DIY pedestrian safety

Way back in 2006, the founders of the Downtown Lake Merritt Neighborhood Group began an effort to get a crosswalk installed at the corner of 15th and Jackson. Residents of the Lake Merritt apartment district will be familiar with the spot, a T-intersection across the street from that natural foods store, which I totally wish had been there back when I lived in that neighborhood. Anyway, the spot was always kind of a pain to cross, and residents tell me pedestrian traffic has increased sharply since the store opened a few years ago.

Although the problems on the street are nothing even remotely close to the terrifying pedestrian conditions in the HarriOak neighborhood, residents and frequent visitors of the area know that cars can get going pretty fast along the stretch of Jackson between 17th and 15th, and it isn’t really a fun place to try to cross the street. Although there have been no reported pedestrian-vehicle collisions at the intersection over the last few years, there are plenty of close calls, and many residents worry that it’s only a matter of time until something like this happens:

(staged photo)

So the founders of the group started a petition to get a crosswalk marked at the intersection, and after roughly an hour’s worth of effort yielded 130 signatures, they submitted the petition and request for a crosswalk to the City.

The immediate response from the City’s transportation department to the request was that getting a crosswalk would be “unlikely,” since Federal regulations for pedestrian crossings require installation of new curb ramps, which would cost as much as $9,000 and reminding the petitioners that the US Department of Transportation notes that crosswalks “will not make crossing safer, nor necessarily result in more vehicles stopping for pedestrians.*

After six months of no further responses to calls and e-mails, a different transportation engineer finally informed the petitioner that the City was denying the crosswalk request, because:

Crosswalks are marked to guide pedestrians to use a preferred path. Between the two unmarked crosswalks crossing Jackson St at 15th Street, both crosswalks are equally visible to drivers. Therefore, there is no reason to guide pedestrian to use one but not the other.

Such logic may make a great deal of sense to traffic engineers, but not so much to people who just want to feel a little safer crossing the street. With no help forthcoming from the City, someone recently took matters into their own hands and dealt with the problem by buying a couple of buckets of paint and doing this:

(No, I don’t know who did it, and the petition organizer has assured me that it was not him.)

A guerrilla crosswalk is no doubt kind of cool, but it’s a sad reflection of the responsiveness of Oakland’s government to citizen needs when people are reduced to painting their own crosswalks on the street in the middle of the night.

* So I’m not really qualified to comment on the appropriateness of a crosswalk in this location (normally I would spend a couple hours researching the issue before commenting, but I just don’t have time right now. Elections!). It’s true that one study (PDF!) on the efficacy of marked crosswalks found that marking crosswalks, in the absence of other traffic calming measures, actually led to an increase in pedestrian accidents on multi-lane, high traffic streets (think Telegraph), while the impact on 2-lane, lower-traffic streets (like Jackson) was negligible, although marking crosswalks did significantly increase pedestrian traffic across marked intersections. But if the City is denying crosswalk requests because they will not increase safety, it’s the City’s responsibility to educate residents about the evidence and explain their reasoning, not just issue curt denials. One also can’t help but wonder about the inconsistent logic apparently applied to related transportation decisions. For example, evidence does not show that bicycle lanes improve safety for bicyclists more than wide outside lanes, and many bicycle advocates fear that the presence of bicycle lanes can actually be more dangerous for bicyclists, as they create an illusion of safety. Yet we plan for bicycle lanes because that’s what people want. Why does the same logic not apply for pedestrian improvements?

37 thoughts on “DIY pedestrian safety

  1. Max Allstadt

    One way to increase the safety of crosswalks is to enforce the laws that protect pedestrians in crosswalks. In SoCal in many places, it is common to get a ticket for not yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. If the OPD is looking for excuses to do traffic stops, this is an easy one. Nobody stops for pedestrians in this town. The cops could make money and check warrants. Easy pickins.

    And if you thought guerilla crosswalks were bad news V, (or cool news), did you know that Mexico City has an issue with guerilla speed bumps!?

