Over the course of an hour on West Lake Street, volunteers counted at least 69 drivers talking on cell phones and 55 drivers running red lights. They held clipboards and staked out two corners of the intersection at Dean Parkway and Lake Street during a recent Tuesday evening rush hour.
“It’s terrible trying to get through here. The lights change and people keep coming,” said West Calhoun resident Richard Logan.
The volunteers are part of a joint safety committee formed by the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association and West Calhoun Neighborhood Council. Residents have long been concerned about traffic safety in the area, but they were further motivated to act by the 2014 death of pedestrian Caitlan Barton and pending light rail construction. Over the past year, the volunteers have fed data to city officials to supplement a transportation study underway on West Lake in advance of light rail construction.
During one observation period, volunteers tallied five close calls in a single hour. They often see drivers attempting to make left turns and then abruptly stopping for pedestrians, blocking oncoming traffic in the process.
“At every light cycle people run the red light,” Logan said. “The irony is that a lot of these violations contribute to keeping traffic moving. It’s complex to say the least.”
A traffic study conducted for the apartment project under construction at 3118 W. Lake St. cited state traffic flow maps showing 25,000 vehicles per day using Lake Street near the site, 17,000 vehicles per day using Excelsior Boulevard and 1,850 using Market Plaza.
In mid-August, the group asked passing cyclists how safe they felt traveling through the intersection. One Nice Ride cyclist chatted for a minute and then darted across traffic that had backed up, jarring the volunteers.
“He’s grinning from ear to ear,” Logan said. “At least he’ll die happy.”
At the Lake Point Condos, he said, some elderly residents are afraid to walk across the street. Instead, they get in their cars to drive a single block to go shopping.
“On Friday or Saturday it gets all the more hairy and scary,” Logan said, explaining that the crosswalks become busy with pedestrians headed to the lakes. “…People get really impatient.”
The night Barton was hit at Market Plaza & West Lake Street, neighborhood residents were evaluating safety and lighting just blocks away with Council Member Linea Palmisano and city engineers. At that time, the traffic light at Market & Lake turned green at the same instant as the walk signal. Now the walk light activates first, giving pedestrians a few seconds of lead time before cars can progress through the intersection.
The city received about 250 survey responses regarding West Lake area traffic last spring. The surveys provided clear feedback that the area is a source of major conflict between people inside and outside vehicles, said Nathan Koster, a city transportation planner.
Staff finished up field review and data collection for the multimodal study in June. They collected crash reports and installed cameras to track the volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. (By speeding up the video to two-three times its normal speed, staff can document an hour’s worth of video in 15 minutes.)
Koster said the neighborhood volunteers’ data is a helpful supplement, because they see what is actually happening on the street — lots of inattentive driving and risk-taking, for example.
“They’re showing a lot of documentation of near misses,” Koster said.
City staff expect to present initial recommendations for improvements in late September or early October. Much of the work would likely coincide with the opening of the LRT line in 2020. The West Lake station would stand behind Whole Foods, south of Lake Street.
“There is a lot of opportunity here for improvements,” Koster said. “With the timing of Southwest light rail this is a really good time to act on these opportunities.”