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Pedestrian Activists Confront Streets That Are ‘Dangerous By Design’

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A national movement that's taken hold in San Diego is trying to make the streets safer.

Clairemont Mesa Blvd. is like a lot of San Diego streets. It's seven to eight lanes wide, full of thick, fast-moving traffic. It's the kind of street where pedestrian deaths can line up like soldiers. And early Monday morning it happened on this street. Police say a pedestrian was killed by a drunk driver.

It's the kind of news that troubled Bertha Torres, who had to cross the boulevard later than morning to get from her bus stop to a branch of the county courthouse. She said it's like crossing a freeway.

"You gotta walk fast. It is dangerous, especially if you're walking with your kids. I've seen a lot of ladies running across this street, and some of the cars just… ‘shroom!’" said Torres.

Her story is familiar to anyone who walks in San Diego, and it confirms the many findings of a study by a group called Transportation for America. The study, Dangerous by Design, looked at the 52 largest metro areas and ranked them based on pedestrian safety.

Spokesman David Goldberg said San Diego ranked about average based on some safety yardsticks. In others, the city looked bad. Pedestrians in San Diego made up a very large proportion of the city's total traffic deaths: 22 percent compared the national average of 12 percent.

Goldberg said the problem here, and elsewhere, is large, multi-lane streets that are built to move cars as quickly as possible.

"There are a lot of people out there, people who need to cross them,” he said. “People that need to walk along them, that are catching a bus, that are walking to or from a shop, and they're getting killed."

People looking for solutions have rallied around a concept called "Complete Streets." Monday, the group Walk San Diego spoke about the national study near La Mesa's public library, on a street that's being held as a good example for traffic calming and pedestrian safety.

Jim Stone, executive director of Walk San Diego, said crosswalks, signs, and narrowing of streets are a few of the things you can do to make streets safer.

"At a corner we can put in something called a bulb-out,” he adds. “That puts the pedestrian more in sight of the driver so the driver sees a pedestrian. It also shortens the length that the pedestrian has to go as they cross the streets."

Kathleen Ferrier is also with Walk San Diego and she's the author of a set of recommendations for street design called "Safe for All." She said statistics of pedestrian deaths don't tell the whole story of San Diego's car-oriented design.

"The statistics don't show that the number of pedestrians and bicyclists aren't even there. They're too afraid to go out into the street because of these high volumes of cars,” said Ferrier.

Bike and pedestrian safety is no abstraction to me. Four years ago I ended up in the hospital trauma ward after being struck by a car while riding my bike. It happened on Montezuma Road, definitely one of those high-speed corridors.

Transforming San Diego into a bike-friendly and walk-friendly region is a huge effort that's seeks to reverse decades of urban planning. San Diego's Regional Transportation Plan, put forward by planners at SANDAG, does call for $2.6 billioN, to be spent on bike and walking transportation over the next 40 years.

That's a lot of crosswalks, bike lanes and bulb-outs.

Meantime Jerome, a man waiting for a bus on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, had some advice for drivers.

"Be careful drivers. You got to stay focused and be alert!" he said.

And remember that “complete streets” have not just cars, but also bikes and people traveling afoot.

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