New Pedestrian Bulb-outs Make Crossing St. Louis More Pleasant but Leave Some Scratching Their Heads

Pedestrians cross at St. Louis and Cesar Chavez, where new bulb-outs were recently installed by the Great Streets program. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Pedestrians cross at St. Louis and Cesar Chavez, where new bulb-outs were recently installed by the Great Streets program. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

I’ve sat and observed the intersection of St. Louis and Cesar Chavez in Boyle Heights several times since the modified curb extensions started going in last month.

The painted “bulb-outs” are part of a pilot project of the Great Streets program (see recent coverage of its efforts on Central Ave. here) and are the first such curb extensions in the city.

Cesar Chavez is one of fifteen Great Streets identified in the current cycle, and is expected to see improvements stretching between St. Louis and Evergreen. But, for now, the improvements are limited to one intersection. And one of the calmer intersections along the corridor, at that, much to the puzzlement of a number of residents.

For one, people aren’t exactly sure what they are looking at.

“Why is it red?” “What is that [pointing at empty planter]?” and “Why is that in the street?” are all questions frequently overheard, often from curious kids whose parents seem unsure how to answer.

A planter sits empty at Cesar Chavez and St. Louis, while bollards across the street appear to block the fire hydrant. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A planter sits devoid of plants at Cesar Chavez and St. Louis. A passerby asked if the bollards across the street block access to the fire hydrant. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“Is it for the bikes?” asked a young salesman handing out flyers in front of the cell phone shop just down the street. “‘Cause, you know, they have those green sections on 1st St. for the bikes…”

No, I explained, these were curb extensions that limited the distance pedestrians would be exposed to traffic when moving across travel lanes. And they were paired with adjustments to the walk signals that now gave pedestrians a head start when crossing the street.

Great Streets' map of the intersection.
Great Streets’ map of the intersection and explanation of the changes. The bus stop is on the map; the decision to move it may have come after implementation. Click to enlarge.

It was part of the Great Streets program, I said, and there would be improvements along the rest of this section of Cesar Chavez at some point — but it was unclear when that would happen, or if the same improvements would appear at the other corners along the corridor.

He nodded and surveyed the intersection.

“They should have talked to us,” he mused, referring to the businesses along the street.

It was not unusual for people to come in and ask business owners about changes to the area, he explained. But without any information about the program, the owners didn’t know what to tell them. Especially about the more significant changes that were impacting the lives of the elderly residents in the community.

He gestured toward an elderly woman leaned wearily up against a telephone pole.

“They moved the bus stop over here and now elderly people have to stand instead of being able to sit down,” he shook his head.

And it is unclear how long that change will be in effect. The signs say only, “until further notice.”

The new bus stop, located a block and a half east of the original stop at St. Louis. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The new bus stop, located a block and a half east of the original stop at St. Louis. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A lot of elderly people have been slow to catch on to the change, concurred a man waiting for the bus.

They either hadn’t been able to read the signs or hadn’t realized what they meant, and so they continued to wait where they always had. Finally, he said, he went down and advised some of the folks he saw waiting at the wrong corner that the stop had been moved last week.

That corner had always been a tough one for buses to maneuver, he continued, as car drivers routinely disregarded the red curbs and parked near the stop. But the new bulb-outs had encroached on the space designated for the bus stop and apparently forced the change to the new site, a block and a half east.

The original bus stop at St. Louis and the notice of the change. The bollard at right blocks bus access. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The original bus stop at St. Louis and the notice of the change. The bollard at right blocks bus access. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The other key question the two men and others I’ve spoken with had was regarding the choice of the intersection. Why had the city begun at St. Louis? Other places, like Soto, they said, needed it more. Some wanted to know if it was because of the arrival of the restaurant Guisados on that corner and its popularity with non-resident foodies.

I was told only that there are a lot of crashes at that site; Great Streets’ tumblr post on the topic explains that there are a lot of crashes along the corridor.

There are indeed a lot of crashes along the corridor. But they aren’t happening at St. Louis.

As seen in the crash data-mapping done by the LA Times recently, the intersection with Soto is far and above the one of greatest concern, with 21 recorded pedestrian crashes between 2002 and 2013 (it is likely there are more that have not been recorded), and one fatality.

