After complaints from Atherton residents and officials that the timing of a new stoplight on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue in Atherton was stranding pedestrians in the middle of traffic, the California Department of Transportation has adjusted the light to give pedestrians nearly three times as long to cross.
The "walk" signal pedestrians see has been extended to 22 seconds from 8 seconds, with the solid red signal for drivers extended by the same amount of time.
The pedestrian-activated stoplight, which Caltrans calls a "pedestrian hybrid beacon," remains dark until activated with a push button. It is the first of three such lights Caltrans plans to install on El Camino in Atherton with 11 others planned on El Camino in other parts of San Mateo County.
Caltrans controls El Camino Real because it is a state highway.
Atherton officials were informed on Nov. 14 in an email from Caltrans engineer Min Yin Lee that the light's timing was changed Nov. 10. The email says simply: "After much discussion and consideration, the pedestrian hybrid beacon timing for the walk was modified."
Atherton City Engineer Marty Hanneman tested the new timing. "It works much better for the pedestrians," he said. "The 22 seconds of steady all-red time is sufficient for a pedestrian to cross before it starts to flash red." Mr. Hanneman said he hopes Caltrans will time all the new signals the same way.
Atherton resident Dimitris Dimitrelis said that the previous timing made it more dangerous to cross the six-lane state highway than it had been with no light at all.
That's because when the pedestrian signal changes from "Walk" to a numbered count-down, the stoplights facing drivers change from solid red to flashing red. The problem, he said, is that on the six-lane road a car in one of the center lanes can hide a pedestrian from cars in other lanes. "One car goes and all the others go," he said, leaving the pedestrian mid-intersection with cars whizzing past.
To finish crossing, he said, pedestrians had to wait for traffic to clear and then "run for your life."
"That's a liability waiting to happen," he said. His family stopped crossing at the light, he said.
Atherton requested the Almendral light after 32-year-old Atherton resident Shahriar Rahimzadeh was killed crossing there in July 2014. The $360,000 cost of the light was split by Atherton and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, but Caltrans will pay for the other 13 pedestrian-activated stoplights.
Caltrans agreed to put in the stoplights after a court ordered the state agency to pay $8 million to the family of 17-year-old Emily Liou, who was left in a coma after she was hit in an El Camino crosswalk in Millbrae.
In July, Caltrans was found 90 percent liable for the death of 62-year-old Chris Chandler in an El Camino crosswalk in Atherton and ordered to pay another $8.5 million in that lawsuit.
Short crossing time
On Oct. 25, Atherton's engineer, Mr. Hanneman, met with Caltrans' Mr. Lee on to discuss the short crossing time. After the meeting, Mr. Lee sent a two-paragraph email concluding: "We understand your concerns with drivers failing to yield or pedestrians entering the intersection after the signal has changed to (the flashing red). As these behaviors are undesirable, the approach should be enforcement to discourage these behaviors."
Caltrans spokeswoman Gidget Navarro said on Nov. 21 that a 29 second pedestrian countdown, with a flashing red light for drivers, will follow the 22 second solid red/walk cycle.
The timing of the other pedestrian-activated stoplights "will be monitored and will be assessed on a case by case basis," she said.
• See the Almanac's editorial on this issue.
• See an earlier story on the light timing.