Broward County

Fort Lauderdale asks Las Olas pedestrians to wave safety flags at drivers

Fort Lauderdale is asking pedestrians to try a new way to safely cross Las Olas Boulevard: Step into the crosswalk. Make eye contact with the oncoming driver. And then wave a neon orange flag helpfully provided by the city.

The city put out the buckets of flags with an instructional sign at the corner of Southeast 13th Street and Las Olas in the entertainment district last month. It’s a test project to see if they improve traffic safety.

The flags are a new concept in South Florida — as is walking, in many areas — but they have been tried in other U.S. cities, although two of these communities later abandoned them as useless.

The city introduced the option as a way to make pedestrians more visible. On a recent weekday afternoon, many pedestrians ignored the flags or simply pressed a button to turn on flashing yellow lights facing drivers. But some saw the flags as a fun way to cross the busy street.

“It feels a little weird having to carry around a flag, but it’s kind of cute. I think it’s working,” said Melinda Morgan, who lives in the city.

Similar flags have been used in cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Berkeley, California, with one of the largest being introduced in Seattle in 2008. The Seattle program featured many more flags than Fort Lauderdale’s program and they were placed at 17 locations.

After three years, the Seattle Department of Transportation dropped the program claiming that “people kept stealing the flags” and that they didn’t notice a marked impact from the program. After ending the program, they allowed residents and community organizations to create their own programs and provided a set of guidelines for users to follow.

Berkeley found similar results when it dropped the program in 2004, estimating that about 2 percent of pedestrians used the program and many did not use them properly.

Shortly after the program launched in Fort Lauderdale, three of the four flags had been stolen. But the city replaced the stolen flags. And despite the flag theft, residents like Magali Newson embraced the idea and crossed the street proudly waving the flag.

“I think the flag is a great thing,” Newson said. “I think Fort Lauderdale should do this around the city.”

The city hasn’t planned to launch the program at any other intersections yet. The purple-painted crosswalk and flags are part of a larger plan to restructure Las Olas to make it more pedestrian friendly. The “Fast Forward Fort Lauderdale” plan includes potentially expanding and reducing lanes at different parts of the road and changing traffic light sequences at Southeast 15th Street.

City spokeswoman Monique Damiano said that when city commissioners discussed and adopted the plan last year, residents asked for pedestrian safety to be emphasized.

“The reasoning behind the process is to elevate public safety, make pedestrians more visible at an intersection that is not signalized,” Damiano said. “We’re shifting our focus from moving vehicles to moving pedestrians safely.”

The 15 flags cost the city $60. Vice Mayor Romney Rogers said the crosswalk and flags are part of Fort Lauderdale’s plan to become a “multimodal city.”

“The idea of adding the flags was to add another element of safety and it’s a minimal cost to the city,” Rogers said. “It’s all part of the process of changing people’s ideas about transportation.”

Resident Bridget Vanderbilt supports the idea but thinks a traffic signal would be more helpful.

“If somebody’s barreling through, waving a flag isn’t going to stop them,” Vanderbilt said. “It’s been a challenge to get people to stop.”

The Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach metro area was recently ranked the fourth-most-dangerous for pedestrians, according to the 2014 Dangerous by Design report. The report was released by Smart Growth America, an urban-redesign advocacy group, and the National Complete Streets Coalition. It also listed South Florida and the Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando metro areas in Florida as the most dangerous in 2011.

The Florida Department of Transportation responded last year by releasing the Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan and the Complete Streets program, which included ideas like pedestrian countdown signals and illuminated crosswalks.

Jim Wolfe, the secretary of the FDOT district that includes Fort Lauderdale, said that the colorful crosswalk plan serves more of an aesthetic purpose than a tangible impact on pedestrian safety, but noted that it does send a message to drivers.

“Frequently the message is ‘slow down’ and that’s part of the message I think Las Olas is trying to convey,” Wolfe said. “Enjoy being here because it’s aesthetic and it looks good.”

Wolfe said that pedestrian flag programs are still too new to determine their effectiveness, but if programs like it are successful then they may be expanded.

“We’re ready to try anything,” Wolfe said. “If it works, more of it. And if it doesn’t, we’ll move on.”

Fort Lauderdale also conducted an ambassador program to familiarize walkers with the program and passed out information cards to local businesses.

Some business owners have noticed a difference since the crosswalk and flag programs were introduced, but say drivers have been slow to adapt to the changes. David Catton, owner of the jewelry store Lavalier, said pedestrians don’t seem to know what the flags are for and that the signs explaining the program aren’t prominent enough.

“The cars seem to have a lack of respect for the crosswalk,” Catton said.

And even if the program doesn’t sway drivers, residents like Brent Bushnell still think the crosswalk and flag system beats the alternative.

“They were having a lot of issues down here,” Bushnell said. “Prior to them putting it in, you just had to run.”