Can a crosswalk actually endanger pedestrians?
Crosswalks are supposed to enhance pedestrian safety. But on a busy street in Coconut Grove, a malfunctioning one actually endangers pedestrians.
The flashing lights on the bright yellow signs on South Bayshore Drive at Darwin Street don’t work. They’ve been broken for a year and a half.
North Korea builds nuclear missiles in less time than it takes for Miami-Dade County to change batteries.
The county’s traffic signs and signals department told frustrated Grove residents in January 2018 that parts to repair the lights were on order. It’s almost January 2019.
This is a story about a crosswalk that needs to be fixed already. But it is also a story about unresponsive, pass-the-buck government, about the red-tape runaround at county and city halls, about elected leaders and public employees who can’t solve a problem. And about a car-addicted community that does not give a flying hoot about pedestrians and refuses to make life easier for people on foot.
“This is a life-saving issue that has dragged on for so long it’s a disgrace,” said Sharon Barnett, who has written two dozen emails to county and city officials politely and then less politely asking for HELP in capital letters in her subject lines since October 2017. The lights stopped working properly months prior to that. She first wrote to city Miami Commissioner Ken Russell about the difficulty crossing the Bayshore speedway in May 2016. Her neighbors have complained, too, and even went in person to county and city offices, to no avail. Managers at condo and office buildings have called the county and the city 20 to 30 times and submitted repair requests to an online portal for the county, which controls the road. The only action taken: Shrubs were trimmed to make the signs more visible.
Barnett lives in the Grovenor House condo at 2627 South Bayshore Dr. The crosswalk is located in front of the adjacent Grove Hill condo at 2645 South Bayshore Dr. and connects the west side of the street to Fresh Market, marinas, the bayfront and the Regatta Harbour complex of shops and restaurants that is under construction.
Walkers, joggers, cyclists, dog owners, stroller-pushers, sailors, hotel guests, office workers and grocery shoppers use this stretch of Bayshore, and it becomes more popular during tourist and regatta season. The Grove, which is trying to preserve what’s left of the old bohemian village, has always been considered a walkable, bikeable neighborhood.
But crossing Bayshore, which has two lanes going in either direction separated by a median, has become more risky as Miami has grown. Drivers go way too fast on a road that needs to be redesigned to reduce speeding. The stream of traffic has increased as commuters use it as an alternate route to U.S. 1. Most drivers ignore or are not aware of the state law that requires them to yield and stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.
“The flashing lights are essential,” Barnett said. “People don’t pay attention in Miami. People don’t slow down for pedestrians in Miami. They are so rude they speed up! In New York City, they’ll stop. But here, people do not abide by the basic law that the pedestrian has the right of way.”
Barnett, who owned a Grove clothing boutique for 25 years, feels uncomfortable walking to Fresh Market with her granddaughter. Her neighbor who uses a wheelchair, “takes her life in her hands” every time she goes to the store, Barnett said.
“You have to step out gradually and gauge cars’ speed,” she said. “You’re not sure if they really see you, especially with all the tinted windows, so you wait for a significant gap. It’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed.”
Pedestrians attempting to cross have to sprint, or do the hokey-pokey (you put your left foot in, you take your left foot out), or act as their own traffic cop, extending an arm with an emphatic, upraised palm. They have to do split-second mind reading: Is the driver distracted, is he evil or is he competent? Sometimes pedestrians get stranded in the median.
“People who don’t realize the lights are broken will push the red button and assume they’re activated,” said Wayne Lippman, who is on the owners’ board at Grovenor House. “But the drivers assume if the lights aren’t flashing, no one is crossing. You’ll be crossing and a driver will yell, ‘Push the button so we know you’re crossing!’ and we yell back, ‘It doesn’t work!’”
Lippman and Barnett have observed close calls, arguments, rear-end collisions. They’d also like to see lights embedded in the pavement and warning signs placed between the lanes. Even the police acknowledge it’s dangerous.
“Half a dozen police officers have told me they would report the situation to their sergeants, and one time an officer even made a U-turn to apologize to a pedestrian he almost hit,” Lippman said. “This is not a pedestrian- and biker-friendly city, and you wonder, given the mentality here, if it ever will be.”
Lippman and the condo board discussed giving the county money to repair the lights, “but we decided that’s ridiculous,” he said. “I pay $32,000 in taxes to live in Miami.”
On Dec. 27, 2017, after two months’ worth of emails to commissioners and administrators, Barnett heard back from county Traffic Engineering Manager Evelin Legcevic, who said fallout from Hurricane Irma, which hit South Florida on Sept. 10, was slowing the repair process.
“We are aware that the beacons along South Bayshore Drive in the vicinity of Darwin Street are not operational,” Legcevic wrote. “As you are well aware, the state of Florida has been impacted by a major storm and has hindered our ability to procure the required spare parts to repair the beacons. The manufacturer has a backlog of orders from multiple agencies across Florida and other states, such as Texas, that have been impacted by storms.”
Legcevic said the flashing lights were considered “supplementary” equipment.
“Field inspections indicate that the crosswalk is properly and clearly signed and marked as per state standards providing the motorists the necessary information to make decisions as the law indicates,” she wrote. “The beacons are supplementary in nature and are used to enhance the pedestrian crossing warning signs.”
On Jan. 4, Barnett was told the county was awaiting delivery of parts. She inquired on Jan. 22 and Feb. 19 about when the parts would arrive but didn’t get a response. A neighbor was later told that the lights were too old to be fixed. Yet a similar sign 300 yards south on Bayshore at Pan American Drive near City Hall and in front of the Grove at Grand Bay “twisted towers” condo is working fine.
As a matter of fact, the manufacturer of the solar-powered signs, reached on the first try to his cellphone Friday, said he’s certain he can repair the malfunctioning sign. R.D. Jones, founder of Stop Experts, Inc., takes great pride in the technology he invented. It’s a Rapid Rectangular Flashing Beacon called the Enhancer.
“That is an older one but it most likely just needs batteries or circuit boards,” Jones said from Venice, Fla. “I designed them, so I know they can be fixed.”
Jones said he had only been contacted by the county a week earlier with locations of six crosswalk signs that are broken. He did not recall being contacted in January or the intervening months, and his name is not among those on the emails that were forwarded to a list of people that kept getting longer and longer, to the point that Barnett and her neighbors didn’t know who they were communicating with in what seemed like a bureaucratic game of tag.
“Miami-Dade is on it now. They’re starting to be aggressive because they’re probably getting yelled at,” he said.
Jones patented the crosswalk signs and estimates there are 10,000 in the U.S. and 200 in South Florida. He said the “eye-catching” flashing sequence is the key to the signs’ effectiveness.
“We have 90 percent stopping compliance from cars, but on crosswalks without lights, it’s down to 11-12 percent stopping compliance,” he said. “I use the same LEDs they use on fire trucks and ambulances. It’s designed to slap the driver in the face and make him look at the sign, look at the human standing there and put on the brakes.
“Everybody is on their phone, texting, checking their GPS for the nearest Starbuck’s, putting on makeup, listening to their loud surround-sound stereo, watching a DVD, yelling at the kids, always in a hurry and just plain not paying attention. The lights command the driver to stop.”
Jones said he plans to drive to Miami within a week to examine the lights. For disillusioned residents it’s not soon enough. Jones said he upgraded the controller on the Darwin Street signs on his own initiative five years ago when he got tired of delays on the work order from the county.
“That is one busy road,” he said. “We’ll turn the lights back on and try to teach each bad driver that it’s state law to stop for pedestrians, dumbhead.”