April 15, 2008

Crosswalks to bear: On the eve of the city’s first ‘pedestrian summit,’ LEO wonders: How walkable is Louisville?

Second and Main streets: a busy intersection for walkers during morning rush hour. The south side of Main seems far more manageable than the north side.BY STEPHEN GEORGE, SARA HAVENS & CARY STEMLEIt seems an easy enough question: Is Louisville pedestrian friendly? The question arises as the city begins this week a series of community workshops intended to produce a broad qualitative assessment of the walkability of neighborhoods. On May 10, a full report is expected to be delivered during the all-day pedestrian summit, the first of its kind here. The intent is that the report will be used to begin improvements to city infrastructure, like sidewalks and crosswalks. There are several ways to reasonably approach an answer to this question. Consider: • In 2007 and so far this year, 19 pedestrians have been killed by cars, most because of a mistake by the pedestrian, according to police records. Kentucky law does not protect pedestrians outright from cars or anything else on the roads. This is not dissimilar from other states. In order to gain the right of way, a pedestrian must cross a street only with the signal, and only within a crosswalk. If the signals aren’t working, motorists must yield to pedestrians. In most other cases, it’s the other way around. • Jaywalking appears to be generally accepted as part of the culture here, and drivers tend to respond in kind. Police tend to agree with this assertion.• Roughly 3,000 miles of roads — neighborhood arterials to interstates — loop throughout the Metro. That is 1,742 miles more than the miles of sidewalks. Roughly one-third of Louisville roads have sidewalks.  • One thing that emerged from the 2005 cycling summit, a contrivance of Mayor Jerry Abramson and the local cycling scene, was a recommendation to enact a city ordinance giving pedestrians ultimate right of way within three miles of schools and public parks. The initiative, championed by the pedestrian rights group Safe Streets Louisville, has been ignored entirely. Chris Poynter, a spokesperson for the mayor, said there is work to be done before considering an absolute right of way ordinance. “We need to assess where we are, and that’s what this summit will do,” he said. “Hopefully three years from now I can be talking to you about all the successes we’ve had from the pedestrian summit.”• Since 2003, when county and city governments merged and redrafted the Land Development Code, Metro government has required that all new developments, both commercial and residential, include sidewalks. Apply to this the rule of thumb that neighborhoods inside the circle of the Watterson Expressway have sidewalks and the ones outside of it do not. It generally holds.• More attributable to a lack of a long-term and viable overall transportation strategy than the inadequacies of TARC’s bus service, Louisville’s public transit system is insufficient for its population. Although this is not a direct pedestrian issue, its connection to the culture of walking is undeniable and, ultimately, dubious to actual progress. Ultimately, though, we’ve decided to approach this question more directly. Participants in the walkability survey use specific criteria (at right) to rate the walkability of their own neighborhoods. So LEO decided the best, albeit maybe not so scientific, way to assess Louisville’s walkability on our own was to conjure a couple handfuls of well-traveled, possibly dangerous, geographically diverse intersections and rate them — using the same criteria. Our Top 11, if you will. —SGSecond and Main streets (Downtown/River)2nd & Main: A sign tells motorists to yield to pedestrians at the northwest corner of Second and Main, but it still takes guts to walk across that short stretch.I drive this one most days on the way to work (unless, you know, it’s closed for Thunder). As you descend the bridge southbound to the light, there’s much to ponder. The two driving lanes become four as you approach the traffic light, but the striping doesn’t match up, so watch out for getting sideswiped.The two lanes that feed cars onto westbound Main Street are an interesting area for walkers. There’s a tiny island where they can stand, and a sign that reads, “No turn on red when pedestrians are present,” but driver adherence is a mixed bag. Walkers, and more pointedly, disabled folks, seem exceedingly vulnerable there. The same goes for anyone crossing from the northeast to the northwest corner of Second and Main. It’s a long distance, and walkers have to watch for drivers taking a hard right onto Washington Street, or right onto the bridge. It takes guts to walk that route. It’s generally much better to cross on the south side of Second.While the area is well designed — the lights are visible and provide ample time, and there are no obstructions to speak of — the whole intersection is generally crazy because it is so wide and there are automobiles approaching from many directions. I’ve seen westbound drivers on Main, finding themselves in the turning lane, drive straight ahead — over the island there. Northbound drivers turning west on Main constantly dash in front of drivers heading south on Second. Recall that Second used to be one-way south of Main, but it’s now two-way. Unfortunately, the lanes don’t even line up, so drivers heading north onto the bridge must take a significant jag to remain in their lane.Add in the people who cross Main in the middle between Second and Third — which is common