Us: Crossing the street in Oakland

on August 8, 2011

My two feet are my main mode of transportation. And, based on the number of professionals that I walk by at Lake Merritt and in Downtown Oakland first thing in the morning, I’m not the only one in Oakland. This city is walkable. In fact, the whole of Oakland has an average Walk Score of 71. There are some obvious barriers, such as distance, neighborhood safety, and the occasional hill. But if you walk every day, like I do, then you’ve probably had a few near-death experiences while trying to overcome what is probably the biggest barrier in pedestrian safety: crossing the street.

On August 4, 2011, I had two such experiences within 10 minutes of one another, both by drivers making hasty left-hand turns almost directly into me while I was already very clearly in the cross walk (I stand out like a sore thumb, by the way — I’m pregnant and generally get noticed). This cannot be an isolated set of incidents. According to a report by Transportation of America, 23 percent of people that died in traffic accidents between 2000-2009 in Alameda Country were pedestrians. That’s a lot of risk for someone who is not even assuming the responsibility of operating a motor vehicle.

While I can easily place blame on bad drivers, and I do, there is another factor which makes crossing the street dangerous. Many crosswalk signals in Oakland do not actually indicate to walk unless you push the button. You know the button. It’s so fancy it makes sounds for people who are blind and is thought to give pedestrians a say in crossing (if you push it, you can walk). In more enlightened cities, pedestrian signals are always active, meaning they change whether or not someone has pushed the magical button. Moreover, there are some places that actually give pedestrians a few seconds head-start before drivers have the opportunity to rev their engines.

The importance of signals actually coinciding with the general flow of pedestrian and driver traffic cannot be overstated. While California Vehicle Code 21950a states that “The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection,” this is clearly not being adhered to by drivers at large. Here is where the law and the signals being used at crosswalks fail the pedestrian. According to California Vehicle Code 21456b, in the case of a “DONT WALK” “WAIT” or “Upraised Hand” Symbol, “No pedestrian shall start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal.”

Now, if this signal never changes as it is supposed to (unless the button is pushed), then pedestrians seem to be legally obliged to stand and wait for the next light cycle. Let me put this in context. If there was no pedestrian signal, pedestrians would be entitled to cross the same way that automobile traffic flowing in the same direction would. A green light for cars would indicate a green light for pedestrians, as well. The very implement that is supposed to make crossing safer and more effective for pedestrians is, in fact, hindering pedestrians from crossing the street in a timely manner. I’ve seen many individuals waiting at such an intersection, not pushing the button because they did not realize it was necessary to do so in order to legally cross the street. I have also crossed one intersection without enough time to push the button to cross in the perpendicular direction.

This is not a hard fix. It’s simple. Change the way that pedestrian signals work. I am not planning on simply complaining about this and going on with my potentially danger-filled day. You’ll find me at City Hall, Hearing Room 4, August 18, 2011 at the Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC).

If you’ve ever waited for more than one light cycle at an intersection or have almost ever been hit by someone while crossing the street, then hopefully, I’ll see you there.

Lauren McFall is an Oakland pedestrian who has been traversing the sidewalks surrounding beautiful Lake Merritt for the last year.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

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  1. Eric Fischer on August 8, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Yes, please, remove all the damned crosswalk buttons and do not let the city install any more of them. Pedestrians should always be given a walk signal every time there is a green light.

  2. livegreen on August 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    You’ve identified problems that are much broader than at the traffic lights:

    –There are many thoroughfares going through the MIDDLE of neighborhoods;
    –These streets are too wide, cars are going too fast, and do not yield to pedestrians;
    –The City and City Hall is doing little to change this. 2 examples:

    -It has eliminated OPD’s traffic division that does enforcement stings (from speeding to enforcing pedestrian crossing laws).

    -Oakland Public Works policy dictates Traffic Flow takes priority OVER Traffic Safety.

    If traffic moves faster or above a certain level in quantity, even if it goes through the middle of neighborhoods or causes loss of life & limb, the status quo (traffic) gets priority over solutions.

    To Public Works, traffic is more important than the safety and lives of pedestrians, cyclists, and neighborhoods.

