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February 11, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Cover story: Whose roads? Pedestrians and joggers can feel like intruders in the car culture Cover story: Whose roads? Pedestrians and joggers can feel like intruders in the car culture (February 11, 2004)

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

Those who choose to walk or jog on neighborhood streets -- rather than drive on them -- can put themselves in harm's way.

Streets and roads -- built for cars -- can seem hostile for others, pedestrians say. Many residential streets have an uneven asphalt edge where a flat sidewalk would go. Drivers looking for short-cuts around congested arterials speed through these streets. At night, street lights are often dim and widely spaced -- and sometimes completely absent -- so as to create a rural ambience.

Sometimes the conflict results in tragedy -- as happened on January 9 when 75-year-old Atefeh "Amy" Bijan was crossing Santa Cruz Avenue at a crosswalk near Palo Alto Way and was struck and killed by a car.

Some towns, such as Portola Valley and Woodside, accommodate pedestrians and equestrians with a system of trails.

In other areas, there have been efforts recently to make streets friendlier for pedestrians and kids on bikes -- such as the Alameda de las Pulgas streetscape between Avy and Ashton avenues and the stretch of Santa Cruz Avenue heading into downtown Menlo Park.

But listening to those who walk local streets shows that local towns have a way to go to make them feel like first-class citizens of the roads.

Battle over rights

In the University Park neighborhood -- between Oak Knoll School and Santa Cruz Avenue -- the lots are small and sidewalks and street lights are non-existent.

Residents -- young, elderly and in-between -- use the narrow, hilly streets to walk, jog and bike. They even use them to stand around and talk.

But the neighborhood is plagued with "cut-through" traffic by drivers violating the speed limits and ignoring stop signs as they detour around the intersection of Sand Hill Road and Santa Cruz Avenue, residents say. Narrow streets worsen the situation since they're also used for parking.

"I'm just very aware, especially when [I'm] pushing a stroller," says Vine Street resident Cindy Tipton. When a car comes down the road, she says, "I try to sneak in between two parked cars."

Compelled to share the road, Ms. Tipton points out: "The pedestrian's rights are always first." To drive the point home, she and her neighbors sometimes converse in the middle of the street, particularly when their kids are out riding.

The message to drivers is: "Wait your turn. Our kids are on their bikes. If you don't like it, you can go down another street."

Gari Merendino, who has lived on Vine Street for 20 years and walks daily with his wife and their dog, says he sometimes steps alone into the road to flag down vehicles and ask drivers to slow down. Most are going 10 mph over the 25 mph speed limit, he says, and many run stop signs. About half the drivers he stops tell him where he can get off, he says.

Most of the neighborhood children understand the danger on the streets, Mr. Merendino says. "It's a bit of a shame," he says.

A 62-year-old Vine Street resident who asked not to be named says she walks four miles a day with her husband. With a fragile sense of balance and having undergone retinal surgery, she says she's particularly sensitive to the uneven edges of the streets.

Sidewalks and street lights would help, she says, but she defers to neighbors who prefer things the way they are.

One of those neighbors is Tim Unger, who walks single file with his wife on their constitutionals. He'd like speed tables -- wide speed bumps -- "on every street," he says. "Some of these people just zip right down the road."

Street smarts

In the eastern part of Menlo Park, City Councilwoman Mickie Winkler jogs frequently on Woodland Road, a narrow winding residential street that follows San Francisquito Creek east of Middlefield Road. It has evolved into a thoroughfare for traffic between East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

"You have to be careful," Ms. Winkler says. "Woodland Avenue is not pedestrian friendly." Parts of the street are used extensively by joggers nevertheless.

Former mayor Steve Schmidt also travels Woodland on foot to downtown Menlo Park from his home in the Willows neighborhood. He says he has to cross the street periodically because some residents are using the public right-of-way for their walls or rose bushes.

It needs a sidewalk, he says. "It's a beautiful street surrounded by great trees in a community-minded neighborhood. ... Streets that are natural for pedestrians should have pedestrian amenities."

"Flow of traffic seems to be the dominant consideration in the design of most roadways," Mr. Schmidt says. "It's a car culture. There are few people that question that kind of paradigm or standard that we have grown used to."

The Spurlocks and their three young children live on Olive Street in central Menlo Park. About three or four times a week, the strollers come out and they walk Bay Laurel Road, where there are no sidewalks. "Often you find a car that cuts corners and is not careful with pedestrians," Ms. Spurlock says.

"I kind of feel it's our job to look after ourselves," says her husband. But the lighting could be better, he says, and sidewalks would "make things safer."

