Here’s an unwelcome challenge that many face in City Heights: crossing the street at University and Marlborough avenues. At this intersection, 18 pedestrians have been killed or injured during the past 14 years.
It ranks as one of the worst intersections in San Diego, and that’s saying a lot, because pedestrian accidents are on the rise citywide.
From 2013 to 2015, a total of 66 pedestrians were killed in San Diego. That’s more than during any other three-year period since 2001, according to a recent San Diego city auditor’s report on pedestrian safety. During that time, traffic accidents killed more pedestrians than any other type of roadway user.
Despite these statistics, little has been done to make the city’s most perilous intersections safer, the report said.
Check out University and Marlborough, for instance. On a recent day, cars hummed by as pedestrians — many of them elderly and pushing small shopping carts — tried to hurry across the street. Two women started to go together, but couldn’t because of the traffic. One crossed the street with her cart, left it, then went back to escort her friend.
“Very fast,” she said of the cars driving by.
Jerry Armstrong, who lives in the neighborhood, said cars routinely try to beat the lights. “That’s nothing new,” he said.
Transportation advocates want to see pedestrian upgrades come quickly. “It was disturbing,” Kathleen Ferrier, director of advocacy for Circulate San Diego, said of the auditor report’s findings.
Circulate San Diego, a nonprofit that focuses on transportation and land issues, lobbied the city to adopt Vision Zero in 2015. The goal of that program is to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2025. To do so, the city plans a host of actions, such as improving infrastructure and increasing police enforcement. Many of those reforms are underway, the city says.
Circulate San Diego is one member of a task force created to make Vision Zero a reality. A draft of a one-year action plan was completed in June, Ferrier said, but nothing has been enacted yet.
“Given the [auditor’s] report, these improvements are needed now more than ever,” she said.
Pedestrian deaths are up nationwide, as well.
One factor blamed for the nationwide increase is distracted drivers — such as motorists driving while using cell phones, even though it’s illegal to do so in many states, including California. Another factor is pedestrians who are distracted as well when using cell phones. They look down at the phone when texting and often wear headphones, which block out traffic noise.
Additionally, San Diego’s streets were built in an era when the goal was to move traffic swiftly, with little concern for pedestrians’ needs.
The auditor’s report on pedestrian safety offers sobering news, particularly given the government’s ongoing push to get people out of cars and accepting of alternative transportation methods, such as public transit, bikes and walking. For the city to reach its Climate Action Plan goals, it needs more people to rely less on cars.
However, if people don’t feel safe as pedestrians, they may be less likely to walk or use public transit.
The auditor’s report offers 18 recommendations that the city could enact to improve pedestrian safety. The city has agreed to all of the recommendations and has earmarked $23 million in its latest budget for Vision Zero improvements.
But the report found that the city has a haphazard system when it comes to fixing pedestrian problems. It has not used data to prioritize improvements at the most dangerous intersections. Spots such as University and Marlborough have been neglected despite high incidences of pedestrian injuries.
The city has installed or plans to install pedestrian countdown timers at 207 intersections. However, nearly half of those intersections — 49 percent — have seen two or fewer pedestrian accidents in the past 10 years. Thirty-eight of those intersections have not seen any accidents since 2000.
Sometimes the city makes improvements because of public requests or because funding is available, not because the intersection is prone to accidents.
That’s poor policy, said Ferrier of Circulate San Diego. She argues that the city is responding to the more vocal communities, even though their needs may not be as great.
“The city has an obligation to act on this data,” she said, regarding the report’s findings.
A number of intersections along University are among the city’s most dangerous. University Avenue and 42nd Street saw 18 pedestrian deaths or injuries from 2001 to 2015. University Avenue and Park Boulevard had 17.
However, the problem extends beyond that area. An intersection in Pacific Beach, at Mission Boulevard and Garnet Avenue, also recorded 17 incidents.
Franco Garcia, organizing director for the Environmental Health Coalition, tracks City Heights transportation issues. He was not surprised by the report’s finding that City Heights has many of the most dangerous intersections.
It’s one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, and many residents are busy working several jobs to make ends meet. They don’t have the time or the expertise to lobby the city for upgrades, he said.
Intersections in City Heights pose challenges for a number of reasons, he said. The streets see heavy car traffic and are also bustling with people and bike riders. They are lined with small shops, which attract pedestrians. The city has been making improvements, but it’s not an easy situation to resolve.
“There’s not just one quick fix,” Garcia said.
The report also noted that police rarely ticket drivers for infractions that can lead to pedestrian accidents. Drivers failing to yield the right-of-way caused one-in-five pedestrian deaths from 2013 to 2015. Yet that violation accounted for just 0.34 of the traffic citations the San Diego Police Department handed out during those two years.
The city said it is making efforts to improve policing methods.
One powerful tool to combat pedestrian accidents is public awareness, which the report said was missing from San Diego’s arsenal.
It noted how other Zero Vision cities — such as Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco — make it a point to publicize pedestrian safety enforcement efforts, which gets significant media attention. That helps spread the message.
Some get creative. Lake Elsinore had an officer dress up in a chicken suit to see if motorists would yield to him.
The city of San Diego agreed to the report’s recommendation to run such a campaign, noting that it is part of the task force’s one-year action plan, which was adopted in June.
However, the campaign won’t begin until March. That’s the implementation date.