  2. Mike Hardy

    As a cyclist (so take me with a grain of salt if you like) I think the one thing bike lanes are good for is letting cyclists know (at the trip-planning stage) which roads are better for cyclists or not. Not because of the seemingly obvious reason (they’re allegedly safer) but more because typically bike lanes don’t get striped on streets that aren’t good for cyclists. So you can kind of use them as a litmus test for the question “is this road plain horrible for cycling or does it have a chance of being okay”. That’s somewhat useful.

    I think the crosswalks can do the same thing – they serve as a marker of a likely good spot more than anything.

    I’m a fan of pedestrian stop lights and those embedded blinky pedestrian crosswalks, and I don’t think speed bumps and stop signs are a bad idea either, but short of getting the city to put something in place that really increases safety, having very local people work on a very local problem themselves doesn’t seem awful as long as there’s followup

    I’d love to see a survey in a year that asks residents how it’s working and a commitment to sandblast it out if it’s not…

  3. Chris Kidd

    I totally understand the need for topes(speed bumps) in Mexico City, they’re the only thing keeping drivers from flying through cities at 120 kph. I was down there a few weeks ago and driving was just the nuttiest free-for-all I’ve ever been in. But then again, some of the rules of the road were far more utilitarian and courteous than in the states…

    From an observational man-on-the-street angle, I’ve found that the only crosswalks that actually work in stopping traffic are the ones that have a X-ing sign in the median strip and have those embedded lights in the pavement that flash when someone’s crossing the street. But man, if it’s 9K to put in ramps on either end of the sidewalk, I don’t wanna know how much more it’d be to install the other stuff.

    When (and if) the city gets OPD up to full strength, ticketing pedestrian violators might be a useful/profitable practice. Until then, though, there’s other stuff I’d much rather have them working on.

    Also, that crash picture is amazing. Guy looks like he’s working on his jazz hands for an upcomming “Hello Dolly” audition.

  4. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart… I’ve spent an inordinant amount of time on this subject in my own neighborhood and in some ways it makes me feel better that the City’s response to me is the same to everyone else. It still sucks.

    No, you can’t have a stop sign, much less a cross walk, because the City doesn’t believe they should be used to stop or slow down traffic. Pedestrian rights? Not important. So let’s focus on having fewer cars – which I believe in – but not provide pedestrians the tools to get places safely. Or bikers, but that’s another story. Argghhh, it just doesn’t make sense.

    We finally got a stop sign at 3rd & Alice Streets after much protesting from all property owners adjacent to the intersection as well as others in the neighborhood. But a crosswalk? No can do. There are at least three other intersections where it is difficult to see and stop signs and crosswalks have been requested, but despite the number of people for it – including all property owners adjacent to the intersections – the City refuses. What does it take? Especially when safety is such a key issue?

    NN has certainly not been a help, although I’m sure she takes credit for the two or three we got a few years ago.

    Situations change and stop signs are needed to protect drivers and walkers from the other directions. The intersection in front of the Sierra Deli at 3rd & Madison is a sad example. How many wrecks have to happen? Does someone need to die before a stop sign can be put in? And a crosswalk?! Hah, I know better than to hold my breath. Rediculous!!! Back when there was no deli there, it wasn’t a destination corner, so it made sense not to have one, but now it makes total sense, except for our senseless city.

    Joe Wang says that it is because 3rd Street is a truck route…. can’t have the trucks stopping and poluting the air. OMG! Are you serious? We have the freeway two blocks away, the train one block away, and the port 3 blocks away. The air has always sucked – imho, perhaps worse than West Oakland considering where the wind blows – so why bother with pedestrian safety. I can’t help but shake my head.

    Broadway has so few crosswalks once you pass the freeway (maybe even before) that you take your life into your own hands when crossing.

    I sent NN an article about a guy in Australia who had complained for years about having almost been hit just picking up his mail because he lived on a dangerous curve. Finally, they agreed to add a sign. The day before the sign was to be installed he was killed by someone who came around the curve too fast. I told NN that if I died at the intersection in front of my store that my whole family would hold her personally responsible. Funny how a few months later I got my stop sign. No crosswalk, but at least I got the stop sign. I stopped cringing every few hours from the sound of breaks squealling and people screaming once they were put in.

