Three times in the past year, Teresa Luckie narrowly avoided being struck by a car on her daily walk around downtown Alhambra. “It’s changed since I’ve been walking here,” the 71-year-old Luckie, who has lived in the city since 1975, said. “You’ve got to walk defensively.” Her neighbor was not so lucky — a car hit him and he ended up in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Supervisor’s office is still offering $20,000 for leads in the December 2009 hit-and-run death of an elderly wheelchair-bound Alhambra man.
Alhambra is the most dangerous city for pedestrian senior citizens out of 104 cities of similar size in California, up from second place the year before, according to 2009 statistics the state Office of Transportation Safety released this month. The actual numbers for Alhambra are 17 pedestrian accidents of which four were fatal, according to the police department. This may be low in comparison to larger cities, but it worries transportation and planning advocates, the Office of Safety and Transportation, and the Alhambra Police Department.
“It is significant. We realized that three years ago — we have a high pedestrian accident level here in this city,” Alhambra Police Department Captain Debbie Santana said. “The alarming part is why the elderly are at such a higher risk.” For overall pedestrian accidents the city ranked sixteenth and for children under the age of 15 it ranked fifty-fifth in 2009.
Santana said that when the police department became aware of the problem they began researching the causes, including cultural differences among its large immigrant population or a particularly physically active senior citizen population. But no specific indicating factor was found.
A particularly dangerous area for pedestrians, according to the police department, is Valley Boulevard between Garfield and Almansor, an area with many businesses and large thoroughfares. “When we have big, wide corridors such as Valley Boulevard, regardless of the speed limit, people tend to ignore the speed limit and go whatever speed feels comfortable,” said Rhianna Babka, a network coordinator at California Walks, a non-profit organization that focuses on pedestrian safety for children and senior citizens.
Other cities in the area with similar traffic patterns also tend to have high rates of senior citizen pedestrian injuries. Monterey Park ranked fifth out of 104 cities, and San Gabriel, which is in a different size category, ranked fourth out of 98.
Last year, California Walks worked with residents of Scripps Kensington senior housing on Valley Boulevard to address their transportation concerns. “The pedestrian crossing light isn’t on long enough for us to get even halfway across the street,” said Ida Donahue, 82, a former president of the resident council. “These are people with walkers, or scooters, or canes trying to cross Valley which is a four-lane street.” Donahue organized a group of residents to address City Council last fall. As a result, Captain Santana said that the light is now extended to give pedestrians more time to cross, but Donahue said she has not noticed a difference.
James Rojas, an Alhambra resident and urban planner, said he also had his own recent brushes with death on Main Street. “I thought to myself this can’t be happening. This driver clearly sees me. I am right in front of them,” he wrote in a post titled “Perils of walking in Alhambra, My near death experience!” in LA.Streetsblog. “Luckily the van was driving slowly so I was able to stop the van with my hand. The impact of stopping this machine set my adrenaline rushing through my body. I started to bang on the driver side window for at least an apology for her attempt on my life. But she just giggled and drove on!”
Rojas said Alhambra, as a flat city on a manageable scale could be an ideal city for runners and joggers, but to do that driver patterns need to change. “If you want to build a sustainable community, you have to think about pedestrian safety,” said Rojas, a former transit planner for Metro. “The city really needs to do more education, and make streets more multimodal for people to walk and bike.”
Captain Santana said that despite limited resources the police department has been proactive in addressing pedestrian safety with efforts to educate school children, stationing officers in thoroughfares where there have been speeding problems with instructions to educate drivers on the importance to yield the right of way to pedestrians, and asking the 18 school crossing guards to also help seniors.
Santana said these enforcement and education efforts appear to be helping. According to unofficial numbers, she said injuries and fatalities among seniors were down to 10 last year.
But Santana said the Alhambra Police Department suffers from budget cuts and a shortage of officers who speak Chinese. Its traffic bureau consists of a sergeant and four officers. That is twice the number of officers it had in 2008, but a significant drop in officers since when Santana joined the force in 1986. None of the officers speaks Mandarin or Cantonese.
The department applied for a $177,000 grant from the Office of Transportation and Safety last year that would have included money for traffic and pedestrian safety enforcement efforts and education, but did not get the funds. Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety, said that most of the money would have gone to addressing drunk-driving problems and there “was not a very large pedestrian proponent especially for enforcement.” In particular, he said, that OTS noted that “one element was for under-aged drinking when in Alhambra in 2008 there was only one injury for DUI under-aged drinking.” Cochran encouraged the city to reapply during a new round of funding in February.