all over Louisville, but perhaps nowhere more than on Main Street. Walking to a corner and crossing with the signal is safer, but I suppose too inconvenient.I look forward to someone laying out the plan for keeping walkers safe in this intersection if the arena gets built just west of the bridge. —CSFourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard (Downtown/Fourth Street Live!) UPS at 4th: Delivery trucks routinely block to walk signal at Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.I have major beef with this intersection: Every day of the week, in substantial though not uninterrupted intervals, there is a delivery truck of some sort blocking the “walk” sign on the northwest corner of these two streets. Because LEO headquarters is downtown, and Fourth Street Live is between HQ and City Hall, where I also spend some time, I walk these parts a lot — almost every day. And this damn sign is always blocked. I have some sympathy for the delivery drivers: There is a nearby bus stop, which their trucks would partially block if pulled up much further. And the fundamental design flaw of Fourth Street Live is that there is no reasonable place to park a UPS, FedEx, or whatever else truck to deliver to corner businesses like Java Brewing Company.Otherwise, this one passes the test. When not obscured, the four signs at this intersection are functional and bright, as are the crosswalk lines painted on the pavement. Like most of downtown, the sidewalks are wide and not crowded by the streets. The “walk” signs offer adequate time to cross before flashing orange. Curbs are well maintained, and stepping from the street to the sidewalk is typically quite natural. I saw Aaron Dance, a 25-year-old bike messenger, in Java one day last week. He was on his lunch break. He told me that earlier that day, he was almost run down by a woman at this very intersection. He was walking north on Fourth crossing Ali with the signal when a woman trying to turn left from Fourth stopped just short of him. He stopped too, and the two briefly made eye contact. Because he had the right of way, Dance started walking again, at which point the woman took off, almost hitting him in the crosswalk as she passed. “I’ve found, talking to people from other cities, that’s something unique to Louisville,” Dance said of this practice of driving through crosswalks even when people are occupying them, trying to legally cross the street. He’s not the only one who’s noticed that. —SGSixth and Main streets (Downtown)6th & Main: These women had the walk sign at Sixth and Main, but backed up when the drivers didn’t yield. Traffic often backs up in the intersection waiting for cars to enter a parking garage halfway down Sixth.This one’s interesting because Main goes from five lanes to three past Sixth Street; the extras are two left-hand turn lanes from westbound Main to southbound Sixth.Years ago I’d occasionally pick up my sister from her job on Market Street, and I recall her pounding into my head that when there are two turn lanes, you have to hold your lane as you turn. But I always see drivers move from one lane to the other while turning, which leads to lots of honking and impolitic hand gesturing.This intersection gets jammed with automobiles during morning rush hour because of a constant line of cars turning right into a parking garage midway down Sixth. That makes life particularly dicey for walkers at the intersection, but the distance across Sixth is manageable and the lights work well. Still, it is walker beware — make sure they see you.Walkers also regularly come out of that garage and cross Sixth in the middle of the street. They don’t have the right of way, but they act like they do. That is a particular breed of jackass. —CSUniversity of Louisville UofL: This intersection, on Eastern Parkway near Third Street, has generated controversy on U of L’s campus, as several people have been hit there in the past few years.Nestled at the base of what is arguably the city’s most walkable neighborhood — Old Louisville, with its grandly wide sidewalks set a good 15 paces off the road — is the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus, which one should think would be just as ped-friendly. Maybe. The biggest problem with U of L seems to be on Cardinal Avenue between Second and Brook streets, where you’ll find the official entrance to the north side of campus. At this entrance, clearly intended for cars, are exactly zero marked crosswalks. There are no traffic lights. It is literally in the middle of the block, and hapless students can be found streaming across it all day. Since U of L decided to become a campus school rather than a commuter one, administrators have ordered the elimination of much on-campus parking, filling the old lots with massive dormitory complexes. So students — well, early birds — often park along the first few blocks into Old Louisville, and have to cross Cardinal to get on campus, which will be a bummer the day you get hit running across the four lanes (plus a turning median). Just as sketchy is crossing from the western edge of campus toward Fourth Street. That’s where Second and Third streets — packed uncomfortably tight against relatively narrow sidewalks — snake around a grassy median. It’s also a necessary crossing to get to many of the aforementioned new dormitories, as well as frat and sorority row, Gray’s Bookstore and that phenomenal little Asian joint China Inn, which could leave you to ponder one rainy night, when you’re walking from a long study session at Ekstrom in low visibility: