Akron’s drive to remove traffic signals at 100 intersections throughout the city hit a raw nerve this week when some residents near Cole Avenue said the plan endangers children walking to school.
They are protesting the proposed removal of signals at the corner of Cole and Grant Street and a block away at Cole and Bellows Avenue. For the last two months, those lights have been set to blink red instead of change colors to test the proposal of converting to stop signs. The neighbors say that created a dangerous situation for pedestrians.
Crossing guard Joyce FitzGerald said a Monday incident demonstrates the problem.
She was standing in the middle of Grant Street, holding a stop sign and preparing to blow a whistle to indicate it was safe for six children to cross.
Retelling the story this week, she pointed south on Grant and said: “A red SUV coming from that direction was coming, never stopped and when he stopped, he was right there at the first line of my crosswalk and my kids had to run back at the curb.”
FitzGerald keeps paper and a pencil attached to her big red stop sign, but it all happened too fast for her to get the license number. “I can’t hold this, blow my whistle and write at the same time,” she said.
Andy Davis, the city’s traffic signal engineer, said it’s part of a look at all of the city’s 400 intersections with traffic signals with an eye toward taking down at least 100. He said each intersection is studied before the lights are removed.
Big, red signs at the Cole Avenue intersections indicate the proposed change.
“It’s a process of listening and watching,” Davis said. “Sometimes there is public sentiment. If something has been there a while, it appears to be safe. What we try to do is educate the public what is the appropriate tool for the location and sometimes it’s a four-way stop, sometimes a signal, sometimes a two-way stop. It can be different things.”
Mike Zawahri owns Grant Drive Thru and can see the intersection from his business.
“Too dangerous,” he said. “Let’s make it plain English: Too dangerous.”
FitzGerald says traffic has changed since the lights changed.
“Now that they are blinking, they do rolling stops, very few people stop completely,” she said.
Johnny Sanford, a barber at Cuts Galore next to Zawahri’s shop, agreed.
“I see it all day long,” he said. “No number of crossing guards can make it right.”
The speed limit is 25 mph.
John Nelson, president of the South Akron Neighborhood Council, called a meeting on the issue this week that was attended by Davis and Ward 5 City Councilman Kenneth L. Jones.
Jones said he wants both traffic signals to stay.
“I’m going to be viciously opposed to the lights coming down,” he said.
He said most residents in the area are concerned about children walking to school.
“I think people are very passionate about our kids,” he said.
FitzGerald estimates as many as 70 children cross at Grant and Cole on some days.
The city has promised to study traffic at the intersection before making any decision, but residents said they saw no evidence of that until Wednesday when a Beacon Journal reporter was at the corner asking questions. A few minutes later, a worker parked a city car in a lot to watch traffic. Davis showed up a few minutes after that.
Davis said traffic engineering has advanced since the days when most of the data came from counting cars. Now they look at crash reports, pedestrian traffic, public input and other issues.
He suggested the intersection might be safer after the lights are gone.
“When traffic signals are used appropriately, people tend to pay attention to them more,” he said. “When they are sitting at lights that they feel as though nobody is here, they tend to not pay attention to them so much and you have more red light running.”
He also said data show more rear-end collisions at red lights.
He promised the decision will be made according to traffic engineer principles.
“We try to take the politics out of it,” he said. “Part of traffic engineering history is trying not to respond to spectacular things that happen and try to use good engineering judgment because you are looking at safety over the long period. You are not only looking at the safety of pedestrians but also the safety of cars.”
The signs are scheduled to continue blinking for about 30 more days before a decision is made, he said.
The city leaders will be “trying to balance the needs of the traveling public as well as to the people who are local to the situation.”
He said traffic signals have already been removed from about 30 intersections.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.