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It’s common for impatient pedestrians to do what Alex Oat and Kate McGraw did Monday afternoon. Standing on the western edge of Balboa Park, they stepped into Sixth Avenue and crossed the wide, busy four-lane street at an unmarked intersection. Sixth Avenue runs alongside Balboa Park for more than a mile — that’s 16 city blocks — but has only four crosswalks.
Crossing at one of the unmarked intersections is more dangerous, yes, but for able-bodied women like Oat and McGraw, also more convenient than walking two blocks to the nearest traffic signal.
Now there’s good news for the wheelchair-bound, visually impaired, or otherwise handicapped who want to do the same. San Diego’s traffic department has just replaced old curb ramps along the park’s western perimeter with new, wider ones at each of those unmarked intersections. The new curb ramps were installed to make it easier for the handicapped to get into the street to cross in order to meet federal and state disability laws.
But the city has no plans to make other improvements, like stop lights, stop signs or crosswalks, that would make crossing the street at those wide intersections safer for disabled pedestrians, improvements that pedestrian advocates have long sought on Sixth Avenue.
Bill Harris, a traffic department spokesman, said the city’s decision to forego crosswalks was a deliberate one, based on traffic engineers’ belief that painting them at those intersections — which lack stop signs or traffic signals — could actually make crossing more dangerous. They would give pedestrians a false sense of security, engineers say, and make them less likely to look for oncoming cars before venturing into the street.
“By not putting crosswalks in we’re keeping people more aware of their surroundings and letting them make a decision about whether to cross,” Harris said. “If someone with mobility issues wants to cross the street, we want to make it easier. But installing two white lines is not related to that.”
And installing new stop signs or signal lights would interrupt the flow of traffic, which the city does not want to do on that busy corridor.
There is disagreement over whether painting crosswalks at intersections like those along Sixth Avenue — ones that don’t also have signal lights or stop signs — makes crossing safer or more dangerous for pedestrians. Traffic engineers still cite an influential 1970s study in San Diego that found more pedestrian accidents in intersections painted with crosswalks than in those without them.
But the newly replaced curb ramps illustrate what advocates say is a broader problem in the effort to improve pedestrian safety in San Diego. In this case, the city has complied with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to aid mobility for disabled people without making other improvements that would actually make the ramps safe to use.
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“This is a piecemeal effort to improve pedestrian safety,” said Kathleen Ferrier, a planner with the pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Diego. “ADA is required by federal law but those improvements are being done out of sync with other improvements to calm traffic along those corridors.”
For years, local advocates have been calling for broader pedestrian improvements along Sixth, Fifth and Fourth avenues in Bankers Hill, streets with bustling pedestrian traffic but also heavy car traffic from drivers trying to avoid congestion on nearby State Route 163.
A 2005 study commissioned by the Uptown Partnership, a group formed to address uptown parking issues, recommended eliminating a lane in each direction along Sixth Avenue and installing curb pop-outs that reduce the distance that pedestrians have to cross to get to and from Balboa Park.
Harris didn’t immediately know the fate of that study’s recommendations. But he said Sixth Avenue is one of Bankers Hill’s main north-south thoroughfares, with fast-moving traffic that the city would not want to interrupt.
“We just want traffic to flow more regularly on that street,” he said. That is why the city hasn’t moved forward with installing more traffic signals, he said, even at intersections like those that now have new pedestrian ramps to guide the disabled across four busy lanes of traffic.
Ferrier said more improvements were needed.
“We would like to see a more comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety, especially as it relates to improvements cited in the 2005 report,” Ferrier said. “These improvements would not only support comments from the community but also the city’s recently adopted General Plan,” which emphasized more sustainable, walkable neighborhoods.
Harris said the traffic department was interested in hearing recommendations to improve pedestrian safety, though he said walking a couple of blocks to get to the nearest crosswalk was a reasonable tradeoff to keep car traffic flowing freely down Sixth Avenue. The city still recommends crossing at marked intersections, Harris said.
Many pedestrians choose not to do that, though. On Monday, Charlie Offenhauer, a 96-year-old Bankers Hill resident, was inching across an unmarked intersection at Sixth Avenue and Nutmeg Street. Walking to the nearest crosswalk would have taken him two blocks out of his way.
“I’m very traffic-concerned,” he said after crossing.
Then again, he’s from New York City. Where he comes from, he said, pedestrians just wait until the traffic clears, and go.
Sam Hodgson contributed reporting to this story.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?