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Red flags over cost wisely lead councilman to walk, not run with idea

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By Nafari Vanaski
Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When I first heard Pittsburgh councilman Corey O'Connor's proposed legislation to provide brightly colored flags for pedestrians to carry while crossing dangerous intersections, it reminded me of kindergarten for some reason.

Between the image of grown adults crossing the street holding brightly colored flags and the original proposed price tag of $10,000 to implement the plan citywide, what's not to mock? I called O'Connor to ask him what exactly he was thinking.

In an unexpected turn of events, I encountered a city council member who was happy to talk to me.

O'Connor said he had faced a lot of backlash after the Tribune-Review first reported on the plan last week. It made him scale back his plan to a pilot program at a few locations and having the city Public Works department put up the flag buckets – which pushed the cost down to less than $1,000. He will pay for the cost from his office's discretionary funds.

Council passed O'Connor's revised plan unanimously on Wednesday, which means that a few intersections in his district will test the program.

One location will probably be South Braddock Avenue near Biddle Avenue, scene of too-frequent accidents and a pedestrian killed in 2004. That's the intersection near the entrance to the Frick Park tennis courts and adjoining baseball field. It's also a high-traffic area and isn't far from a Parkway exit.

O'Connor said he's been meeting with residents regularly to try to reach a solution to the amount of accidents there, including one in 2004 that killed a pedestrian. You're probably thinking that it would be a good idea to put up some stop signs, but that has proven to be more far more difficult than it would be to install these flags. And really, both have only a 50 percent chance of being effective, what with distracted drivers and pedestrians complicating matters.

O'Connor said the public works department was poised to install a stop sign, but some voiced concern about stop signs backing traffic to the Parkway exits and drivers speeding through side streets to avoid said signs. Also South Braddock snakes through four municipalities – Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Swissvale and Wilkinsburg – which makes decisions regarding it difficult. Then there's the fact that the road is also a state alternate route when work is being done on the Parkway.

“The state wouldn't allow a sign,” said city police zone Cmdr. Kathy Degler.

She came up with the pedestrian flag idea during a visit to Salt Lake City, where she saw it in action.

“It makes the pedestrian be partially responsible,” she said. “I just hope people use it.”

Will the flags work? The short answer: If the Willie Stargell statue crossed the street in front of some area drivers holding one of these flags, they would not notice. Think about it: We're at the place where in order to get drivers and pedestrians to do what they're supposed to do, we have to try to make pedestrians stand out more than a person walking in front of your vehicle would ordinarily stand out.

It's a tough situation, Degler said, conceding that walking across a street holding a flag might look silly.

“But riding in the back of an ambulance looks silly, too,” she said.

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