At last year’s annual meeting of the Ridgewood-Wilton Neighborhood Association, a contentious discussion of recent changes to the nighttime light patterns of the traffic signal at Wilton and 2nd Street took up most of the meeting. So it wasn’t too surprising that the discussion continued – with neighbors still upset – at this year’s annual meeting, held this past Sunday, March 24.
To back up for a moment, at the time of last year’s RWNA meeting, the city had decided to replace the signal’s “rest on red” light pattern, in effect from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., with a flashing yellow signal. (Neighbors had complained that drivers often sped through the signal as it was changing back to resting red from short green/yellow phases, and that created a major safety problem, expecially on northbound Wilton, where the street curves and cars had a history of going out of control and crashing.) The proposed change, however, was just the latest in a series of changes at the site that neighbors felt were detrimental to safety conditions at the intersection. As we reported in the Buzz last spring:
“According to [Wilton Place resident Mary] Rajswing, about 26 years ago, neighbors who wanted to increase safety on Wilton successfully lobbied the city for a traffic signal at Second Street, which cycled through the normal green-yellow-red pattern during the day, and from the hours of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. switched to a constant blinking red, forcing all cars to stop briefly before proceeding. Rajswing said the (blinking red) signal worked, and the street, while still busy during the day, “turned back into a quiet neighborhood at night.”
About five years ago, however, Rajswing said, the Department of Transportation upgraded the nighttime flashing signal with a brighter light, and a neighbor complained about it. So the city replaced the always-flashing red at night with a “rest on red” signal from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Since then, the signal is a solid red during the nighttime hours, with no flashing…until a car comes to rest at the intersection, and then it will cycle to green, to let the car pass, and then to yellow and back to a resting red.
According to Rajswing, however, the green and yellow phases of the light have once again allowed too many cars to speed through the intersection, and accidents have increased there since the light pattern changed. So many neighbors have been working since the change to have the nighttime blinking red light restored.”
But although neighbors lobbied hard for the return of the flashing red signal, and city officials promised several times to restore it, that did not happen. Then, after the introduction of the city’s new Vision Zero pedestrian safety effort, which has a goal of zero pedestrian traffic deaths by 2025, the City said it would no longer use flashing red signals at all, because they do not include a pedestrian crossing phase, which actually decreases pedestrian safety.
So just before last year’s RWNA annual meeting, the city decided to change the 2nd and Wilton signal to a flashing yellow pattern during nighttime hours, and announced a three-month trial, which began in May of last year. (The light also changed to a steady yellow, followed by steady red, every now and then after a certain number of cars had passed. The steady red portion of the pattern allows time for a pedestrian “walk” signal across Wilton.)
At the time, and especially at last year’s annual meeting, neighbors expressed anger and frustration that the flashing yellow trial was approved without their input or agreement, and their frustration that the flashing red light would not be restored. They also asked the city for information about the kinds of metrics that would be used to evaluate the flashing yellow trial, and how the city would determine whether or not the new light pattern was successful…telling City Council District 4 Field Deputy, Rob Fisher, at last year’s meeting, that they feared the new light pattern would make the intersection even less safe than before, because many drivers just don’t know how to interpret a flashing yellow light.
The trial went ahead as scheduled, however, and began on April 30. Then, in July, the city announced that speed levels at the intersection had been reduced (one metric the city uses to judge traffic safety) and that the flashing yellow light trial was being extended “to a minimum of 9 months” to see if the traffic slowdowns were maintained.
During the trial, period, however, neighbors did their own monitoring, including counting cars that ignored or seemed confused by the signal, and collecting video of drivers violating the light’s signals and engaging in other unsafe activity at the intersection. And according to Rajswing, that behavior was rampant. In July, she told the Buzz:
““Basically, DOT has substituted one danger for another: average speeds may have slowed going northbound, but what drivers are “learning” is to cut in from the right (or left) to jump ahead of the hesitant drivers at the entry to the intersection. The other night I counted 5 in 30 minutes, including 1 going south!”