Does pad thai exist in the afterlife? —SG28th and Broadway (West Louisville)28th & Broadway: Broadway at 28th is a key intersection in West Louisville, with a Kroger, three fast-food restaurants, Lyles Mall and a bus stop. The intersection functions as intended.Pedestrian issues are paramount in West Louisville, which has the Metro’s lowest rate of vehicle ownership. This is a busy corner, near a Kroger, three fast-food restaurants and the Lyles Mall, plus a bus stop. The Nia Center, a business hub, is a block away at 29th. Broadway is six lanes wide here, with good sidewalks and good visibility in all directions.The walk signs at 28th and Broadway stay on for about five seconds and flash orange for another 10 seconds. That seemed odd — I assumed the flashing orange meant you’re out of time, probably because I’ve become accustomed to the walk signs that give a digital countdown of the number of seconds left to walk across. But according to the signs posted on these crosswalks, the flashing sign means you have a bit of time left to get across. Solid orange means you’re out of time.I checked out several intersections along West Broadway, and for the most part they seem pretty solid. User behavior, of course, is always a mixed bag. As I’ve noticed with other intersections across the Metro, some folks here cross against the light, in the middle of the street away from the crosswalk and — yep — while talking on cell phones, oblivious to oncoming traffic. But if you use this intersection as it was intended, it seems more than adequate. (CS)Taylor Boulevard and Central Avenue (South Louisville/Churchill Downs)Taylor & Central: The intersection of Taylor and Central is a study in priorities: the street closest to the football stadium gets the most attention.Thanks in part to the Athletic Department of the University of Louisville, Central Avenue — once visited by more people than is reasonable only during Derby weekend — has gotten both a facelift and some legit commerce: Sidewalks were widened, medians were sodded, streetlamps were installed, all in a pitch to get people to visit the string of chain stores across the “Denny Crum Overpass” from Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. And you know what happens when 40,000 people leave a football game? Yes, they walk to their cars. The city has made sure that’s taken care of: Uniformed police are always around, Central is typically blocked off for a couple blocks or so, and, well, the sidewalks can accommodate a shitload of drunk fools. For the homers around here, though, Central and Taylor is a bigger deal. Whereas Central has gotten the boost, Taylor still suffers. The sidewalks are in bad shape. There’s a sweet abandoned parking lot on one of these corners, as well as two gas stations and a Rent-A-Center. It takes forever to get a “walk” signal, and once you do, you’ve got about five seconds before the thing starts flashing orange at you (there are, of note, new buttons and signs to trigger your signals). While I was dutifully walking the square over and over, a neighborhood man and his two children — both young, a daughter and a son — walked against the light and made it halfway across before getting stuck in the middle of four lanes of 35 mph traffic. That’s a bummer. It’s also their fault, you know, for walking against the sign. At any rate, maybe the city should consider building Taylor some of those granite curbs that were the big deal downtown a few months ago. It doesn’t really jibe with Central anymore. —SGEastern Parkway & Poplar Level Road/Goss Avenue (Germantown)[img_assist|nid=6658|title=Eastern Parkway & Poplar Level|desc=Eastern Parkway at Poplar Level Road/Goss Avenue is heavily traveled, but it doesn’t seem too perilous for pedestrians.|link=|align=left|width=200|height=133]While a large volume of traffic passes through this intersection daily, for the most part it was easy and painless to navigate. Each of the four corners has a crosswalk button and ample sidewalk space. Mostly a residential area, I didn’t see many pedestrians at the 5 p.m. rush hour, although there are TARC stops on both streets here. One interesting feature at this intersection is a triangular park with several benches near the southwestern corner of Eastern and Poplar Level. It acts as a median and breaks up the traffic of cars making a right onto Poplar from Eastern — that seems to make things a little safer for pedestrians. My only complaint was the amount of time I had to wait to cross each intersection — but with each road having a special left-turn light, it’s forgivable. The crosswalk button at the southwest corner, going from Poplar to Goss, didn’t work the first time I pressed it. But a harder jab seemed to trigger it just fine. Also, drivers tended to run red lights, and I saw a bicyclist who crossed over Eastern from Poplar Level to Goss on a red light. Sharing the road also means behaving on it, people! —SHFrankfort Avenue/Shelbyville Road & Breckinridge Lane & Chenoweth Lane (St. Matthews)St. Matthews CF: The intersection where Breckenridge and Chenoweth lanes meet Frankfort Avenue and Shelbyville Road is always busy, but pedestrians can navigate it without too much trouble.On paper, this intersection of three major thoroughfares should be the very definition of “clusterfuck.” However, although it’s often highly congested during morning and evening rush hour, this St. Matthews intersection was surprisingly easy and safe to navigate. I made a complete circle (I think it’s more like a trapezoid) during a Monday rush hour at 5 p.m. in less than 