    Gorilla painting has become quite the thing to do in this town – and no, I don’t know who did it at 15th & Jackson. Certainly when I went that way every day when walking the lake my friend Carol and I did take special care all along Jackson, not just that one spot. I have a few other places I’d like to see some gorilla painting get done…

  5. Max Allstadt


    The way you put it, guerrilla civil engineering probably is the only way.

    Did you know that you can order stop signs off the internet? Totally regulation, indistinguishable from the ones we have. Borrow a hammerdrill from the tool lending library, get a big tube of epoxy, and you’re in business.

    This comment is for information purposes only and not intended as incitement to commit any illegal act. If you act upon this information, you could face legal consequences, and you do so at your own risk.

  6. Fritz

    I’ve wondered about other, less conventional guerrilla traffic calming efforts — stuff like manikins lying in intersections, large plastic trash cans arranged down the middle of the street, (empty, to minimize the chance of injury in the inevitable collision with said can), and so forth.

    One of my neighbors annoyingly leaves his trash cans over the entire width of the sidewalk on a regular basis. I’ve thought about pushing them into the street to make the point that (1) he’s covering a sidewalk and (2) it’s not different than blocking the street, but I have a feeling that point (2) would be too subtle for just about everybody to get.

    I always appreciate link love; thanks!

  7. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Yeah, I know I could buy a stop sign online, but ultimately I like rules and following them. I just wish that when everyone agreed that the rules needed to change (ie adding a crosswalk or stop sign) that the City would follow through. I’d gladly find the funds if that’s what is holding things up, but I know ultimately that it is not.

    If it is air quality that is holding things up, then I say BS. And, I say prove it. Prove that the air doesn’t already suck. Which they won’t do, I’ve asked.

  8. oakie

    This dilemma is a direct result of city politicians trying to do everything BIT what a city government ought to be doing. It seems to me city government should be responsible for public safety, fixing potholes (etc.), and giving us libraries so all who want to read can have access. They do none of those things well (I’d give public safety an F, potholes a D and libraries a C).

    Those pedestrian walkway blinking lights in the ground thingies are expensive. I think $50,000. But right now your city council representative is voting on spending $50,000 on a “Food Policy Council.” What a waste of our tax money (they apparently do not read Michael Pollen, who provides for $20 for the cost of his book the excellent policy of “Eat Food [that your grandmother would recognize as food], Mostly Plants, Not Too Much”).

    Instead of trying to make government replace our parents (and not doing that well or cost effectively), the city ought to be using our tax money to give pedestrians a safe place to cross a street.

    Will YOUR city council representative make the right use of YOUR money? There’s an election June 3 and you can choose who will represent you best.

  9. josh abrams

    I like that – Vote for whomever you think will try to be your mother the least.

  10. David

    I think whoever did it should bill the city. I bet it’d be a smaller bill than some union contractor would get, and more than whoever did it probably earns on an hourly basis. win-win!

  11. Max Allstadt

    You know what would make bicyclists safer? Let us ride on the sidewalk. Penalize us if we ride like a jackass on the sidewalk. That’s how the Japanese do it. Works fine. As long as I’m careful not to hit anybody, what’s the problem.

    Actually, I already do this. All the time. I’ve been doing it for more than a decade in three cities, and I’ve never hit or hurt a pedestrian. I don’t need a bike lane, ’cause the sidewalk is my bike lane wherever practical.

  12. scottpark

    I’m of the school that says the only thing that will stop a car is a physical impediment. That, dear readers, is not what a crosswalk is. A pedestrian should never enter a crosswallk thinking that the crosswalk will do anything to protect them from cars. Physically, it will not. This is obvious, but people seem to believe that putting crosswalks everywhere will slow down traffic and protect pedestrians.

    What will protect pedestrians are physical barriers that will require a car to slow down and/or navigate them. That’s why I like the guerrilla speed bumps, narrow streets, and leaving your trash cans in the street.

