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.
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