Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Chapel Hill worries about pedestrians; experiments with crosswalks

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2013 

— The town of Chapel Hill puts up a flurry of warnings for drivers as they approach pedestrian crosswalks at apartment complexes on two busy thoroughfares. Sometimes there are so many warnings that you might not notice an actual pedestrian waiting at the curb for you to stop.

On the right side of the street, the first sign points to a line of white chevrons in the pavement and says, in words and symbols, “Yield here to pedestrians.” Fifty feet down the road – partly hidden by the first sign – is a yellow-diamond crosswalk sign, with another arrow.

On the driver’s left, in the center of this five-lane road, a low sign warns that state law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians. As you take all this in, your eye is drawn up and to the left, to another yellow-diamond crosswalk sign with an arrow.

This one is outlined in hypnotic yellow LED lights that blink on and off, on and off, night and day, whether or not there is anybody actually hoping to cross the street at that moment.

So, do university students and retirees and campus workers feel safe? Can they trust the drivers on East Franklin Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to stop for them at these super-duper crosswalks?

“No, they don’t stop,” Verdell Williams of Durham, who works at UNC Hospitals and parks her car near an East Franklin crosswalk, said Monday. “There have been times when I thought people were going to get run over.”

Welcome to the pedestrian center of life as we know it. There is surely no town in North Carolina, at least, that worries more about the well-being of people who get around on foot. And no place that experiments with more ways to get people safely from one side of the street to the other.

Some experiments don’t work so well.

In 2005, Chapel Hill installed bins with bright orange flags at a couple of busy intersections. The idea was that you take a flag and wave it in the air to get drivers’ attention as you walk across the street, then deposit it on the other side.

Alas, some pedestrians were so emboldened – like turistas running with the bulls at Pamplona – that they took reckless chances. They acted as if the flags would protect them even if they walked against a red light.

Pedestrian refuges

Chapel Hill is still perfecting the crosswalk, and it has made plenty of improvements around town. The walks on Franklin and MLK include raised medians in the center lane, known as pedestrian refuges. They make it safer to cross two lanes of traffic going one way, then take a breather while you wait for a safe opening in traffic going the other way.

“The refuges certainly make it easier to cross,” said Ed Harrison, a town council member and mayor pro tem. “In recent years, because our bus use has gotten so heavy, you used to see these crowds of mostly UNC students standing out there in the center turn lane.”

The town runs frequent campaigns, in partnership with UNC and the state Department of Transportation, to educate drivers about their responsibilities and pedestrians about their risks.

“We don’t want to give pedestrians a false sense of safety with the crosswalk,” said David Bonk, the town transportation planning manager. “Yes, they have a legal right to be out there. But that legal right takes a back seat when you’ve got a 2,000-pound vehicle coming at you.”

‘Very dangerous sport’

Godwin Chikwanda of Zambia, in town to visit his daughter, scowled as he waited for traffic to stop so he and his wife could cross Franklin beneath one of those flashing yellow signs.

“It is a very dangerous sport, this,” Chikwanda said. “You have to stop and maybe put your hand up for them to stop. To me, this is negligence. The drivers are speeding so much.”

There were a few rear-end collisions after Chapel Hill added those always-blinking LED lights last year. One driver noticed the crosswalk and stopped. The driver in the next car didn’t.

“Each driver in each car has a different brain,” Harrison said. “One may have a brain that reacts to the flashing light that says, ‘Stop.’ And the one behind him may not.”

Some Chapel Hill crosswalks have push-button signals, so pedestrians can make the cars stop. Kumar Neppalli, the town’s chief traffic engineer, says he hopes to add a new kind of signal to some of the East Franklin and MLK crosswalks.

That might be a good idea, Williams said. She likes a push-button signal near the hospital that activates lights in the pavement itself.

“Maybe if the lights were on the pavement here, they would maybe stop,” Williams said on East Franklin, as cars roared past. Then she shrugged.

“I don’t know. They probably still wouldn’t stop.”

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