    I do like the observation above about bike lanes outlining safe bike routes and why can’t ped routes do the same. I think that’s a great idea. However, putting a crosswalk in a dangerous area does just the opposite.

    I walk, I drive and I bike. I slow down for crosswalks, but don’t think most folks do.

  13. m30

    If you want efficient, responsive government, you may want to move to Walnut Creek or Alameda. This is Oakland, afterall.

  14. Chris Kidd

    Let’s just throw in some Mexico-style trapezoidal topes/speedbumps/crosswalks. It’s a clear spot for pedestrians to cross (being that it’s sidewalk height), it’s much more visible from a car (being that it has pedestrians walking on a platform), and if you try to drive over it at 25 mph you’ll bottom out and destroy the underside of your car. Everybody wins!

  15. V Smoothe Post author

    I hate it when people ride their bicycles on the sidewalk, Max!

    And no, that isn’t me in the picture. She’s is dressed like me, though. Funny.

  16. Robert

    So the staement is made that pedestrian crosswalks don’t actually make it safer, they only make it seem safer to the pedestrians, and nobody actually disputes this, but half the posters seems to imply that we should put in the walkways anyway? And still we wonder how Oakland manages to fritter its money away. If the concern is really about safety, then lobby for something that actually improves safety, such as a stop sign or a pedestrian signal, not a meaningless cosmetic improvement.

    While I do think that ticketing drivers who impede the progress of pedestrians in crosswalks will actually do something to help the situation, I would apprecitae it if at the same time they ticket the jaywalking pedestrian who can’t be bothered to walk the 50 feet to the crosswalk (with a traffic signal).

  17. Joanna/OnTheGoJo


    As a frequent pedestrian I can understand your thinking, but ultimately I’m for both the stop sign and the crosswalk. If there’s a crosswalk and I’m in it, I have the right of way. If there’s a stop sign and I go to cross the street, I am quite often almost hit by a car and often someone will actually yell out, “Hey, there’s no crosswalk.” As if I have no rights at a stop sign as a pedestrian.

    So if there is a stop sign and a crosswalk and someone hits me, then they’re undoubtedly in the wrong.

    I’d much prefer to see crosswalks and be *aware* that someone might cross, rather than the jaywalking I see all too often. But at least I’ve never seen OPD give tickets for jaywalking!

  18. Robert


    Thats what the lack of drivers ed had done. At any intersection the pedestrian has the right of way where the natural continuation of the sidewalk would be, even if there isn’t a painted crosswalk. Its what I learned 40 years ago, and I think is still in the drivers handbook.

    If there is a stop sign, then I think the painted crosswalk is a good idea. But a crosswalk alone may not help all that much. There are a number of crosswalks along Grand Ave without stop signs, and drivers just barrel through those a full tilt, even when there is somebody waiting to cross.

  19. Max Allstadt

    Jaywalking shouldn’t be illegal. This seems to work great in Boston. Makes city drivers nervous and slower when they know they’re always liable if they his a pedestrian.

    V – The rule for sidewalk cyclists is common sense, and to get in the street to avoid pedestrians. I don’t ride on the sidewalk all the time. I actually switch about fifty fifty. But on long fast moving streets like San Pablo, or in underpasses where drivers go to fast, I’m on the sidewalk. I also don’t see anything wrong with riding really fast on an empty sidewalk. It’s the safest possible condition for a biker. Obviously, downtown at rushhour, I slow way way down and often end up in the street. But if you’re not a klutz, it’s pretty easy to ride as slow as a pedestrian when necessary.

    Anyway, it’s all about common sense. Very circumstantial. Unfortunately this is where laws usually fail miserably.

