Back-Seat Driver

Pedestrians want California cities to give them a head start crossing the street

Watch streetcars roll along Sacramento streets in the 1940s

These downtown scenes show streetcar operations of the Sacramento City Lines in a circa 1946 educational documentary.
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These downtown scenes show streetcar operations of the Sacramento City Lines in a circa 1946 educational documentary.

The Sacramento Bee last week dug up fascinating video of streetcars downtown in the 1940s. Watching it, I was struck by several things: K Street was crowded and cosmopolitan (guys wore suits and fedoras), traffic was slow, and people getting on and off streetcars seemed to mingle easily in the street with cars.

Those same streets today feel less friendly. Downtown worker Kristin Gunn says she’d like the city to make it easier for pedestrians by changing traffic signals to allow them a head start into the crosswalk before cars are allowed to go.

The city, in fact, does do that at a handful of intersections, allowing pedestrians a few seconds before right-turning cars get the green light to turn into the crosswalk.

City traffic chief Ryan Moore says that accommodation comes with a cost. If you do that at numerous intersections along a corridor, the accumulated wait times for vehicles add up to worse traffic jams. And, he said, it is not certain how much safer that head start makes things.

The city has a group of engineers whose job it is to investigate streets for possible safety changes. They call themselves the “Gators” and their City Hall office “The Swamp.” The public works phone number is 916-808-8300. Ask for “traffic investigations.”

“We’ll look at anyone’s intersection, any time,” Moore said.

Walk, or scurry?

You know that moment when the “walk” sign has turned to “don’t walk,” but the light hasn’t changed yet, and you think you can make it across if you hurry, but technically, you’d be disobeying the sign?

It’s a real issue. In Los Angeles, people are getting hit with tickets for that.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, just introduced a bill to clarify. If the pedestrian light has a countdown head (like a NASA launch: 10, 9, 8, 7 …), you’d have the right to scurry out after “don’t walk” flashes if you can get to the other side before the countdown hits zero.

That often gives you about 10 seconds. It’s a judgment call, depending on your foot speed (if you don’t have to run back and pick up your fedora). The point, Santiago says, is to encourage a pedestrian-friendly community.

“I don’t believe pedestrians should be preyed upon just to fill local coffers,” Santiago said. “It ought to be based on whether it is safe or not.”

A break for parking violators

Another Southern California legislator will introduce a bill Monday to help drivers who have trouble paying for parking citations.

Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a former highway patrolman, wants to require certain cities to allow people to pay parking citations in installments over a year if they ask for the extra time. A typical parking ticket in the city of Sacramento is $42.

The goal, he said, is to help people avoid getting caught in a financial trap where their failure to pay the citation on time causes penalty fees to be added, and that is followed in some cities by notifications to the DMV, which can put a lien on their licenses and ultimately end with them losing their license.

Sacramento already offers a similar installment payment program for people who cannot pay their parking bill. The city, however, charges people a $30 administrative fee to sign up, and the person has to be more than $100 in arrears to qualify for the payment plan.

Lackey’s bill would override Sacramento’s $30 fee. “It’s all in the spirit of fairness,” Lackey said. “We don’t want them in a spiral they are unprepared to deal with. There should be reasonable accommodations to pay over time.”