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City begins tinkering to deliver ped-friendly traffic patterns

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The good news: Some of my fellow Fresnans convinced City Hall to improve pedestrian safety at one of Fresno’s most challenging intersections.

The bad news: The improvement confused me the first time I saw it – and rest assured this is one intersection where pedestrians best have their wits about them.

I’m talking about the intersection where Maroa Avenue T-bones into Herndon Avenue in North Fresno.

I live near Bullard High School and often walk to River Park shopping center. I have several routes. One of them is north on Maroa to Herndon; across Herndon to Pinedale; north on College Avenue (through the heart of Pinedale) to Alluvial Avenue. From there, all of River Park is open to me.

Herndon is one of those busy streets in Fresno where no motorist pays attention to the posted speed limit. It seems like drivers think they’re on Highway 99. Stop lights aren’t a priority for them.

I was always careful crossing Herndon at Maroa. I’d push the “walk” button. The traffic signal would turn green and off I’d go in a hurry. If I was crossing from the east side of Maroa, I’d keep an eye on cars making a right turn.

Things were more dicey when I crossed Herndon from the west side of Maroa. There is no dedicated left-turn signal for northbound traffic on Maroa. The motorists, usually at the end of their patience after waiting at the long red light, were in no mood to the yield the right-of-way to a walker like me. I’d wait at the intersection’s center island until all the cars were done with their left turns.

Sometimes my green light was about gone, and I’d have to go extra fast (extra fast for a guy on Medicare) to complete my transit of Herndon. I had to get across. At the same time, I didn’t want to be in the middle of the street when the light turned green for Herndon’s westbound traffic. Those drivers all think they’re Gary Scelzi in a top fuel dragster at the starting line.

I took the Maroa-to-Herndon route last week. That’s when I got confused.

I was on the east side of Maroa. I hit the “walk” button. The traffic signal went green. The cars on Herndon had stopped. There were only a few cars turning left onto Herndon from Maroa.

I expected to see the white “walk” signal (it’s the image of a pedestrian) along with the green light for traffic. I didn’t get it. All I got was the red “don’t walk” signal. I figured the “walk” button was broken – that happens occasionally on my various walks around town. So, spurred by the green light, I started my trek across Herndon.

I got almost to the center island when the light turned yellow. I darted back to where I’d been waiting – to safety. “Wow,” I thought. “That was a short green light.”

Then I looked again at the traffic signal. The light in my direction was red. But the westbound and eastbound cars on Herndon weren’t moving. They had red lights, as well. And beneath the traffic signal facing me, in the box with the “walk/don’t walk” signs for pedestrians, I saw a countdown in progress: 30-29-28, etc.

Were those numbers for me? Was the system telling me I had a dwindling number of seconds to get across Herndon before the motorists resumed their mad dash?

I looked around for a sign on a pole that might clue me in. I saw none.

So, I waited on the corner until the next green light. It, too, was a short green. But I was jogging from the very start, and made it across with no problem.

On further reflection, I realized I had been a misled by my past. The traffic signals at Maroa/Herndon, combined with my years of experience with traffic patterns and my fondness for my own life, had developed in me a specific habit for crossing the street.

Then the traffic-signal system suddenly changed at this one intersection, in particular the part that sends messages to pedestrians.

My brain couldn’t adapt. On my next walk to River Park, I crossed Herndon at Blackstone Avenue. The motorists there are just as crazy, but the traffic signal system is an “oldie but goodie.”

I went to City Hall on Wednesday for a brief chat with Public Works Director Scott Mozier.

My question was simple: What happened to my old, familiar traffic signal system at Maroa/Herndon?

Mozier’s answer: “We had some requests to look at that intersection.”

He didn’t say if the requests came from walkers or motorists. Bottom line: The combination of pedestrians trying to cross Herndon from the west side of Maroa at the same time motorists were trying to turn left from Maroa onto Herndon was generating too much grief among both factions.

“Our traffic operations staff looked into the situation,” Mozier said. “They added a dedicated pedestrian phase for crossing Herndon. It actually has its very own phase.”

In other words, the old Maroa-Herndon traffic signal system was pretty much the same system found at other intersections throughout Fresno with stoplights. The light turns green – pedestrians as well as cars get to go. Keep in mind that city officials want the pedestrian to push the “walk” button rather than just depend on the green light. Pushing the button gives the pedestrian a bit more time to cross. But the basic premise is universal: Green means go.

Like Pavlov’s dog, I had been trained well by my master’s external signals.

Then came that mysterious request to do something about Maroa/Herndon. City Hall responded quickly. But no one took the time to retrain an old mutt like myself. The lesson was left to on-the-job training.

Fresno has a couple of other unusual traffic signal systems at unique intersections. There’s the “scramble” pedestrian crossing signal at Bulldog Lane/Cedar Avenue. That allows pedestrians – mostly Fresno State students – to legally cross Cedar on a diagonal line. And the intersection of Blackstone and Dayton Avenue (next to Manchester Center’s FAX center) has a special turn lane for city buses.

But, Mozier said, Maroa/Herndon is Fresno’s first intersection with a dedicated pedestrian phase based on a traditional pattern of crosswalks.

(It’s a dedicated pedestrian phase when crossing Herndon; it’s not a dedicated pedestrian phase when crossing Maroa.)

Mozier was sympathetic when I told him about my confusion.

“We’ll be monitoring (the intersection),” Mozier said. “We may be looking at adding some additional signage. We may be making a couple of other changes there.”

I thanked Mozier for explaining to me the new era for pedestrians crossing Herndon at Maroa. But, I added, most Fresnans don’t have the privilege of talking personally to the city’s Public Works Director.

“Stick with the indications,” Mozier said by way of advice for walkers. “Stick with what’s displayed.”

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. No wonder Fresnans love their cars.


Photo: The Fresno Bee

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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