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Fresno's long walk for pedestrian safety

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hostetter

Members of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) have launched a safety campaign called “It’s Up To All of Us.” The message: There are lots of pedestrians out there, so safety depends on everyone – motorists as well as walkers – staying focused.

Several BPAC members and Fresno police Detective Mark Van Wyhe (Traffic Division) reviewed the campaign’s basics at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

“We are reminding drivers – slow down; pay attention,” BPAC Vice-Chairman Joe Martinez said.

Said BPAC Chairman Dr. Tony Molina: “Speed kills.”

That idea of “pay attention” goes both directions.

The campaign “is putting the responsibility (for safety) on both the pedestrian and the driver,” said Eliana Troncale, injury prevention outreach specialist with Community Regional Medical Center. Van Wyhe said most pedestrian injuries are the pedestrian’s fault.

“We have to educate our way out of this problem,” Van Wyhe said.

The campaign’s message resonated with Council President Paul Caprioglio and Council Member Esmeralda Soria, who encouraged BPAC to keep up the good fight.

BPAC’s education campaign begins with statistics. According to police, Fresno in 2016 has already had more than 100 pedestrian and 60 bicycle injuries due to collisions with motor vehicles. Five of 10 traffic fatalities in Fresno this year involved pedestrians.

Fresno police from January 2013 through December 2015 investigated 50 fatalities and 792 injury collisions involving bicyclists and pedestrians.

Five percent of pedestrians are likely to be killed when struck by a car traveling 20 miles per hour. But if the car is going 40, nearly 80% of pedestrians are likely to be killed in a collision.

Getting the word out means public advertising on Fresno Area Express buses, billboards, and spots on radio, TV and online sites. In addition, 5,000 pedestrian safety informational postcards (provided by the Police Department) and 1,500 pedestrian safety light reflectors (provided by Community Regional Medical Center) will be distributed.

I walk just about everywhere. Take Thursday’s council meeting, for instance. I live near Bullard High School in Northwest Fresno. I walked the six miles to City Hall to cover the meeting, then walked the six miles home.

I’m retired. I’ve got the time.

And I’ve been doing this pretty much for years. Actually, make that decades. I’ve learned a few things about how to walk along the streets of Fresno.

I wish BPAC officials and their “It’s Up To All of Us” campaign the best. Allow me to piggyback on their announcement with a few thoughts. They are my own, and in no way are connected to BPAC.

The big mistake for pedestrians is greatly underestimating the complexity of the environment. It’s hard to safely walk from Point A to Point B, and this has nothing to do with clichés about uniquely incompetent or malicious motorists in Fresno. It has to do with mathematics and uncertainty.

I’ve always viewed Scott Mozier as Fresno’s No. 1 expert on pedestrian safety. Mozier is the city’s Public Works director. He’s a licensed civil and traffic engineer. His department is largely responsible for the built infrastructure enjoyed by Fresno’s walkers – streets, crosswalks, stoplights, sidewalks, trails, street lights, etc. To talk to Mozier about the design and regulation of these assets is to get a good picture of what I mean when I refer to the complex environment out there.

Then you add tens of thousands of human beings in cars or on foot, plus that thing called “time,” and, well, there’s plenty of potential for trouble.

It’s no place for complacency.

“Oh, honey, what a nice day. Let’s walk to Fig Garden Village. Nothing could go wrong. We’ve got the legal right-of-way. Besides, we’re cute and sensitive!”

Now there’s a recipe for disaster. Yet, I sense such an attitude is all too common among many pedestrians. I’m far from a perfect urban hiker. I’ve had my share of narrow misses, many due to my own foolishness. Still, I take on each walk a hard-won skeptical outlook on all that’s ahead of me. And I’m still here, walking 70 miles a week throughout Fresno.

I give you three personal examples of the complexity of walking in Fresno.

1.) I walked to City Hall on Tuesday. I made the rounds, then headed home in the late afternoon. I was walking north on the west side of Blackstone. As I approached the crosswalk at Clinton Avenue (I was next to the old Happy Steak building on the intersection’s southwest corner), I saw a man ahead of me.

The man was on the northwest corner of Blackstone/Clinton. He was sprawled on a piece of the landscaping that’s in front of the new Smart & Final store.

He was drunk, or stoned, or both. He was really messed up. As I waited for the green light to cross Clinton, I saw the man make a sudden flop in the direction of the curb-cut in the sidewalk. He had been relatively safe on the grass. Now he was flopping/rolling toward the lane where southbound cars on Blackstone turn right onto Clinton.

The man stopped his flopping a foot or so from the turn lane. He was just a heap of inert humanity. A couple of cars honked their horns. I doubt if he heard them.

I looked at the man as I passed him. His clothes were filthy. His shirt was in shreds. What was I to do?

I had a couple of pieces of litter I’d picked up along Blackstone. There was a FAX trashcan about 30 yards ahead of me. I tossed the litter in the can, then looked back. The man was still sprawled on the sidewalk, so close to traffic.

I walked back.

“Hey! You’d better get over there,” I shouted, pointing to landscaping. “The cops are going to nail you.”

He mumbled something.

“The cops are going to nail you. The cops are going to nail you.” That’s all I could think to say.

“I’m alright, brother,” he slurred. “I can walk home.”

He staggered to his feet. I hurried north on Blackstone. I looked back several times. The man continued to stagger in my direction.

I’m told many pedestrian fatalities/injuries involve drunk/stoned pedestrians.

