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Hurray for Pedestrian Improvements! Now, If Only Drivers Would Respect Them…

9:14 AM PST on January 10, 2013

Soon after taking some city planners on a tour through Watts, a new bike lane appeared along Central Avenue, between Century and 95th St. A week or two later, the owner of the Watts Cyclery, Stalin Medina, told me that parking had been removed from in front of his shop at 112th and Wilmington and yield lines (a row of solid white triangles pointing toward approaching vehicles) had been painted at the crosswalk there.

The improvements at Wilmington were especially pleasing, given that the crosswalk is often used by children in the area going back and forth to the elementary school that sits on that corner. The removal of parking ideally makes it easier for drivers to see children waiting to cross while the yield lines hopefully create more of a buffer between pedestrians and cars.

"Da-yum," I thought. "I had no idea the city was so responsive!"

It turns out they are not.

The improvements at Wilmington and 112th were the result of a separate investigation by the folks from the LADOT's Southern District. Upon discovering it could be improved, they made the changes so the crossing would meet DOT standards. Similarly, the DOT's Bikeways Section had been searching for opportunities to implement elements of the bike master plan, and the Central Ave. stretch had come up on NavigateLA.

Oddly happy coincidence or not, it was exciting to see the changes and a great opportunity to observe the extent to which new pedestrian markings had any impact on driver behavior.

After a few hours observing the crosswalk in front of the Watts Cyclery yesterday, one thing became clear to me: driver behavior appeared to depend on whom was trying to cross. Children (with or without their mothers) were given wider berth; drivers actually stayed behind the yield lines. When Medina decided to head across the street to grab something from a convenience shop, he had to adopt the Heisman stance to fend off cars that encroached into the crosswalk while he was still in their lane. A youth alone on a bike, below, had to wait quite a while for people to give him space to cross at all.

In short, in my brief (and decidedly unscientific) survey, I didn't see a whole lot of change in driver behavior. Prior to the improvements, the wait to cross could be quite long and cars approaching a pedestrian might speed up to get through the crossing before the person made it to their lane. This was especially true at peak congestion hours.

Now, it does seem that when drivers were in less of a hurry and children were involved, drivers were more likely to respect the yield lines. Other pedestrians still seemed to have to force the issue a bit, making their way across uneasily and establishing eye contact with drivers to make sure they were being seen. It is a little disheartening to have confirmation that now that drivers can see the pedestrians better (thanks to the removal of parking), they are simply choosing not to yield for them.

One significant change I did notice was that when the lights up the street were red and Wilmington was backed up a few blocks, northbound cars would stop behind the yield line and leave the intersection and pedestrian crossing clear. That space could give a pedestrian trying to cross at a peak congestion hour just the break they needed to be able to move into the crossing.

Although the benefits appear to be mixed and a signal would be the best fix, I would argue that the new markings are of value. As with other pedestrian infrastructure and even bike lanes, more signage gives the pedestrian or cyclist more legitimacy to be in the road. I just wish it didn't take so long for drivers to come around to that perspective.

Have you observed similar behavior at crosswalks in your neighborhood? Let us know below.

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