In Atherton, Police Chief Bob Brennan says he sometimes walks before going home or to a night meeting. In the summer, he takes the unpaved paths alongside the street, but they're wet in the winter and it's dark. "Visibility is a problem [then]," he says. "I tend to walk on the edge of the roadway."

Last year, the town handed out reflective arm-bands for walkers and wearable glow sticks for kids when they're trick-or-treating, he says.

Kids and cars

In Woodside, traffic can be an issue for children attending the elementary school on heavily used Woodside Road. With the homes so far apart, most children are driven to school, says Principal John Harter. Steps have been taken to allow walking, however.

Cylindrical orange pylons in the center of the road mark the two crosswalks during the day. This summer, Caltrans is planning to delineate one of the crosswalks by embedding flashing lights in the pavement, Mr. Harter says. The lights will be controlled from inside the school and will flash continuously at oncoming drivers during hours when children may be crossing.

"We emphasize walking to school and we've done what we can to make it safe," he says.

At Hillview School in Menlo Park, the bicycle is popular, but Councilwoman Winkler says she would like to see more children walking to school.

It's a time for socializing, she says, and it frees parents from chauffeur duties, which she says accounts for much unnecessary traffic. With crossing guards at the crosswalks, the routes could be made "absolutely safe" for the little pedestrians.

"I know a lot of the parents would really welcome the opportunity to have their kids walk," Ms. Winkler says. As for finding the money to pay for the guards, she says the schools, the city and parents might collaborate.

In Atherton, crossing guards are on duty near Encinal and Selby Lane schools, Chief Brennan says.

Santa Cruz Avenue

"We have some streets, such as Santa Cruz Avenue and Middle Avenue, that are very daunting to cross," Councilwoman Winkler told the Almanac.

Installing lighted crosswalks is one of her priorities for the year, Ms. Winkler says. "My dream is that the city can get these on Bayfront [Expressway] and really throughout the city," she says. "I'd like us, at the very least, to have a plan that will begin to address it."

Santa Cruz Avenue is "a street that makes a lot of parents nervous," says Mr. Schmidt.

As mayor in 2002, he oversaw a reconfiguration intended to increase safety for pedestrians between Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and Hillview School. The design included medians as refuges for foot traffic crossing the street and raised concrete curb extensions intruding into and narrowing the roadway to reduce pedestrians' crossing distance and discourage fast driving.

The changes were unpopular. Almost all of the features were removed after a group of about 200 Santa Cruz Avenue residents demanded that the street be restored to its former state.

"If the original design had been more modest in its scope, there might not have been a campaign against it," Mr. Schmidt says.

The city has applied for a $450,000 grant to build a sidewalk on the south side of the street from the Presbyterian church to Olive Street, says city transportation manager Jamal Rahimi.

At the western end of Santa Cruz Avenue, along a quarter-mile stretch between intersections at Sand Hill Road and at Alameda de las Pulgas, residents of the Menlo Commons retirement community want the county to upgrade an existing crosswalk with warning lights. Many residents cross there to the University Park neighborhood for their walks.

It is this crosswalk where Ms. Bijan was killed. The county, facing a very tight budget, governs the street and is considering removing the crosswalk, county Supervisor Rich Gordon said recently.

Removal would be a step in favor of vehicles by eliminating a potential braking effect on traffic speed. And it could push elderly pedestrians to jaywalk across four lanes of traffic rather than walking to the intersections.

Information

** For information on pedestrian (and bicycling) safety, there are several Web sites to choose from, including walkinginfo.org, bikewalk.org and pedbikeinfo.org.

** For information on good driving habits, go to smartmotorist.com or to the chapter on safe driving practices (pages 33-51) in the 2003 California driver handbook. An online version is available at dmv.ca.gov/pubs/pubs.htm.

A few statistics

Local towns say they don't keep statistics that break out pedestrians injuries and deaths, but figures from recent years are available.

In Menlo Park, California Highway Patrol figures show 14 pedestrian injuries and one death in 2001, according to the latest data available from the state Office of Transportation Safety. Over the four years between 1998 and 2001, data show 70 injuries and three deaths.

In Atherton, eight pedestrians were injured over the four-year period, while Woodside and Portola Valley had one pedestrian death each and one injury in Woodside, Mr. Marando said.

Nationally, most pedestrian fatalities happened at night in urban areas away from intersections, according to 2001 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety tips for kids walking and biking can be found at the Federal Highway Administration's pedestrian and bicycle safety home page at tfhrc.gov/safety/pedbike/pedbike.htm.

For general information on safe walking, enter the words "pedestrian safety" in a search engine and find the link to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


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