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Crosswalk flags missing in action

By Dan Krauss Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday October 09, 2002

At least 3.000 cases of theft have occurred since December on Berkeley streets. That’s what city officials discovered last week when they reported missing and presumed stolen all of the bright orange flags intended for safety-wary pedestrians to brandish as they cross dangerous intersections. 

“You’d see them waving those flags like they’re a kid in a parade or something,” said Keith Tower, whose front door is only steps away from one of the city’s flag receptacles – now empty – at the corner of Russell Street and Claremont Avenue. 

The flags were put at intersections last year by city officials who hoped people would carry the flags across busy streets to alert cars of their presence and avoid accidents. But all over town, the flags have been thrown into trees, pitched into front yards and even taken home by children as playthings, city officials report. 

With nearly 3,000 flags missing from a total of four intersections, a second batch of 3,000 flags has been ordered and three additional flag-friendly intersections will be established. 

Traffic studies on Berkeley have shown conflicting reports on pedestrian safety, but one sobering fact is undeniable: Cars have injured 66 pedestrians this year and killed one, according to police. 

With the flag program the butt of many only-in-Berkeley jokes and with the city unable to keep the flags from being taken, many wonder why the program is being continued and even expanded. 

“I think it’s a little bit silly,” said Katy Bybel, manager of Elements clothing store, near the flag crossing point on College Avenue between Ashby Avenue and Russell Street. “It seems like people use [the flags] for fun and not because they make them feel safer.” 

The manager of the project says he will likely recommend that City Council shut down the program after the next set of flags disappears. 

“I see this as too labor-intensive,” said traffic engineer Reh-Lin Chen, referring to the fact that city crews must continually monitor and replenish the flags.  

At $6,000, not including labor and the second set of flags, Chen says that the flag project is a reasonable experiment, but is probably not cost-effective. 

The three new flag sites – University and Shattuck avenues; Shattuck Avenue between Cedar Street and Vine Street; and College Avenue and Russell Street – will be used to collect data on the effectiveness of the flags, he added.  

The city, though, is not pinning all its hopes on flags. A crosswalk with embedded, flashing lights is being planned at Ashby and Piedmont avenues, similar to one installed two years ago on Claremont Avenue at a cost of $25,000. The city also recently approved $50,000 for 25 intersections worth of signal lights that count down crossing time for pedestrians. 

In addition, Measure L on the November ballot calls for a 10-year property tax to pay for a slew of pedestrian safety devices, from old-fashioned traffic circles to high-tech lighted crosswalks. 

While officials are optimistic that the Measure L safety proposals will prove effective, the flags remain a subject of debate. 

“As a safety tool, I think it’s of slight value,” said Wendy Alfsen of the pedestrian advocacy group Berkeley Walk and Roll. Alfsen added that, at their best, the flags are somewhat useful educational tools. 

At their worst, the flags are nothing more than novelties. 

Children, like 2-year-old Ashlyn Aske, have been some of the most frequent flag users. “One time she wanted to keep the flag,” whispered Ashlyn’s mother, Tiffany. “We almost had a meltdown over that.” 

One parent who apparently was unwilling to deal with a potential meltdown let her child carry away one of the few remaining flags, according to a woman who did not want to give her name. 

The missing flags are among the least of law enforcement’s worries. The over-burdened police traffic division is primarily concerned with catching reckless drivers and parking meter vandals, said Sgt. Michael Holland of the Berkeley Police Department. 

In the last year, the eight-person traffic division has conducted seven pedestrian stings, handing out $104 tickets to more than 200 drivers who didn’t yield to undercover police officers in crosswalks. 

But the police can’t watch every intersection. So some people favor the flags because they let the pedestrians take a proactive about approach toward safety. 

Sierra Carter, who works at Bistro Liaon on the corner of Hearst and Shattuck avenues where flags were used, said she thinks the program is worthwhile, particularly for seniors and children.  

“Everyone’s in a hurry,” she said. “It’s horrible.” 

She admits, though, she never used the flags herself. When asked why, she smiled, realizing the irony of her explanation. 

“I guess I’m in too much of a hurry,” she said.