    Change this and Oakland will INCREASE it’s safety, it’s walkability AND it’s walkability score.

    • Lauren on August 9, 2011 at 8:35 am

      This is just a baby step in overcoming a long history of car-oriented culture. We’ve got to start somewhere, right?

  3. Becky on August 8, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to complain to . . . well, someone about the need for more crosswalks in my neighborhood. I went to the BPAC site linked above, but can’t figure out how to request a speaker card to speak at the meeting. Or do I just show up? Anyone know?

  4. Streetsblog San Francisco » Today’s Headlines on August 10, 2011 at 9:34 am

    […] OaklandNorth Writer: Oakland Needs to Change the Way Its Ped Signals Work […]

  5. Michael on August 10, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I am so glad you wrote this. As someone who lives just off of Grand Avenue and walks to 19th Street BART everyday, this has been bugging me for a very long time! The need to actuate (transportation technical term) pedestrian signals is antiquated in terms of pedestrian planning and engineering. Yet, I believe Oakland has moved in the opposite direction, recently converting the signal at Grand and Lake Park Avenue from automatic to requiring pedestrians to push the button. Cars do not need to push a button to get a green light — why should pedestrians have to do so? The City of Oakland needs to catch up with 21st century transportation planning so it can be a partner for the innovative and progressive lifestyles of the people working there.

    I am sorry I won’t be able to attend the meeting on the 18th, but I applaud your efforts.

  6. david vartanoff on August 10, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Thank you, Lauren! and agree, Eric. One of the ultra lame excuses for this policy is a claim that bus signal preempt technology is easier to implement by cheating peds unless they use the buttons.

  7. Chris on August 10, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I absolutely agree. I’m dismayed to see that this kind of anti-pedestrian pedestrian signal is spreading elsewhere, including San Francisco, despite its occasional pretensions to be enlightened about issues like this.

  8. […] Here in the Bay Area, we’re lucky to live in or near cities that are well known for their walkability. The website WalkScore, for example, recently ranked the country’s most walkable cities, and listed San Francisco in second place, and Oakland in tenth. While this is certainly cause for celebration, it might not take safety into account, considering that it has been an awful year for San Francisco pedestrian safety, and that more than 550 pedestrians are killed each year in California alone. A new account by local blog Oakland North explains one reason why the East Bay city doesn’t live up to the walk hype: dangerous crosswalk signals. […]

  9. Brian on August 11, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Lets not forget the problem of irresponsible pedestrians and cyclists. The jay walking in this town is out of control. Cyclists riding two abreast, and riding on the sidewalks and through crosswalks at speeds that make it hard to see them before they enter traffic. I walk a lot, whenever possible, but I also have to drive sometimes and the sense of entitlement among pedestrians in this town is out of control.
    EVERYONE needs to share the road, that goes both ways.

  10. Juan on August 18, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I am ecstatic that you wrote this article! As a person who walks and/or runs throughout Oakland, I agree with your assessment that pedestrians are not a priority here wholeheartedly. Too often I find myself at the mercy of cars while trying to cross a busy street.

    I think you’ve pinpointed one solution to the problem, giving pedestrians a head start before cars are allowed to move. That said, I think the most critical change that must be made in Oakland is putting in more turn signals, both left and right.

    In terms of left hand turn signals, the purpose of them is to remove the danger for cars and pedestrians at busy intersections by giving them guaranteed safe passage when they have a green turn signal. And when they do not, they have no right to turn. In turn, this protects pedestrians from cars. There are far too many busy intersections in Oakland where there are no left hand turn signals, which is incredibly unsafe for pedestrians and cars alike.

    As far as right hand turn signals, I can hear the response now as Californian’s shudder when they think of not being able to turn at a red light: “That’s not the law. I can turn right on red in California!” Cars may turn right on red, but local authorities have the right to put up right hand turn signals to stop cars from turning right on red where conditions are hazardous for pedestrians. To make the implementation of this strategy effective, they also need to post a sign that states “No right turn on red, only turn on green turn signal.” This design is used in many places where pedestrians are at risk due to hazardous road conditions. Not only does it protect pedestrians, it does not slow the flow of traffic at all. A win for everyone!

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