2.) As I’ve already noted, I walked to City Hall on Thursday for the City Council meeting. The last item before the council was the BPAC pedestrian safety presentation. I chatted with Molina, Gonzales, Van Wyhe and Troncale after the meeting.

Their words of wisdom and commitment rattled around in my head as I walked north on Abby Street, heading home. (A few stray thoughts about the upcoming fantasy football season may have been in there, too.)

I came to Olive Avenue. Now, you no doubt recall that Abby at this point runs parallel to Blackstone. Abby in this part of town is for northbound traffic, Blackstone for southbound traffic.

Abby curves into Blackstone a short way past Olive. Geographically speaking, this area is kind of a mess.

I crossed Olive and headed toward the curve to take me to Blackstone. I passed a FAX bus stop and an irrigation canal (full of water – thank you, Dear Lord). At this point, a walker on my route must negotiate a narrow spur of Abby that, rather than curving toward Blackstone, goes straight ahead to Hammond Avenue, the east-west street just north of Olive.

I have no idea why this funny little spur is there, but it is. The spur combines with the curving street and Hammond to create a small, triangular island of sidewalk, concrete borders and landscaping.

A used car lot fronts the spur. It was here that I made my mistake.

I passed the business’s door. As I did so, a man drove up and parked in front of the door. I turned to look at him. Then I returned my gaze straight ahead and prepared to cross the spur to the island. My plan was to walk on the island’s concrete border (or is it simply a narrow sidewalk?) to Hammond, then cross Hammond and make my way to Blackstone.

It may sound complicated, but all this happened in an area no bigger than a decent-sized suburban residential lot.

But something made me pause before I stepped (without looking behind me) from sidewalk. Maybe instinct kicked in. I’m glad I paused. Another car had taken the spur. The driver of this second car apparently knew the driver of the first car. Whatever the reason, the driver of the second car was busy waving at the driver of the first car.

I doubt the driver of the second car saw me. I certainly had not taken the conscious precaution of looking for him.

I thought of those four pedestrian safety experts in front of the City Council. They would have given me a stern lecture.

(I should have continued on the sidewalk in front of the car lot to Hammond. A stop sign is there. I could have then picked the best way to get to the north side of Hammond. But I had assumed that, since this is a funky little spur of a street, the arrival of that first car surely meant no other traffic was coming. After all, how could this modest side street attract two cars in a matter of seconds?)

3.) Friday arrived. I’d run some errands at spots on Blackstone, near Barstow Avenue. I walked, of course.

My return trip took me south on Maroa Avenue, south of Barstow. I was on the west side of the street.

As I passed a house I heard the rustling of leaves. I looked to my right and there was a dog – a good-sized dog, probably in the 40-pound range, beneath a tree. The dog was only a few feet from me. He was directly to my right.

The dog was crouched. His teeth were bared. In an instant, he lunged at me, barking.

Talk about an adrenaline rush. I yelled. I cursed. And I immediately tried to get away.

I scurried into Maroa.

I knew cars might be coming. But fear had control of me. I made a quick glance at the southbound lanes behind me, but it was lightning fast and done only after I was in the street. After all, that dog at any second could have turned his show of aggression into an attack.

I get it – a dog bite is nothing compared to being crushed by a 2,000-pound vehicle traveling 40 miles per hour. My point here isn’t to defend my fear. My point is to note that sudden emotion is one more potential factor in the complex environment that is the pedestrian’s lot.

No cars were coming. The dog’s owner hustled over. I didn’t get bit. I swore under my breath like the old ex-soldier I am until I got home.

Three brief incidents, none ever destined to wind up in Detective Van Wyhe’s statistical analysis. But any of the three could have resulted in something rising to that level.

Fresno has 520,000 people. The town is spread over 112 square miles. A full year consists of 525,600 minutes. Combine it all and there’s a lot of opportunity for pedestrian-motorist trouble (bicycle-motorist trouble, too).

What are pedestrians to do? I suppose two answers are “get educated” and “be alert.”

But I’m not sure what that means in real life.

I’m reading an interesting book titled “Strategy” by Lawrence Freedman. It’s a fast-paced history of the evolution of strategic thought. The book deals mostly with war, but includes studies of strategic doctrine in politics and business.

Freedman at one point discusses the work of Colonel John Boyd, an American fighter pilot whose military career started during the Korean War. Boyd wrote a manual for fighter pilots based on his study of dogfights in the Vietnam War between U.S. jets and Soviet-built MiGs.

Boyd in summing up his insights used the term “OODA loop.”

Writes Freedman: “OODA stands for observation, orientation, decision, action. The sequence started with observation, as data concerning the environment was collected. This was analyzed in the orientation stage, leading to a decision and then to the execution of an action. The loop became more complex as it developed, especially as Boyd came to appreciate the pervasive importance of orientation. It was a loop because the action changed the environment, which required the process to be repeated. Ideally, the progressive improvement of the orientation and the consequential action would result in getting closer to reality…. Boyd felt the OODA loop applied to any situation in which it was necessary to keep or gain the initiative.”

Maybe Colonel Boyd’s OODA loop – observation, orientation, decision, action (repeat) – is smart strategic doctrine for pedestrians diving into the complex and potentially dangerous environment that is Fresno.

I know what you’re thinking: Strolling along the six blocks of Downtown’s Fulton Corridor when vehicular traffic is restored next year is a far cry from Top Gun dogfights.

My response: 50 deaths and nearly 800 injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists in Fresno from 2013 through 2015.

That’s mayhem on a scale of the Red Baron.

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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