By SUSAN JONES
Pedestrian and vehicular safety have long been issues in Oakland. The death of 20-year-old Pitt student Barbara Como on Jan. 18, after she was struck by a Port Authority bus at the corner of Fifth Avenue and DeSoto Street, has brought new urgency to the conversation about what can be done to keep everyone safe.
ICYMI: Check out more coverage of Oakland’s traffic issues in the Post-Gazette.
Pitt officials said in a statement, “Safety is a top priority at the University of Pittsburgh. We are continually working to improve safety on and around campus and engage our community members in this effort.”
Some of the efforts already underway at Pitt include:
A community relations Pitt Police officer solely dedicated to traffic and pedestrian safety.
Addition of “Report a traffic safety concern” to the Rave Guardian mobile safety app.
Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner is soliciting input from students on “how to make our Oakland community safer for pedestrians,” through a form on the Student Affairs website.
We’ve all seen bad behavior
The University Times also asked for readers’ input about the biggest problem areas and ideas on how to make the streets safer for everyone. To be clear, the suggestions do not directly relate to the fatal accident on Jan. 18. The details of how the accident happened, which is being investigated by Pittsburgh Police and Port Authority, have not been released yet.
Several people related anecdotes of their own close encounters either as a pedestrian or a driver.
“I regularly walk from home to work and cross Fifth and Forbes four times a day. The biggest safety problem is the complete absence of enforcement of traffic light regulations. Car drivers will often accelerate on orange in order to beat the red light (sometimes crossing on red),” said Jean-Francois Richard, professor of Economics. “It is even worse with buses.”
“I actually saw a Pitt student hit by a car on Jan. 21 on Fifth Avenue at 3:30 p.m. The student was looking at their phone and darted across four lanes of traffic while the light was green,” said Joyce Holl, staff, Division of General Internal Medicine. “She almost made it, but the last lane — the car could not see her obstructed by the truck in the lane next to him and he hit her, she bounced off the car, fell and then got up and ran away. … My point is that we need to keep drilling to students the importance of following traffic signals.”
“I have repeatedly seen Port Authority bus drivers honking their horns at cars that are stopped to allow pedestrians to cross in marked pedestrian zones,” said William B. Klimstra, Department of Immunology. “Bus drivers need to be educated regarding pedestrian rights of way both directly in front of them and when there are cars between the bus and the pedestrians.”
“When I was on Fifth in my car last week, I sat for three turns of the light because pedestrians (who had the walk signal to cross South Bouquet) went in a very slow single line. Instead of grouping together or paying attention to the incredibly long line of cars who were attempting to turn there, they would just leisurely stroll out onto the street (some never looking up one time from their device), and not one single car was able to turn,” said Rachel Molinaro, project manager, Critical Care Medicine.
“Years ago, after twice being almost hit at the corner of Forbes and Craig and being knocked down … at the secondary-street crosswalk opposite Stephen Foster Memorial, I took it upon myself to hound City Council to have pedestrian crossing intervals installed at those two locations,” said Ann Weis, faculty, History of Art & Architecture, “I don't know whether that changed the accident statistics at those two corners but I myself have never felt in danger while crossing there again.”
In the end, “people need to be alert/pay attention, SLOW DOWN, and they need to care about others,” said Teresa Phipps, staff, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
What should be done?
Pitt faculty and staff had plenty of ideas for how to improve safety on Oakland’s streets. The problems, it would seem, stem from both inconsiderate and distracted drivers and pedestrians.
One very common suggestion was to make more intersections four-way stops, like those on Craig Street at Fifth and Forbes avenues, to allow pedestrians to cross safely when no vehicles are moving, and traffic to make turns without fear of hitting pedestrians.
Many of the comments echoed those of Louise Borowski, a staff member in Pitt Public Health, “I think the busiest intersections should have pedestrian lights as well as traffic lights. There should be time when no car traffic is moving and only pedestrians can cross at the crosswalks. There should also be times when pedestrians can’t cross and would have to wait.”
Amanda Purcell, municipal traffic engineer in the city of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said, “Exclusive pedestrian phases (all traffic is stopped and pedestrians are given the walk signal) are used only in special circumstances. Exclusive pedestrian phases require all modes of traffic to wait much longer, which leads to poor compliance by pedestrians and aggressive driving by drivers. Although they seem like they could/would help, they are often counterproductive.”
JOINT TASK FORCE NEEDED
Brian Brewster, a staff member at the Pitt Cancer Institute, said the University and the city need to work together to make Oakland safer. “The city of Pittsburgh lacks a traditional hub and spoke subway transportation system, which in turn, means that nearly all travel in and around the city is via cars or large buses. Oakland and the University of Pittsburgh are positioned in a main artery of the city. If the traffic cannot be rerouted to major new roadways, then the University of Pittsburgh should partner with the city of Pittsburgh to expedite the traffic through the area and increase safety of pedestrians.”
Stephen Bagnato, faculty member in Psychology in Education, agrees that a united group needs to tackle this problem. “I believe that we need to create a forum in which the city, with Pitt, UPMC and CMU … are tasked with … re-designing and funding the traffic patterns and pedestrian avenues to ensure complete safety for our students. Both Forbes and Fifth are disasters waiting to happen, but Fifth is so poorly conceived in almost every way that a total ‘rethink’ is necessary.”
The University said it plans to utilize multiple communications tools to reach out to the Pitt community in the coming weeks and gather input and ideas on promoting campus safety.
