Starting last week, and continuing for the next six months, the intersection of Flower Street and 6th Street in Downtown Los Angeles will be closed for construction activities related to Metro’s Regional Connector project. Once completed, the Regional Connector will be a major improvement to Metro’s rail system, allowing single seat rides for some trips that currently require two transfers. So the temporary closing of this intersection–a major entry point to downtown, funneling traffic from the west and from the busy 110 freeway into the busy Financial District–is an understandable sacrifice. I wasn’t even mad that the closure is disrupting both of the bus lines that I regularly use to get home from my office (conveniently located less than a block away from the closed intersection). What I was not prepared for was how the rerouted car traffic and reengineered intersections would create unexpected and unnecessary inconvenience for pedestrians on some of the busiest sidewalks in all of Los Angeles.
It makes sense that the city reworked traffic patterns to accommodate such a major street closure (even if recent “carmageddons” in Los Angeles and elsewhere have shown that commuters will find alternatives if provided with adequate information), and so new turn lanes have been added on affected streets, and new signalized turns help cars zig-zag efficiently around the street closure. What makes no sense is why the protected turn lanes in this reengineered traffic pattern have come at the expense of shorter crossing times in such a pedestrian-rich area, and brand new “beg buttons” at many area intersections that never had them before.
I’m not here to tell you why beg buttons are bad. Alissa Walker already wrote that story several years ago (seriously, if you google “beg button” her story is the first result). I am here to tell you that this new proliferation of beg buttons, and the temporarily reengineered intersections are not just inconveniencing pedestrians, they are making these intersections less safe.
It may come as a surprise to many Angelenos, but in downtown the vast majority of intersections do not require pedestrians to push a button to get a walk signal. Considering the heavy pedestrian traffic in downtown at all times of day, traffic signals are always timed to provide sufficient time for pedestrians to cross. But now, without warning, many of these same intersections is some of busiest parts of downtown suddenly have beg buttons. If you cross the same street every day for years without having to push a button, are you going to notice if suddenly that protocol changes? And if you show up to a crosswalk where others are already waiting, even if you do notice that there is a button to press for a walk signal, aren’t you going to assume someone else already pressed it?
So now you have a whole group of people waiting at an intersection–let’s say Figueroa and 7th Streets during the lunch rush, with dozens of people crossing in each direction on each walk signal–all of them expecting a walk signal, but no one pressed the button. When the light turns green for the cars, but there is no walk signal what happens? Some people may instinctively start walking, even without the signal, while others may hesitate but eventually join with the crowd crossing without the signal. Those who may have arrived at the intersection after the signal changed still see a green light and a crowd crossing the street, so they join it too. But since no one pressed the button, there is not enough time for all those pedestrians to make it across the wide street before the signal turns red. The crossing car traffic gets a green light but there are still pedestrians crossing the intersection. Now I doubt any drivers would actively try to harm pedestrians who may be blocking their path, but pedestrians represented nearly half of all traffic fatalities in Los Angeles in 2016.
To make matters worse, some of the reengineered intersections simply make no sense in relation to car traffic flows. The worst offender may be the intersection of Hope and 6th Streets, an intersection I cross at least twice a day on may to and from work. Hope Street is usually a relatively quiet street in an otherwise heavily trafficked area. Just north of 6th Street, Hope dead ends into the Los Angeles Central Library, so there is almost no through traffic, except for a handful of cars accessing parking lots. But with 6th Street closed to through traffic just one block west, Hope Street is now the detour route for all the displaced drivers. So it is logical, if frustrating for pedestrians, that the new double right turn lane eats into what would otherwise be pedestrian crossing time. What is completely incomprehensible is the protected left turn arrow provided on EVERY SINGLE CYCLE of the signal pattern for drivers traveling from northbound Hope Street to the temporarily eastbound stub of 6th Street.
In the few days I have been able to observe this new traffic pattern, I have almost never observed any cars actually utilizing this left turn. On a recent lunch break, I observed the traffic passing through the intersection for about 20 minutes, and every single one of the five cars that used the left turn, ended up making a U-turn at the dead end. All of the drivers looked a little lost. Admittedly, I am probably not observing the intersection at the highest traffic periods for those few residents of the Pegasus Apartments or visitors to the Standard Hotel who would actually use the left turn signal to access their respective parking lots, but if the traffic is so limited, why isn’t the cars that have to trigger to the left turn signal, and not the pedestrians who have to wait for cars that aren’t there? Instead, pedestrians who are familiar with the intersection are simply ignoring the inconvenience of the new traffic patterns and crossing the street against the signal. And pedestrians aren't just risking their own safety, they also face the risk of draconian jaywalking fines for crossing against the signal.
This new status for these handful of intersections in Downtown Los Angeles is not only unsafe for pedestrians and drivers, it proves that the default mode of L.A. Department of Transportation, intentionally or not, continues to preference the convenience of drivers over the safety of pedestrians. And we can’t ignore the role Metro plays in these scenarios either. With the footprint of Metro construction projects poised to be greatly increased over the coming decades, the transit agency should be intimately involved in coordinating with municipalities on how their construction projects will impact pedestrian traffic. Many of those pedestrians may also be Metro riders, and all of them are potential riders, so the impacts Metro has on them should get at least as much attention and effort as Metro’s Business Interruption Fund.
Anyone who pays any attention knows that the old cliche (and song lyric) “nobody walks in L.A.” is nothing more than apocryphal urban legend. It’s long past time that the City and the transit agency actually start considering the safety needs of the city’s pedestrians in their planning decisions.