Atherton: Caltrans changes stoplight's timing on El Camino Real

Walk signal extended to 22 seconds from 8 seconds

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.

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3 people like this
Posted by Tom
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 17, 2016 at 10:27 am

Why was it set so short in the first place? Should'nt Caltrans already have guidelines based on road width and configuration? Was it originally set to spec, or not? And how could they have been so grossly off target. It's not like they were just 1 or 2 seconds off.

Also can't Caltrans just fix their mistakes without having to be sued every time. Such a waste of everyone's time and effort.

5 people like this
Posted by gb52
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2016 at 10:54 am

Why is Caltrans liable for the mistakes DRIVERS make? They have speed limits, signs warning of people crossing and everything else, but still individuals are able to blame the government and take tens of millions of dollars from the public. Why aren't drivers more liable for the harm they specifically cause? The road is there and yes Caltrans has a obligation to properly design and maintain these roads, but the users have a responsibility as well.

The simplest way to fix the issue is slow cars down, but drivers wont like it. Why is this a lose-lose situation for Caltrans? They want to make changes to make streets safer, but they cant because of the political and social will to move CARS faster.

It's unbelievable that the roadway can cause 90% fault of a driver/car hitting a person. 90% is like saying the roadway collapsed and killed them, but I dont believe that happened.

3 people like this
Posted by Roberto
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 17, 2016 at 1:06 pm

Roberto is a registered user.

@Tom, no, this is the state government. They do not react off of want/need. they react off of us (you and me) complaining, suits, etc. They will seemingly loose much more in law suits then common sense would dictate. Or as once said "I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help”
@gb52, although fundamentally I agree with you, I cannot agree on roads. If you you do not tell people where to go, the speed, and when to stop, they simply will not apply common sense - at l;east as the majority stands. The government has to set guidelines to assist

3 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2016 at 1:11 pm

What about adding another request signal in the center island? That way, were a pedestrian to be stranded there if the light turned against them before they reached the far side, they could request the ped xing light.

2 people like this
Posted by observer
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2016 at 1:13 pm

I don't know who is at fault for the tragic accidents mentioned above. What I have constantly observed is that people don't even glance to see if a car is coming. Usually they are looking at their phone. I learned to always watch in all directions as I would quickly cross the street. Are children being taught to carefully cross the street anymore?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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