It is an intersection that only God could love. Market and Twenty-fourth streets: its sidewalks are stuck about with telephone poles, shadeless palms, and a few eugenias trimmed into skinny trees; its corners are occupied by the Serrano Auto Transmission Shop, a drive-through Jack-in-thc-Box, a low white house with rampant shrubs, and a blockish school building belonging to Our Lady of Angels Church. The parishioners of the church decided last September that the most important issues of the neighborhood were second, to stop home burglaries, and first, to get a traffic light installed at Market and Twenty-fourth.
But the city decided instead last week to install a signal at the intersection at Market and Twenty-second, 700 feet to the west. All the objections of the parishioners were useless against the calculated reasons of the traffic engineers, whose studies showed that Twenty-second Street warranted a signal under the city’s priority system, which is based on actual counts of cars and people passing through intersections. Twenty-second Street received special consideration because it has a crosswalk that serves Sherman Elementary School, one block south of Market. Twenty-fourth Street has not been marked for a school crosswalk, despite the parochial school there, because two crosswalks so close together have been known to create a false sense of security among schoolchildren, according to traffic engineers.
“False sense of security — who are they tryin’ to kid? I’d settle for any sense of security. What the heck!’’ said Harry Stringer, a spokesman for the elderly who come each day to lunch at the church’s cafeteria. A landlord and long-time resident in the neighborhood. Stringer is stocky and plain, and wears thick glasses that magnify his eyes. He speaks in a voice that is not only loud, but rankles like a chain coming up a well.
“We’ve been fighting for fourteen years to get a signal down there at Twenty-second,’’ he said to me a few weeks back. “I know because at the time I was walking with canes and braces coming off a stroke. And now that there’s going to be a signal down there. I’ve just got to wonder if it’s going to be another fourteen years to get a signal up on Twenty-fourth. And if it is — I won’t be around to see it. And neither will a lot of these other seniors who live around here — the people down south of Market, some of ’em on walkers, some of ’em wheelchairs. You see ’em trying to cross at noon to get the one hot meal that the agencies provide and you wish the city’d send somebody down here to time how long it takes to push a wheelchair across that intersection. I’ve had to wait four, five minutes for the traffic to let up! And I can walk!”
This year, as of May 7, there have been 7632 accidents in the city, thirty-seven of which were fatal. (Last year there were 7799 accidents and forty-two deaths in the same period.) These figures are posted next to an enormous map on the fourth floor of the City Operations Building, downtown. The map is stippled with pushpins. Like a strategy map in a war room, the scheme of the city is laid out and the pattern of accidents plotted against it, to be updated as often as necessary, as though the strategists could see death approaching and help the rest of us dodge it.
If only the work were that easy. Politics has been called the art of compromise, but the science of compromise is traffic engineering. It resolves the conflicting movements of people and machines into numbers, and merges these numbers into decisions. Like any science, it relies on the collection of fundamental data — “traffic counts,” as they are called in this case.
Sometimes the counts are done by the engineers themselves, but more often they rely on helpers. Three or four years ago, I sat with a helper during one of these traffic counts at Twenty-second and Market, and it was very boring. The counter, whose name was Joe and who was a civil engineering student at State, sat in his pickup one weekday afternoon, listening to the radio and punching buttons on a clipboard that he held against the bottom rim of the steering wheel. The clipboard had four rows of colored buttons arranged in a square. Each button corresponded to a movement in the intersection: a car passing westbound on the major street (Market), a car turning left to the minor street (Twenty-second), a pedestrian crossing the major, a car passing south on the minor, and so on. For two hours at a time (with one or two rest breaks), Joe punched buttons and tallied his results on a form. The results of this and three other counting sessions at the same intersection were logged onto a sheet and compared to sets of numbers, called warrants, that determined whether a traffic signal was needed there. Under the rules that apply to school intersections, Twenty-second and Market scored thirty-three warrant-points, enough to rank it thirty-eighth on the city’s list of intersections to be signalized. Twenty-fourth and Market ranks 134th.
The city believes in the warrant system because it provides an ordered, objective basis on which to decide if it will spend $80,000 for one set of street lights, installed. Within the next few months, the city council, with public participation, intends to review the warrant system, but in the meantime the public’s voice is only the voice of conscience, telling the traffic engineers what ought to be done, but not deciding for them.
For example, Corrine Wold of Otay Mesa brought it to the city's attention this year that the intersection at Palm and Hawaii avenues, on the southwestern comer of Montgomery High School, needs a traffic light. Her suggestion was recorded on a traffic request, or “TR,” form — Number 107,954. (Five filing cabinets hold the TR forms that have come before the city in the last ten years; thousands more of the forms are stored in the basement of the San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.) Acting on Wold’s request, Phil Sanford, a senior traffic engineer, investigated the intersection at Palm and Hawaii, drew a map of it, and made these notes:
“Traffic volumes on Hawaii Avenue are so small, three cars — fifteen minutes — 4:30 p.m., that the intersection could not possibly qualify for a signal under the standard (non-school) warrants. One correctable accident since 1975. Ped in X-walk was hit on 2-20-81. Driver of hit and run car had thought that Ped had hit her car.”