  20. Ralph

    in palo alto where they apparently are not lacking for officers, officers will ticket law-violating pedestrians.

    all cities should should ticket drivers that block intersections and crosswalks and it should hurt – say $281 worth of hurt and if you can pay Denver boot baby

    not a fan of cyclist on the sidewalk, too many to reckless and then add to that the normal pedestrian, elderly, and chair flow you’ve got an accident waiting to happen. ticket them all – say $331 worth of pain (hey they don’t pay for gas and a car they can afford a bit more)

    a cop should be permanently stationed at 20th and Broadway to ticket each AC Transit driver that seems to think that the red light does not apply to them

    all pedestrians should be armed with spikes that can be used to slow violating drivers and pebbles that can be thrown at drivers when they violate the rules of the road. it is assumed that no pedestrian will resort to such drastic measures unless he or she feels that they are in grave danger. under such circumsatances the pedestrian will be free from prosecution. by law, the use of such measures is an affirmative defense.

  21. ac

    Echoing Joanna’s concern about the 3rd & Madison intersection. I have tried to communicate several times with Nadel, and on May 7, I cajoled her into a response (I told her I knew she was up for re-election, so I hoped she might write back with an update; apparently, it’s “criminal” for her to be involved with the day to day business of the city):

    Nadel’s email (unedited):

    Thank you for bringing the traffic issue to my attention again. This is a concern that I passed on to traffic engineering in 2007 and thought they were proceeding with it. I have a follow-up call in to Joe Wang to find out why it wasn’t done. The last message I got from him was that they were looking at the area more broadly than just the one intersection which sounded great to me but I didn’t expect that they would drop the ball.

    I don’t respond to issues because I am running or not running for office. I respond to issues as they are conveyed to me by my constituents. I will continue to track this because I see that it needs to be tracked. While the council members are not allowed to get involved in the day to day business of the city as per the charter (it is a criminal offense to “interfere”), I can keep asking when it will get addressed and why it hasn’t been and I will continue to do that.

    Thank you for your commitment to community.


    Nancy Nadel

  22. ac

    I just re-read this (it blew my mind at the time and glad this thread reminded me to dig it out), but seriously: I love the sentence that begins “I don’t respond to issues…” Because, well, she says it.

  23. Robert


    and when the pedestrian jaywalks and blocks traggic assuming that cars will stop for them. can I run them over free from prosecution? Do I get extra points for baby carriages, since mothers shouldn’t be endagering their childern that way, and natural selection is a powerful force?

    What we really need is for everyone to respect the rules of common curtesy.

  24. Max Allstadt

    Chris Kidd –

    They do crosswalk/speedbumps in one in mexico? That’s freakin genius! Anybody got a cement mixer?

  25. Ralph

    Yes. I’ve annoyed more than one friend for my refusal to cross in a non-designated path. Extra points are allowed for for hitting moms and babe because mom had no business endangering said child. This would be a case of Darwin doing us all a favor. I have no problem yelling at drivers to hit pedestrians who seem to think it proper to cross against the light.

    I wasn’t always so enlighten I witnessed a Palo Alto police officer yell from his cruiser to pedestrians who were crossing against the light. But the event that cemented my view, happened earlier. Opposite my position on a deserted Colorado Springs street was a grandmother teaching her 5 year old grandson how to cross the street. I crossed against the light and she pointed me out as a bad example. At that moment, I decided that I would never be that person again.

    So go ahead hit away.

  26. Ralph

    maybe joe wang should be spend a late night on third bw oak and jackson

    it has been a while since i spent regular time there, but that strip of road is just long enough to see how fast an idiot can drive before applying the brakes at the last minute and still safely stopping at jackson

  27. Max Allstadt

    Ralph -

    Cyclists are not too reckless on the sidewalk. I wreck things all the time.

  28. Zach Seal

    Thanks everybody for the comments. I tried getting this crosswalk painted by the city by collecting signatures and making a formal request to PW. Ummm… that didn’t get me anywhere. I didn’t push it too hard b/c I figured there were other more pressing issues PW should be dealing with. But I still don’t think this is an inappropriate location for some sort of pedestrian safety feature, be it a crosswalk, embedded lights, an imaginary brick wall, or the pedestrian crossing feature of the next decade, a device beneath the asphalt that disengages automobile engines 30 feet from a pedestrian crossing if a pedestrian presses a button. The 300 or so feet between 15th and 17th is like a bobsled course for cars; it’s not evident to cars heading south that 15th street is actually an intersection until they’re zooming past it.