Screen shot of the LA Times' map of pedestrian collisions at Cesar Chavez and Soto. Source: LA Times.
Screenshot of the LA Times’ map of pedestrian collisions at Cesar Chavez and Soto. Source: LA Times.

The intersection marked in fuzzy red to the west of Soto is Cummings, not St. Louis. St. Louis was in the clear, at least according to the data used to compile the map (appearing under the left-hand corner of the white box with the information about Cesar Chavez/Soto). Meaning that, if the goal of the pilot is to gather data and assess the safety benefits of bulb-outs, St. Louis was probably not the ideal place to start. Soto, Fickett (just the west of Soto, with 13 crashes), or Evergreen (which saw 10 crashes) might all have been more useful, data-wise.

And Soto could certainly use the help.

As a major transit hub hosting (wholly inadequate) bus stops on three corners on a very busy street, the intersection at Soto is almost always packed with people. The bus stop on the southwest corner alone can be fifteen or twenty deep in passengers during peak hours.

Pedestrians cross Soto along Cesar Chavez. Across the street, would-be passengers gather at the bus stop. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Pedestrians cross Soto along Cesar Chavez. Across the street, on the southwest corner, would-be passengers gather at the bus stop. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

And while I actually rather like the look and feel of the intersection at St. Louis and the way that it shrinks the distance the many families on foot will be exposed to traffic, it is hard to ignore the fact that St. Louis is already quite narrow.

So, it is not unusual to see the delivery trucks, tow trucks, and garbage trucks that turn right onto St. Louis from Cesar Chavez now struggling to get around that corner. Even while moving at a crawl, they often appear unable to make the turn without swinging into the lane of oncoming traffic or blocking the pedestrian crossing as they wait for cars lined up on St. Louis to back up and allow them to pass.

As for when the other intersections along the corridor will be addressed, Great Streets’ post says a community workshop will be held later this summer to focus on the treatments “up to nine other intersections” (from Cummings to Evergreen) should receive.

The stretch of Cesar Chavez slated for Great Streets' improvements. (Google maps screen shot)
The stretch of Cesar Chavez slated for Great Streets’ improvements. (Google maps screen shot)

Those I spoke with along Cesar Chavez hoped that intersections would not be the only topic of conversation.

Obsolete and poorly-maintained street furniture and broken sidewalks that make passage difficult for the elderly and families with small children are also things folks would like to see addressed (see photos below).

Trees provide wonderful shade but have destroyed the sidewalks along Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Trees provide wonderful shade but have created a veritable obstacle course along Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Trees provide wonderful shade but have destroyed the sidewalks along Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Trees have destroyed the sidewalks along Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
When they have been removed, they have not been replaced or dealt with in a meaningful way. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Where trees have been removed, they have not been replaced or dealt with in a meaningful way. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
And poorly maintained street furniture takes up a lot of sidewalk space. Sometimes it is used. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Poorly-maintained street furniture takes up a lot of sidewalk space. Sometimes it is used. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Some is not. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Oftentimes, it is not. Or it is in such disrepair (i.e. missing a bench) that it cannot be used. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
And sometimes those who are disabled find taking to the streets to be the path of least resistance. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
And sometimes the sidewalks are such a pain that people with disabilities find taking to the streets to be the path of least resistance. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

For more information on Great Streets, visit their tumblr. Notice of the meeting about Cesar Chavez will be posted as soon as it is available.

  • wallachia

    “Some wanted to know if it was because of the arrival of the restaurant Guisados on that corner and its popularity with residents and those from outside the community.”

    Is it possible for you to write an article without exclusionary undertones? This is seriously just the flipside of the dog whistles Republicans use when speaking about ‘illegal immigrants’, but really mean brown people. ‘Outside the community’ = white people. Just come out and say it.

  • Guy Ross

    I fail to see the drawback to these ‘bulges’ other than drivers not being able to take corners at full speeds. Also. put these mid-block as well for another crossing at each block. Again, nothing to be lost and all to be gained. Allow pedestrians to feel cherished instead of hunted.

