COVID-19 Battle May Even Extend to Crosswalk Buttons

Glendale Public Works staff members will research and present options to the City Council to add precautionary implements to pedestrian crosswalk buttons in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
The council on Tuesday unanimously backed the idea advanced by Councilman Ara Najarian and Councilwoman Paula Devine after a lengthy discussion on modifying crosswalk signals in accordance with the present pandemic hygiene culture. Though the discussion initially considered placing crosswalks and traffic signals on a predetermined timer, officials seem poised to later consider that modification as part of a broader conversation on traffic calming and the city’s walkability.
“I think the motorists and residents are going to go bananas” if signals are automated, Najarian contended Tuesday. “We’ve got a difficult situation at best in our downtown area.”
Najarian had alternatively proposed utilizing a variety of products that essentially are pieces of film that can be placed over buttons or other surfaces and, through modern nanotechnology, purportedly clean themselves of contaminants like bacteria or viruses. This would facilitate keeping crosswalks operating by demand, he said, whereas measures like altering signal schedules more broadly wrap into traffic engineering decisions.
“Somehow [the discussion] has morphed into slowing down cars and other things,” he said. “I think this really has to be our solution here.”
Though automating signals did have support from public officials — chiefly Councilmen Dan Brotman and Ardy Kassakhian — ultimately the body threw its support behind exploring whatever protective measures could be provided for the city’s pedestrians.
“Let’s try to do that and not try to solve multiple issues with one idea,” Kassakhian said.
Yazdan Emrani, director of public works, said his department had explored automating signals at 74 intersections in the greater downtown area. Signs would be installed indicating that pedestrians should not press the buttons, Emrani said, adding that Burbank, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles had made similar changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It would put the pedestrians’ push button on what we call a recall. The traffic signal would go through an automated cycle — it’s not activated by the pedestrian pushing the button — and then the vehicular and bicycle traffic would come to a stop at certain intervals,” he explained. “We would monitor the situation, and once the traffic levels are back to near-normal or normal, we would revert back to this operation so we could move the vehicular traffic through the downtown area.”
Brotman, a champion of walkability and alternative transit, pointed out other cities had already been implementing automated signals as part of a culture change toward friendliness to pedestrians.
“COVID gives us another reason for doing something that pedestrian advocates have been asking for and many cities have done,” he said. “Many cities are doing this because of a mentality shift. The mentality is, somehow cars automatically get ushered through an intersection while pedestrians have to beg to cross. We have this idea that it’s normal, but that is not normal.”
Kassakhian supported the change simply as the latest among many changes to public life since the pandemic struck in March.
“I think at least until we’re completely through this COVID-19 situation and as more and more people are walking and there’s more foot traffic out there, it makes sense for us to put it automated, so that people are not risking touching surfaces even though people have thought of some very creative ways to touch surfaces without their hands,” he said.
Najarian, who has sat on the board of L.A. Metro, the county’s transportation agency, for 14 years, cautioned against “monkeying around” with traffic engineering without doing the necessary research and public outreach.
“What we’re talking about here in terms of traffic speed is traffic calming,” he added. “This is a term that traffic engineers use to slow down the traffic. Now if that’s our goal, this is the wrong way to do it. In fact, it’s an unrecognized way to do it.”
Mayor Vrej Agajanian said regretfully that automating signals might be a case of too little too late anyway, as traffic has in his view picked back up substantially since its low point in March.
“I don’t know how much lighter it was than before,” he said. “If it’s like 10-15% lighter than before, I don’t want to go through all of this and spend money, though it isn’t that much money. If we had to do it, maybe we had to do it two months ago. Now, to me, it looks like it’s late.”

Leave a Reply