Pitt has in the past worked with the city, county and state authorities to remedy crosswalk concerns and malfunctioning traffic signals, according to the University. Some past projects include: installing a railing along the Fifth Avenue busway; creating a mid-block crosswalk with a traffic light along Forbes Avenue outside of David Lawrence Hall; shortening crosswalks and modifying the turning radius to slow traffic and make pedestrians more visible at the intersection of Fifth and Bellefield avenues.
The work being done on Bigelow Boulevard also is designed to improve pedestrian safety by creating a mid-block crosswalk and making jaywalking more difficult.
Staff Council has made roadway safety one of its key issues and regularly holds Safety Crawls to identify areas of concern on campus and then work with the Pitt administration to prioritize and fix the problems.
Many readers expressed frustration with pedestrians, particularly students, being inattentive when crossing the street.
“It is the responsibility of the drivers to pay attention and give the right of way to pedestrians, but this should not give false security to students who blatantly disobey the road crossing rules that we were all taught as children,” said Denise Kroll, staff, Department of Otolaryngology. “For their own safety, I think the University may need to remind them to: Look both ways before crossing. Do not cross against the light. Stop texting for the 15 seconds that it takes to cross the street.”
“Pedestrians need to be cognizant while walking the streets which means do not use your cell phone while walking!,” said Jane March, associate professor, Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine. “I picked a woman up off the curb at the very same intersection (DeSoto and Fifth) just days before this accident. She was using her cell phone and missed the curb. She went down so hard I was sure she was injured. Fortunately, she was able to walk on after regaining her composure.”
And at night, the problem of seeing pedestrians becomes even more pronounced.
“As a grad student, I’m leaving campus around 9 p.m. two nights each week. It is incredibly difficult to see pedestrians at night because everyone seems to be wearing dark clothing and the lighting is poor,” said Sandy Barsotti, of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “In addition, most pedestrians don’t event pause, let alone stop, at the crosswalks. I’m happy to honor their right-of-way in the crosswalk, but I do need to see them first. On a dark street, on a dark night, while wearing a dark coat, please don’t just step out into the crosswalk.”
The University says it is working on a new rotation of safety messages that will distributed by University Communications, Pitt Police, Student Affairs and others through social media and on digital televisions throughout campus.
ENFORCE THE LAWS
Several readers thought Pitt and Pittsburgh police need to more aggressively enforce traffic and speeding laws, particularly the no turn on red law.
Pitt Police currently devotes four to six motorcycle officers to traffic enforcement on the daylight shift, according to the University. They also track accidents in Oakland (daily, monthly, and yearly) to determine if there are commonalities, especially with regard to intersections, and report findings to the appropriate authorities.
Reduce the speed limit and enforce high tickets for offenders on both Forbes and Fifth Avenues between Magee Hospital and the Cathedral of Learning, said Sherri Tozzi, staff member, Budget & Financial Reporting. “It is insane how fast the cars and buses go. It should be treated like a residential area with reduced speeds at a maximum of 15-20 mph. Speed bumps could be added to enforce this.”
Red light cameras have worked very well in other cities, suggested Cynthia St. Hilaire, assistant professor, Departments of Medicine & Bioengineering. And she’d like to make the “Pittsburgh left” illegal with a steep first offense fine.
Amanda Purcell, the municipal traffic engineer, said red light cameras have been considered. “In order to proceed, (city) council will need to approve authorizing legislation and the departments of Public Safety and Mobility & Infrastructure will need to implement it. It is a big lift, but could happen,” she said.
Plus, several readers said Port Authority needs to crack down on reckless driving, speeding, running red lights and intimidation of other vehicles.
- “Improved signage and walk times. … I cross a dangerous intersection at DeSoto and O’Hara several times a day. The pedestrian light is infrequent and very brief, like five seconds. I’m surprised no one has been hit. The length of time for pedestrian crossing should be increased.” — Jane Marsh, faculty, Infectious Diseases
- Give pedestrians a head start. In New York, more and more intersections now have a green light for pedestrians seven seconds before the light turns green for turning traffic. — Aileen Chou, staff, School of Health and Rehabilitation Science
- “Please remove the bike lane, it really does not belong on Fifth Avenue. The campus is not safe for drivers or pedestrians and now we have endangered bicyclists as well. Fifth Avenue is not a bike friendly area.” — Theresa DiNardo, staff, School of Nursing
- “Crosswalks in which pedestrians have the right of way over vehicles should be clearly marked both on the pavement and via signage either in the street (as I have seen on other campuses).” — William B. Klimstra, faculty, Department of Immunology
- A “superblock” type system for Forbes and Fifth avenues, in which the perpendicular access streets, McKee, Meyran, Oakland, Bouquet, etc. would be entirely closed off to traffic, and cars would be routed to turn in a safer place designed to run more efficiently. There are currently far too many left turning streets in such a small area. — Brian Brewster, a staff member at the Pitt Cancer Institute
- Remove crosswalks on the western side of streets that intersect with Fifth Avenue, such as at DeSoto Street and Meyran Avenue. “When you permit pedestrians to cross on the western side, the vehicles turning onto Fifth Avenue from those side streets need to stop for pedestrians and get very angry and impatient. If there was not a crosswalk on the west side, pedestrians would be crossing on the eastern crosswalk while vehicles are simultaneously turning onto Fifth without disruption from foot traffic.” — Michelle LeMenager, staff, Human Research Protection Office
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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