She said that while LADOT is using speed as its primary (or, perhaps, only) measure of the trial’s success, it is only one factor involved in overall safety. Driver confusion, red lights being run, and drivers cutting around others who are paused are just as dangerous as excess speed, she said, if not more so. She asked, “Isn’t it common sense that confused drivers hesitating at the light will slow down speeds? We’re not even sure anyone is reviewing the video footage, which shows endless moving violations endangering every “Vision Zero” pedestrian that ever dared walk through our unique 5-way intersection.”
Rajswing also said that the problems are not just confined to the northbound lanes, as they usually were before the trial began. “I can send you video clips EVERY NIGHT of what is dangerous about this protocol- and dozens of close calls! Southbound traffic is starting to blow through red lights as well – something we didn’t see much of before.”
And at this past Sunday’s meeting, this time attended by City Council Member David Ryu himself, neighbors confirmed that although the flashing yellow light is still being used, months after the trial was supposed to conclude, the problems persist.
At the meeting, Rajswing told Ryu that another frustration is lack of response from the city when the neighbors have tried to report the safety hazards. On the day the trial began last spring, Rajswing said, the Department of Transportation sent an observer to watch driver behavior at the intersection, but there have been no subsequent visits or responses, even though neighbors have continue to submit photos and video of driving violations to the city. “It’s like we don’t exist,” she said.
Ryu said the city is actually quite aware of the neighbors and the issue, and that he even took some photos of pedestrians at the intersection on his own phone, demonstrating the safety issues. As a result, he said, he has asked the DoT traffic engineers “to go back to the drawing board” to look for new solutions. Ryu also agreed that while the flashing yellow light may have reduced speeds, as the DoT says, it’s clear, too, that the signal pattern causes confusion among drivers and something more needs to be done. Ryu said it might be possible to have the light returned to a “resting red” pattern (until a pedestrian button or ground signal turns the light green), but the hazard of that pattern – as the neighbors discovered years ago – is that drivers then tend to speed up to avoid the coming red light, which just brings back the speed issues.
Rigdewood-Wilton resident Dick Herman acknowledged that while the flashing red light was best for encouraging drivers to behave safely at the intersection, it did lack the ability for pedestrians to push a button for a walk signal…and asked Ryu why such a walk phase can’t be incorporated into the flashing red light pattern, which would be the ideal solution. Ryu said, though, that sometimes the things that seem like they should be the simplest often aren’t…and even something as simple as posting a new traffic sign can take years, when budgets and staff sizes suffer severe cuts, as they have in recent years.
Ryu again said that the DoT does say it could return the light to standing red status at night, and that he, too, thinks this might be the safest option.
Rajswing said the neighbors would like to be part of whatever decision-making process takes place, since they’ve worked so long and hard on the issue. But Ryu said he’s “not going to tell [the DoT traffic engineers] how to do their jobs.” He did, however, assure the neighbors that they do indeed have the Dot’s attention, “100%.” Ryu also reminded the neighbors that it is the job of all 400 traffic engineers at the Department of Transportation to make sure our streets are as safe as possible, and that there are no fatalites, which is exactly what the neighbors have been asking for, too. Finally, Ryu said the DoT does really want collaborate with communities, and reminded everyone that the Department sent its “#2” person to a meeting with several Ridgewood-Wilton neighbors about a year and a half ago.
In the end, Ryu acknowledged that the current flashing yellow light is “the bane of my existence,” and promised that he will come back to continue the discussions with the neighbors. In the meantime, he said again that a return to the resting red light pattern would probably be best solution at the moment. But that caused Rajswing to remark that the resting red (and the way it encourages drivers to speed up on the northbound Wilton curve) is what started all the neighbors’ safety concerns five years ago…and that a return to that pattern would just put the discussion right back where it started at that time.