“That was kind of a funny accident,” said Sanford, taking the TR form from my hands and placing it carefully on his paper-crazed desk. “The driver apparently hit somebody in the intersection, then got out of her car and yelled, “Hey what did you hit my car for?’ and then drove off.”
He laughed. He looks like a lay friar — round, kindly, mild. When he speaks, he leans back in his swivel chair and folds his hands behind his head, in which posture his feet barely touch the floor, and he talks in a voice that would make a refrigerator seem loud.
A “correctable accident,” he said, explaining his notes, is one that might have been prevented with some kind of traffic-controlling device — a sign, a signal, a line on the pavement. A car hit broadside while pulling into the main line of traffic, that’s a correctable accident. A drunk driver sideswiping a parked car, that is uncorrectable.
A question that citizens often ask is. How many accidents, how many deaths, must occur at an intersection before it warrants some changes? To which the traffic engineer’s uncomforting reply is. That depends.
The system of warrants.
In the last three years, the city has recorded eleven accidents and two injuries at Twenty-second and Market, compared to ten accidents and six injuries at Twenty-fourth. (The seriousness of the individual injuries is not recorded; a shattered hip counts the same as a skinned knee. Fatalities are noted separately, but none occurred at either intersection.)
Last week, when the city council’s committee on transportation and land use had to choose between Twenty-second Street and Twenty-fourth for the installation of a signal, the issue of following the warrant system (as usual) or ignoring it (for a change) came to something of a showdown. Present were the head of the transportation department, William Schempers, a lean and straight-faced man in a large gray suit; the assistant city manager, John Fowler, known for his geniality; committee chairman Leon Williams, whose district includes Our Lady of Angels; Councilwoman Susan Golding, whose area included Our Lady of Angels before district boundaries were changed in February; and La Jolla Councilman Bill Mitchelh
Councilwoman Golding said to Schempers: “I realize I’m new, and don’t completely understand how you arrive at your decisions, but how do eleven accidents a year at an intersection compare to other intersections?”
“Three, or so I should say, three-and-a-half accidents a year is not at all desirable,” said Schempers, “but it is sufficiently out of the norm to indicate, perhaps, that a signal should be installed — not on the number of accidents alone, but in conjunction with other factors.”
The next question asked was why, therefore, shouldn’t Twenty-fourth qualify for a signal the same as Twenty-second, since ten accidents had occurred at Twenty-fourth in the same number of years? Wasn’t that number also out of the norm?
Here, Councilman Mitchell interjected with a speech he says he makes every year. He said that apart from the reasons that engineers bring to bear on traffic problems, the bare opinions of reasonable people should be weighed. “You don’t need to be an engineer to determine if an intersection is dangerous,” he said. “You can talk to the people in the neighborhood, they’ll tell you. It just frosts me that we don’t listen to reasonable people when we make these decisions.”
Schempers said nothing. Then Fowler came to his rescue: “I know it might sound cold and heartless ... to use these engineering studies,” he said, “but it just comes back to the fundamental problem of limited resources and the need to have some objective criteria, if you will, to distribute these resources. . . . And finally, I think this discussion might be taken up later when we talk about reviewing our system of warrants for the city.”
A compromise was reached: the signal would be installed at Twenty-second, but the city would conduct more counting studies of the students and other pedestrians who use the intersection at Twenty-fourth.
Harry Stringer, who was in the audience, rose and swung himself toward the podium, and, taking the floor, challenged any one of the committee members to “come on down to Twenty-fourth Street at 12:30, any day of the week, and I’ll show you all the people in walkers, the seniors in. . . .”
And when he was finished a vote was taken. The compromise unanimously passed. Schempers left quickly for the quiet of the City Operations Building, and Stringer, on his way to a doctor’s appointment, paused a moment in the hallway outside the committee room. “What are we, anyway?” he said. “Seniors. A hundred lousy votes.”
With him were two other men who had been in the audience. One was Mark Leidle, who looked to be in his twenties and was wearing highly polished, gold-rimmed glasses. He is affiliated with Our Lady of Angels through the San Diego Organizing Project. He told me, in effect, that the parish had only begun to organize.
The other man was Tom Spencer, a member of the parish council. Older than Leidle and dressed in somber browns, he said rather sternly that the parish had perhaps done wrong to trust the city with the task of counting traffic — since that task appears to be all-important. “Next time,” he said, “we’re going to conduct our own study.”
“Bring ’em down there to look at the people trying to cross that street,” said Stringer, blinking.
That afternoon at 12:37, I myself went down to Twenty-fourth and Market to observe the numbers of people trying to cross. I wondered if I arrived too late. There was nobody in sight. Two people waited for a bus, and that was it.
No — not quite! At 12:39, a man with “senior” written all over him — purple cardigan sweater, brown dress shirt, hard black shoes — arrived at the southeast corner of Twenty-fourth and waited to cross.
He waited about ten seconds. Then he started ahead: over the eastbound lanes, no problem; but the westbound lanes were whizzing with cars. He never hesitated. Head bent down, oblivious to the traffic, full speed ahead, by damn, he continued at a steady pace. And the cars halted — like cars at a drawbridge, while the packet slides quietly by.
One moment later the traffic resumed, while the man headed toward the church for what I expected to be a subsidized, and well-earned, lunch.