10 minutes. I had ample time to cross over Shelbyville Road from the Chenoweth side to Breckinridge (or, in layman’s terms, Brendan’s to BW3’s). And drivers, for the most part, seemed aware of pedestrians venturing out into the walkways. Since it’s an area with surrounding businesses and TARC stops, pedestrian traffic is a norm here. My only concern was with drivers who failed to follow the “No Left Turn” signs at the various stoplights. I saw one mini-van attempting to turn left from Shelbyville Road onto Breckinridge, which almost caused an accident with the cars behind it. For a pedestrian legally crossing Breckinridge at the time, that could have been ugly. Most of the passerbys I talked to expressed little fear at being pedestrians at this intersection. St. Matthews resident Raul Gutierrez said he usually drives to his destinations, but decided to venture out for a snack on foot because the weather was nice. “It’s not bad at all,” he said about crossing over four lanes of traffic on Shelbyville Road. Clusterfuck it isn’t. —SHBardstown Road & Goldsmith Lane (Buechel)Bardstown & Goldsmith: Bardstown Road near Goldsmith Lane is busy and wide — is that why there’s a Thornton’s on both sides of Bardstown Road? — and the walk lights don’t leave enough time to make it all the way across.As I approached this wide and foreboding intersection in Buechel, I noticed orange cones breaking up the lanes and teenagers between them collecting money for a youth basketball camp. I’ll admit I was terrified to cross all four segments within the crosswalk lines. I couldn’t fathom having the guts to be outside of them, walking up and down fast-moving lanes of traffic. Each corner had a crosswalk button, a walk and don’t-walk sign and sidewalks, yet it was intimidating to cross at least six lanes of traffic during evening rush hour — going across Bardstown Road from either side of Goldsmith (i.e. Thornton’s to Thornton’s or Rally’s to Quality Inn). In fact, each time I crossed, the white walk sign starting flashing orange before I was even halfway across — even walking at a brisk pace. The sign only stayed on “walk” for seven seconds before flashing the “don’t-walk” hand signal. “Yeah, I think we should get more time to cross,” said Buechel resident Herb Porter, who was returning to his house on Goldsmith after running an errand. “I saw a pedestrian injured here a few months back.”I also noticed lots of debris in the road that I had to avoid while crossing; drivers constantly running red lights; and drivers trying to make right turns who failed to notice my presence. —SHHurstbourne Lane at Taylorsville Road (Stony Brook/East Louisville)Hurstbourne & Taylorsville: Hurstbourne Lane at Taylorsville Road: Avoid this at all costs.Pedestrians are advised to avoid this intersection at all costs. Seriously. Like most of the Hurstbourne corridor — the de facto emblem of all that is sprawled and overly consumptive about the city of Louisville — it is built entirely, exclusively for cars. It is a pedestrian’s nightmare. I started by trying to walk inside one of the three (only three?) crosswalks at this massive intersection, replete with turning lanes for every move a car could make and a total of eight straight lanes. I pushed the button to cross Hurstbourne on Taylorsville going toward the Stony Brook shopping center. I waited. And waited. Five minutes. Then, at last, I got the coveted white “walk” sign. I stepped into the road. Two seconds. That’s how long it stayed white. Then the flashing orange hand scolded me for getting in the way of traffic. My bad. Unless you’re into drawing the scorn of drivers all around you, and maybe being run down by an errant, cell-phone humping SUV operator in the meantime, I’d suggest bumming a ride across this swatch of road. In a car, you might actually get across inside five minutes. Oh, and one last thing: Don’t bother seeking out sidewalks because, for the most part, there aren’t any. If there’s one place in Louisville where the pedestrian is marooned and just totally, utterly fucked, it’s here. —SGDixie Highway at Greenwood Road/St. Andrews Church Road (South Louisville)[img_assist|nid=6662|title=Dixie & Greenwood|desc=The walk lights at the intersection of Dixie Highway and Greenwood Road/St. Andrews Church Road don’t stay white long enough to make it halfway across any of them. That’s not so bad crossing the side streets, but it makes crossing Dixie quite a challenge.|link=|align=right|width=200|height=150]They don’t call it wide, wide Dixie Highway for nothing. There are 10 lanes here, with a Walgreens on one corner, a White Castle on another corner, a Frisch’s on another corner and a bank on the fourth. I crossed all four directions, and found this intersection sorely lacking — the “walk” light lasted for only four seconds each time, which isn’t even enough time to make it to the median halfway across.The pedestrian lanes are well marked, but on the St. Andrews (east) side of Dixie, the concrete median stretches almost to the farthest line, so anyone in a wheelchair would have to either jump the median or go outside the line closer to Dixie traffic.The same holds true on the north side of the intersection, but the south side’s better. The signs that tell which button to push to activate which crossing signal were all faded beyond recognition, leaving you to guess. This intersection isn’t as bad as, say, Hurstbourne Lane, but I’d definitely be hyperfocused if I was crossing it, particularly if I had elderly or young folks along. —CSContact the writers at citystrobe@leoweekly.com