    Anyway, I’m delighted that fellow neighborhood activists decided to take matters into their own hands.

    Question: do you think it would be a good idea to send an email to PW and NN that says something along these lines: While I don’t condone vigilante crosswalk painters (even though I sort of do, but just to be diplomatic), the willingness of ordinary citizens to sacrifice their own money and risk jail time to install this crosswalk underscores the danger at this intersection. I would hope that PW can understand this need, and install a proper crosswalk with the accompanying ADA accessible ramps so that able-bodied, young and disabled residents can all safely cross at this intersection.

    Or, should we just leave good enough alone and not bring to PW’s attention this guerilla crosswalk? I had originally envisioned the crosswalk on the other side – the south side – of the Jackson/15th street intersection. That’s why I staged to pedestrian/car accident on the south side of the intersection. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  29. oaklandhappenings

    This is typical Nancy Nadel ignorance and apathy. Any city council member who actually cared (and didn’t fake it) would have been at least more attentive to the issue. The rest of the council may be to blame too, but this IS her district, theoretically.
    Maybe just 6 more days until Sean S. as our new city council member?

  30. Max Allstadt

    Ah, Zach!

    I thought that was you flying through the air with your “jazz hands”!

  31. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    AC – Argh, isn’t that exactly why we’re not voting for NN? That email says it all. Well, everything she didn’t say at the JLDA District 3 Candidate Forum – “it’s about race” my arse. It’s about her own neighborhood. Sort of. I still find it hard to understand why Adams Point is behind her, if indeed they are.

    Ralph – 3rd between Oak & Jackson (specifically at Madison in front of the Sierra Deli) is awful, but in some ways 4th between Jackson and Broadway is even worse (specifically at Alice where it’s hard to see around cars).

    So NN didn’t stay on top of this? Shocker. Now she says she will? Don’t hold your breath. I’ve never figured out Joe Wang. He seems to be the biggest barrier for new business, specifically small business, in Oakland. Right up there tied with Francine Lakryth Thompson (parking).

  32. oaklandhappenings

    I don’t want to sound drift too far towards the election topic, but those of you who are voting, remember–Hodge or Sullivan! Then again, many of you seem to already have enough sense to realize that. Tell your D3 buds!

  33. bikerider

    With regard to the issue of wide outside lanes vs bike lanes, this is something that has been studied to death. The definitive study (A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF BICYCLE LANES VERSUS
    WIDE CURB LANES: FINAL REPORT, FHWA-RD-99-034) concluded bike lanes were superior from every standpoint. The bicycle coalition has also done its own studies of arterials (SWITR data) with wide outside lanes and found they ranked at the top in terms of bike crashes per mile.

  34. Robert


    Actually the conclusion of the report cited is that either bike lanes or wide curb lanes can be used, and the authors drew no conclusions regarding relative safety, In fact, they admitted that there were too few accidents to make any conclusions about safety. You should also read the critique by John Forester which concluded the the study was too small and poorly designed to say much of anything. It seems the only thing you can really say is that bike riders like bike lanes, even if they don’t have any impact on actual safety.

  35. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Dagnabbit!!!! (#&(%&#$*$!)@)%R@#) The City managed to paint over the gorilla crosswalk. How many hours and what was the cost of the paint? Rediculous!

    Especially when you consider that there is a very similar situation at Frisbie & Harrison. Why is it okay there and not at 15th & Jackson?

    Since this subject was last discussed, a stop sign was apparently approved at 4th & Webster. But all efforts to get a stop sign at 4th & Alice and 3rd & Madison were dropped. Now we have to start over on efforts to get those other intersections stop signs. THIS is why I asked a newbie local resident to work with JLDA and not on their own. Because two other stop signs that are just as important – and had the proper petition signatures from all parties residing and working at those other intersections – got dropped. Frustrating!!!