Despite the furor, at the end of the day, it is simply a crosswalk. Ideally a crosswalk provides a marked area where pedestrians should be safe when crossing the street. It is not a magic transformer that beams you from the starship Enterprise safely to the other side of Santa Monica Boulevard. All the signage, flashing lights or bells and whistles that might supplement a crosswalk do not change the fact that crossing West Hollywood’s mean streets is risky business. Clearly the time for a public discussion on pedestrian safety is long overdue.
Thanks to outcry arising from the tragic demise of Clinton Bounds, the City Hall is suddenly focused. When City Council rivals John Heilman and John D’Amico co-sponsor legislation to make Santa Monica safer for pedestrians, you know this issue cannot be ignored.
The statistics presented to the city by Lt. Dave Smith of the Sheriff’s Department provided some grim numbers that reflect the fact that the numerous pedestrian improvements included in the Santa Monica Boulevard re-design nearly 15 years ago, are simply inadequate due to new traffic conditions. There is just more traffic, and people are far more distracted with electronic gadgets.
While it seems counter-intuitive, there are more pedestrians hit in crosswalks controlled by traffic lights than crosswalks without lights. As Transportation Commissioner Steven Green pointed out, this is largely because most signalized crosswalks are at intersections where there are more pedestrians and where collisions often occur due to drivers looking left while making a right turn. The total numbers for both signalized and un-signalized cross walks appear to have markedly increased. Unfortunately, the numbers as of early September promise to make 2014 a new banner year for vehicle/pedestrian smack downs.
While numbers were not provided to reflect whether Santa Monica Boulevard was more unsafe than other pedestrian-oriented areas such Westwood Village or Beverly Boulevard near Vermont and Western, it appears that something is afoot that is putting pedestrians at a greater risk.
However one statistic is consistent: the more cars there are on the street, the greater the danger. The numbers of pedestrians hit on Santa Monica spike during rush hour when traffic is approaching gridlock. In West Hollywood we have three “rush hours.” As an entertainment destination we have a late night “rush hour” when the bars close. But the greatest danger is in the late afternoon homeward commute when drivers seem the most frustrated and are either distracted or just willing to take greater risks. As Councilmember Abbe Land pointed out, few of us are not guilty of being on our cell phones or texting while driving home, distractions that can prove fatal to pedestrians.
Most of the current pedestrian safety measures date to the re-design of Santa Monica Boulevard that was completed in 2001. I served as the chair of the 40-person Santa Monica Boulevard Design Committee that won recognition for serving as a model on community consensus building. We tackled tough issues: the types of street trees, the design of the median strip, bike lanes and the width of sidewalks, all of these issues generating huge amounts of public debate and discussion. Crosswalk safety was of immense public interest as Santa Monica Boulevard, as inherited from Los Angeles County, not only was in horrific condition, it also was not designed for pedestrians, even though we were a pedestrian-oriented community.
Except for major intersections, none of the cross streets are aligned. Instead the side streets are staggered, because Santa Monica was designed to protect vehicles from colliding with the Red Cars that ran down the middle of the boulevard until the street car system ended in the 1950s.
The Santa Monica Design Committee wrestled with crosswalk issues. The consultants recommended more crosswalks to enhance pedestrian safety and eliminate jay walking while members of the committee raised concerns about the impact of those cross walks on traffic flow. After construction was completed, it was clear that the additional crosswalks needed better signs and that some were probably redundant.
Today Santa Monica Boulevard will face even more traffic and congestion as we see completion of major developments at both ends of the boulevard. On the Westside there will be the Melrose Triangle development and the six-story mixed use building at the Palm restaurant site. When the Red Building of the Pacific Design Center is occupied, city officials have predicted the creation of 3,000 new jobs, which means thousands of additional drivers on Santa Monica. That does not even take into account the proposal to develop the MTA site, the Walgreen’s at Crescent Heights or the huge ten-story project at the former Movie Town Plaza on the Eastside.
In a word, we are in for some serious traffic impacts due to irresponsible development, which is going to make it even more difficult for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to navigate West Hollywood’s “Main Street.”
While there are some folks that are furiously demanding “immediate” solutions, in my experience any quick fix may prove less than helpful. Needless to say, elected officials are always quick to declare victory and move on. But if we are really looking for solutions that make us safer, then we need a deliberative and informative process. We need to recognize that we have to deal with the problems of today as well as the problems in the immediate future when thousands of additional vehicles clog Santa Monica.
On up side, we are have some very constructive discussions about pedestrian issues. At the Sept. 2 City Council meeting, the public was out in force, and a number of constructive and creative ideas were floated. The City Council, for once, actually seemed to be welcoming public input.
While the city must take steps to make Santa Monica safer for pedestrians, the Sheriff’s report made it clear that perhaps the best way to see the grim statistics drop is for pedestrians to be aware of when and where they are most at risk.
Some members of the public seemed fixated on the notion that under law, pedestrians have the right of way. Unfortunately standing on your “rights” as a pedestrian is not going to guarantee your safety. Crossing a street is dangerous from the moment you take your first step off the curb. A pedestrian who is inattentive, distracted or intoxicated is going to find that the harsh principles of Darwinism are more likely to apply than are the laws of the State of California. Like any other “right,” exercising your claim to the right of way is more an issue of common sense and self preservation than some legalistic principal. Thus, while the city can and should make crosswalks more visible to motorists, perhaps the greatest service would be to educate pedestrians that no one can take crosswalk safety for granted. The most important rule of the road should be an admonishment to use common sense and common courtesy.
Regardless of the circumstances of Clinton Bounds’ tragic demise, he has inspired this community and aroused it to action. While I didn’t personally know him, I keep meeting friends and neighbors who did. My friend Victor could not even talk about the tragedy without tearing up. Stacey, a veteran cashier at Pavilions, expressed that Clinton’s death was a personal loss.
With Clinton’s passing, we have lost a strand in the fabric of our community, and it is right we mourn our loss even if we did not know Clinton personally. Clinton clearly loved West Hollywood and lived his life as part of this community; perhaps it was not until he was no longer with us that we could appreciate how important he was to the place we call home. In the final analysis the lesson of this tragic accident may not be as much about public safety but about appreciating the fact that we are lucky to live in a wonderfully diverse and individualistic community where each one of us can bring something unique and positive to a city that is like no other.
Steve Martin, an attorney, is a former member of the West Hollywood City Council.