  • sahra

    You’re actually wrong — white people aren’t the only people from outside the community that eat there, so why would i do that? More accurately would probably be “middle to upper-middle class foodies (or wanna-be foodies who heard it is the place to eat) who like the idea of eating at a safe place in the neighborhood but little to no interest in anything else the neighborhood offers.” So you’re right that I could be more specific with regard to the class issue I’m getting at (and that is usually what I’m getting at when I write on these issues, more than race), but that seemed a little unwieldy. I am sorry if the lack of specificity gave you the wrong impression. But the reason i called it out is really because it is the only such site in that stretch that really serves as a draw for well-to-do non-residents and, as such, it really stands out to residents, many of whom are low and very low-income. So when improvements arrive without any consultation at the corner that probably needs them least and elderly residents are disadvantaged (with the moving of the bus stop), it is something that raises alarm bells for some in the community. They are curious if this is part of a push to gentrify the area. It is a question that often comes up in lower-income communities when folks have asked for investment for years and years, and then they get something they never wanted in the one site that caters to a non-resident crowd. It is a larger problem in urban planning, and the reason people sometimes fear bringing bike lanes and other amenities into their communities, seeing them as harbingers of gentrification… To summarize all that long-windedness, perception matters when you want to make “improvements” in a community. That’s it.

  • “So, it is not unusual to see the delivery trucks, tow trucks, and
    garbage trucks that turn right onto St. Louis from Cesar Chavez now
    struggling to get around that corner.”

    Thats sort of the point. You want turns to be slow. However, maybe the stop bar needs to be moved back a few feet

  • sahra

    That the slowing down of the larger vehicles was the point was something I understood and I didn’t have a problem with. But when the vehicles start blocking the pedestrian walkway because they can’t get around the corner, then you have other issues that arise, like impatient pedestrians and a lack of visibility, and obstruction of the flow of traffic along Cesar Chavez or challenges presented if the truck has to back up into traffic. And there were a few other instances I observed where cars turning onto St. Louis actually moved faster to beat pedestrians through the crosswalk… that’s no different than you see at a regular intersection, but it seemed a little more sinister here… like they were moving faster because the opening was more narrow. I’d have to make more observations to see if that was a pattern or if it turned out to be problematic, but I was really surprised by the speed at which the drivers darted through.

  • sahra

    I also adjusted the sentence to reflect the foodie thing, because I do think it could be clearer. “…its popularity with non-resident foodies.” I don’t know if that will assuage your concerns in any way, but there you go.

  • calwatch

    Chavez and Soto has significant right turning traffic since both are arterials, so doing the Great Streets treatment would probably impact the car level of service substantially. Due to the pedestrian crossings there is limited time for right turns to be made.

    For transit they could have eliminated the bulb out on the far side of the street and used it as a bus stop, as far side bus stops are generally preferable for near side, especially on signal synchronized streets where the signal is likely to be green when the bus pulls up. http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/4636/relocate-bus-stops-to-save-time/

    Ultimately, this is symptomatic of the internecine warfare between bus riders, pedestrians, and cyclists.

  • sahra

    Or, it could just be poor planning…(speaking to that last point). But your other points are well-taken. The treatment laid down at St. Louis isn’t a good fit for Soto, and I didn’t mean to imply it could be simply transplanted or that treatments should have just been applied without asking the community (because I do think Soto is one where it community input could help transform that intersection). But that intersection does need slowing down and those making turns — either left or right — are a big part of the problem. Even more cosmetic adjustments — better bus shelters, a little more space on the sidewalk, greenery, regular cleaning, etc. would help it feel more like it was a space for people. Right now, pedestrians and transit users feel like the afterthought.

  • sahra

    That wasn’t really the point. I noted I don’t dislike them and think they are helpful for families. Although that site might have been better as a scramble crosswalk, given its narrowness, with bulb-outs going to slightly wider streets or the ones that are at odd angles (some “T” into Cesar Chavez) where protection was really needed. One of the larger points was that there was no engagement of anyone on the street before the treatments went in. Even the neighborhood council wasn’t advised until well after lines had been painted. Businesses along the street also seem unaware of what the program has in store for the street, which leaves them unable to offer input on what the needs are or to offer information about how the street works and how they want it to work to city staff who are unfamiliar with the area.

