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November 20, 2003

Pedestrian fatality prompts renewed safety emphasis

web pedestriansLast month’s pedestrian fatality near campus has prompted renewed attention to pedestrian safety in Oakland. At the urging of Faculty Assembly, the University Senate community relations committee will tackle the issue.

A pedestrian was struck and killed Oct. 14 by a construction vehicle at the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Darragh Street and McKee Place, near the construction site of Pitt’s Biomedical Science Tower 3 (BST3). See Oct. 23  University Times.

“But that’s certainly not the only dangerous place for accidents or potential accidents,” said Tracy Soska, chair of the community relations committee, at a meeting Nov. 10. “We have the area in front of Hillman and on Bigelow and Fifth and Forbes avenues and their side streets. And there are larger issues here. I know we’re an urban campus. But we’re also linked with the surrounding community, and safety issues extend to the community. There are issues of enforcement: What jurisdiction do the University police have for traffic violations, for example. We need to look at whether the problems are city-related, community-related or University-specific.”

There are some things Pitt can do, he said. As an example, Soska noted that a campus police vehicle is regularly stationed during rush hour at Roberto Clemente Drive and Pennant Place. Regional public transportation issues, including ameliorating traffic congestion in Oakland, also should be considered, he said.

Committee member Ken Batista added, “Part of the problem is also the mindset of the pedestrians, not just [aggressive or reckless] drivers. We’ve all seen people just walk out into an intersection without looking. Is the ordinance against jay-walking ever enforced? It may be that some of the answers are simple: education of pedestrians and enforcement of existing laws.”

The committee plans to invite members of Oakland community groups for feedback on pedestrian safety problems. “A lot of these groups — the Oakland Task Force, Oakland Planning and Development Corp., Oakland Traffic Management Association — over the years have done studies on traffic flow and traffic signage,” Soska said. “We should get an update from them on their latest data, as well as consult with city planning and [Pitt police] Chief Tim Delaney.”

The Staff Association Council (SAC) has been looking at pedestrian safety for several months. James Lyle, who chairs the SAC safety and security committee, told the University Times Nov. 12 that his committee met with Chief Delaney to discuss a wide range of concerns on campus. “Right now, we have not arrived at particular recommendations for the campus. But we plan to work with the University police and the community relations committee to [investigate] what can be done,” Lyle said.

Last month Lyle forwarded a set of photographs of pedestrian trouble spots campus-wide to the city’s Department of Engineering and Construction, which oversees traffic issues and evaluates dangerous conditions.

According to Fred Reginella, director of that city department, traffic engineers evaluate complaints as they come in to his office. “We have the expertise but we don’t always have the resources in manpower,” Reginella said. “We do investigate complaints, typically with an on-site visit, and we apply state and federal standards [of safety],” he said. Complaints are queued as they come in, unless they appear to represent an imminent threat to safety.

Reginella said that the city requires a traffic study to determine if a controlled device is warranted, such as a new traffic light or an exclusive walk phase, which allows pedestrians a grace period, typically 25-30 seconds, to cross an intersection while all traffic lights stay red.

Such a study, ordered by the city, was completed last week by Trans Associates traffic engineers for the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Darragh Street and McKee Place, the site of last month’s fatality. Staging for the BST3 construction at that intersection has forced the temporary elimination of the sidewalk, the bus stop and the northernmost inbound lane on Fifth Avenue between Lothrop and Darragh streets, squeezing four lanes of traffic on Fifth into three. The construction project also relocated the pedestrian crosswalk to the west side of Darragh/McKee (running between the Rangos Research Center and the Kaufmann Medical Building), from its pre-construction location on the east side (from Hieber’s Pharmacy to the east side of Darragh). This shift forces pedestrians to cross traffic turning left from McKee and right from Darragh onto Fifth.

The Trans Associates study measured the impact on traffic of installing an exclusive walk phase at that intersection, according to city traffic engineer Darryl Phillips. Some 40,000-50,000 cars use the inbound Fifth Avenue corridor on an average weekday.

As a result of the study, the city has decided against installing an exclusive walk phase at the intersection.

“There would be a very substantial negative effect on traffic congestion of adding an exclusive walk phase, not only at that intersection but on the adjoining streets,” Phillips told the University Times this week.

The city had already okayed a 5-second “advanced pedestrian phase,” which gives pedestrians a head start into the intersection before traffic lights turn green. Reginella also approved a “no turn on red” sign for traffic coming down Darragh toward Fifth. Both of these changes will remain in place, Phillips said.

In addition, Mascaro Construction Co., the contractor for Pitt’s BST3 project, hired off-duty police officers to assist pedestrians and direct traffic at the intersection weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“We feel, based on our own observations as well as the traffic study, which evaluated the current traffic flow, that having the police officer stationed at the intersection for the duration of the construction project is providing the safety for pedestrians and the efficient traffic flow as close to the ideal as you can get,” Phillips said. “The police officer is holding traffic until pedestrians can get completely across the street, and controlling over-aggressive drivers and, frankly, over-aggressive pedestrians, who start crossing too late.”

He added that the city will continue to monitor the situation and will re-evaluate it if any new problems arise.

Reginella said, “We’ve not had any complaints since the police officer first started there. My only concern is that to keep a police presence there from 6 a.m.- to 10 p.m. will cost [Mascaro] a lot of money.” BST3 construction is expected to continue until 2005.

SAC’s Lyle agreed that the police officer had effectively restored safety to the intersection.

—Peter Hart                    


Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 7

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