What Can Be Done About Alameda's Unsafe Streets?
Since 2012, there have been five pedestrian fatalities, 131 pedestrian accidents, and 168 bicyclists injured in altercations with cars on Alameda streets. What’s Alameda doing to make streets safer?
An Alameda pedestrian warns a motorist on Park Street.
Photo by Chris Duffey
Does Alameda have a traffic safety issue? In Police Chief Paul Rolleri’s opinion, the answer is yes, and he has the statistics to prove it.
In September, Alameda resident Augusta Collins became the latest traffic fatality, killed by a vehicle as he walked in a crosswalk on Constitution Way near Marina Village Parkway. Collins was a legendary East Bay blues drummer.
Until that tragedy, in the first five months of 2015, 16 pedestrians and 13 cyclists had been injured on Alameda streets, and one pedestrian killed. In 2014, 36 pedestrians and 54 cyclists were hurt, and two pedestrians killed. In 2013, 41 pedestrians and 56 cyclists were harmed; happily, there were no fatalities. In 2012—when 38 pedestrians and 45 cyclists were injured and one pedestrian was killed—the state Office of Traffic Safety ranked Alameda No. 41 out of 102 similar-sized California cities in terms of accidents in which victims were injured or killed in collisions with vehicles.
So the unfortunate truth may be the island city isn’t as safe as people think.
On June 24, Alameda police conducted a “pedestrian decoy operation,” an enforcement action the chief said was intended to reduce vehicle-pedestrian collisions and educate motorists about pedestrian safety. Police used pedestrian decoys at eight of the island’s busier intersections to flush out drivers for failing to yield. It netted 167 drivers and one jaywalker. About 80 percent of the tickets issued were for failure to yield to pedestrians, with the balance for speeding and distracted driving.
“Ideally, we want everyone to be safe, but any coverage of the action hopefully gives more people pause,” Rolleri said. “And, if you are given a ticket and you never do it again, then that’s a success.”
The operation drew mixed reactions from locals, however, with some Alamedans supporting it and asking for more enforcement while others dismissed it as a nothing more than a sting and a cash grab. Rolleri defended the action.
“It’s a really simple test,” he said. “If you stop for the pedestrian, you pass. If you don’t, you fail. That’s a behavior that’s the responsibility of the driver. It’s not creating a circumstance that’s enticing people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”
Asked whether officers could have just sat and watched for random violations rather than deploy decoys, Rolleri said that former approach is neither safe nor efficient. “This way, we are sort of controlling the pedestrians,” he said. “We’ve trained them. We don’t want them darting out into traffic. We want them to look both ways and cross when it’s safe.”
The chief said his department typically undertakes such traffic enforcement actions four times a year, but Rolleri said the June 24 operation was especially large. “It wasn’t just the Alameda Police Department,” he said, adding that 30 to 35 officers from police agencies across the county joined in.
The operation was not a revenue generator nor were officers rewarded for their ticket writing, Rolleri said. Although revenue from parking citations mostly goes to the city, he noted that traffic citation revenue is divvied up among the state, the county, and the city. In 2014, Rolleri said, Alameda received only $27 from each $238 traffic ticket. “So, if you added up what it cost to do that operation, we’re losing money,” he said. “If we were in the private sector, we wouldn’t do it very often, but we are trying to create safe traffic conduct, and for a city of 75,000 residents, we have a traffic safety issue.”
Lucy Gigli, director of advocacy at Bike Walk Alameda, supported the police’s operation and said making streets safer takes more than education and enforcement.
“It involves education, engineering, enforcement, evaluation, encouragement, and equality—of the roadway and money,” Gigli said, pointing out that streets are engineered for driving. “Because of that, the streets can be unsafe for other modes of travel.”
Ron Mooney, who co-owns Daisy’s on Park Street, one of the island’s busiest streets, said he has seen “a few near misses” near his store. He also said he sees drivers making illegal U-turns to get parking spots, pedestrians crossing midblock with their noses in their phones texting, and cyclists flying full-speed though red lights.
“We don’t need the police around all the time, but a two-day enforcement period could help,” said Mooney, who sits on the board of the Downtown Alameda Business Association, formerly known as the Park Street Business District. “We want a safe, friendly experience for everyone.”
Mooney, a member of the association’s maintenance and improvement committee, said he hopes to persuade the Alameda City Council this fall to support the installation of a four-way crosswalk, also known as a pedestrian scramble, on Park Street for at least a yearlong trial period.
“They have them in Oakland’s Chinatown,” Mooney said, referring to crosswalks that allow pedestrians to cross in all four directions and then allow traffic to move without worrying about foot traffic.
Mooney pointed out that after close calls on a midblock crosswalk on Park Street, the city installed flashing footlights that activated when pedestrians pushed a button. Alameda makes pedestrian improvements such as ladder crosswalk striping, rapid flashing beacons, pedestrian bulb-outs, refuge islands, and signal timing changes, but it no longer installs in-pavement lights, said Interim Assistant City Manager Amy Wooldridge, explaining, “They have proven to be unreliable and difficult for drivers to see in the daylight.”
Alan Cohen of the city attorney’s office said there are no active pedestrian lawsuits pending against the city. But Rolleri said he knows of one pending claim involving one of the intersections the police worked during the June enforcement.
Tom Lewellyn, an Alameda-based personal injury lawyer, warned that it’s no easy task to successfully file a pedestrian injury claim, let alone a lawsuit. If a pedestrian injury occurs on public property such as a bad crosswalk situation, he said, the claim is subject to government claims statutes. This means the plaintiff must prove there was a dangerous condition, that the city either knew or should have known that the particular property was dangerous, and thatthe dangerous condition was actually a cause of the particular injury.
A registered engineer who signed off on the city’s traffic plans would likely give the city immunity from claims, unless a plaintiff could show a change of circumstance, such as a big increase in pedestrian traffic that the city should have known about, the lawyer said. Then there’s the fact that you need to file a claim within six months of the accident, and, if the city rejects the claim, you need to file a lawsuit within the next six months. “Otherwise, you lose all your rights,” Lewellyn said. “That’s true even if you are a minor.
“I think people should be more aware of pedestrians, and by the same token, pedestrians need to be more sensitive to their surroundings,” Lewellyn added. “It’s amazing that there aren’t more accidents.”
Noting that the next operation, which will likely occur in the fall, will involve four motorcycle officers, Rolleri said, “We want to make sure drivers are following state law related to pedestrians and cyclists.”
As for those who think a bad day is getting stopped and being ticketed for something as seemingly innocuous as pedestrian safety, Rolleri submitted that a truly bad day is when you, or someone you care about, is injured or killed because someone wasn’t paying attention. “Every day someone is having an actual bad day in a hospital or a funeral home.”