  • User_1

    Good write up here. I for one haven’t seen this bulb-out but I’ve had experience with them in Sacramento. As a bicyclist it can be a little unnerving to get across an intersection with these in place, but I managed. For cyclists it seems to take out a bit of the road and may force them to take the lane or time the crossing for when it will be clear. If traffic is going kinda slow, then it become easier. All in all I like the bulb-out cause it does slow down traffic and gives peds a chance here.

    There are some I saw in Sacramento that were really quite small. To the point that if a driver wasn’t paying attention to the road, they could easily cut the corner and damage the car. Ones I saw were made of cement and stood up the height of a curb.

    Here’s an example of one; https://goo.gl/maps/dXuyV
    21st is a one-way street here.

  • Stephano Medina

    Would it be possible to get an explanation from the city as to why that intersection was chosen?

  • AndreL

    Maybe these vehicles are just too big to operate in a heavily built-up environment and should be replaced by smaller ones?

  • Scott

    Great post, Sahra. Decisions made from afar in urban planning impact so many people whose voices may never get heard. I really appreciate that you seek those opinions out, even in spite of condescending replies like the one above.

  • ubrayj02

    Reason they chose it: maximum report-cover photo opportunity with Guisados on the corner; minimum political push back from half-assed implementation. The local people are easily ignored and if the whole thing is a mess they can get rid of it with nearly 0 long term negative effects.

  • mittim80 .

    You support modern-day colonialism. Just come out and say it.

  • LA city watcher

    Hey friends! Since this author couldn’t be bothered to make a 10 minute phone call to get some facts, here they are: these improvements are part of a Safe Routes to School project; there are two elementary schools within walking distance; improvements are in paint first so the city can learn how they work before making them permanent; five other corners (including Soto) are coming in the next few weeks; there are two community outreach meetings planned: a pop-up on the sidewalk and a traditional format meeting; the NC had a presentation; there’s CRA money to fix the sidewalks; since school starts soon and people are dying on this street, the city didn’t want to wait; Metro decided to move that stop without talking to anyone; city working to get it reinstated. I expect this kind of sloppiness from the Daily News on transpo. The guy who works in the cell phone shop didn’t know about it and that’s the commentary?

  • sahra

    To be fair, @ubrayj02:disqus, it is a pilot and the intention is to do others, so this was a place to start. And part of the approach of these “tactical urbanism” efforts is to lay something down to let people get a look at it to see if it works, and if they want that sort of thing elsewhere. An intersection like Soto would have required a lot of reconfiguration and planning and engagement ahead of time. Picking the easiest and lowest-hanging fruit, I am guessing the logic goes, gives them a jumping off point. So, @stephanomedina:disqus, I think it was the easiest place to start. And also one of the more visible ones, thanks to the foodies that come into the area for Guisados. As I mentioned, I was told it was about safety and crashes at that intersection. And the fact sheet they posted on it and presented to the neighborhood council (AFTER they started painting the lines) suggests safety was a concern. That turned out to be a bit of fudging of the truth. The corridor is indeed dangerous, but that intersection is the one of the least dangerous of the bunch.

  • sahra

    Hey friend! The NC did indeed have a presentation about this meeting — but it was given to them AFTER the lines had already been painted. And only AFTER I called to inquire about the press conference Great Streets had apparently intended to hold at that intersection celebrating the painting of the lines. I have asked both Great Streets folks and the councilman’s office about what was happening at the intersection. I got no answer from Huizar’s office and was told only about the safety concerns by Great Streets. I do indeed know of $9 million in CRA money for the sidewalks which was lost with its dissolution and which the district has been looking to get access to. And I know of the SRTS improvements, which, on St. Louis, were originally intended to be bike boxes, not curb extensions. So, I am glad to hear from you that more is in the works and community engagement is on the way — a year into the program, the community would be more than happy to hear about what the program has been doing all this time. They’ve heard almost nothing so far and the utter lack of transparency in this “community-based” and “community-driven” program — even when folks like myself take the time to ask — is deeply troubling.

  • sahra

    *NC did indeed have a presentation about this intersection

    not “meeting,” sorry for the typo!

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