Mixed reviews for pedestrian flags

Orange flags have flanked Siskiyou Boulevard for a week now, but few people seem to be using them.

"At first when they put them up, every now and then, somebody would grab a flag," said Barbara Marah, a benefits officer at Southern Oregon University who has been watching the crosswalks from the windows of Churchill Hall. But for the most part, she hasn't seen students embracing the flags, she said.

It's a common dilemma for cities with pedestrian flag programs. One such program in Berkeley, Calif., was discontinued after three years because of high theft and low use rates.

"People were stealing the flags, and they were also bunching up on the wrong sides of the street," said Matt Nichols, principal transportation planner with the city of Berkeley. "People were not using them in any real correct sense, and they also were not increasing any pedestrian safety, so we felt like for all those reasons it wasn't working."

Staff surveys concluded that only 2 percent of pedestrians used the flags when they were available, and over the three-year program, a total of 8,000 flags were purchased for seven intersections, resulting in a total cost of nearly $10,000.

A few flags along Siskiyou Boulevard have turned up missing, and the university plans to replace them if they continue to disappear, said Christine Florence, marketing director for SOU. But the flags were only designed as a temporary fix.

"Our long term plan is to be working with the city of Ashland on some more permanent solutions," she said.

The Berkeley program also received much negative publicity in the beginning, when a woman carrying a neon orange flag was hit by a car, Nichols said.

"It was a bad start to the program, but that's not why we pulled it," he said. "However, that gave us our first concern that pedestrians may have had a false sense of security while holding a flag. It's not a bullet-proof shield."

Since the program ended, the city has been developing a pedestrian plan, which calls for increased education and enforcement for both pedestrians and drivers, as well as physical improvements to the streets. Options include updating signs and repainting crosswalks, as well as more substantial modifications such as bumping out curbs, installing pedestrian-activated lights and moving crosswalk signs to the middle of the street on top of flexible poles.

Pedestrian flag programs in cities such as Kirkland, Wash., and Salt Lake City have proven more long-lasting, and have even expanded by allowing neighborhoods and local businesses to "adopt" crosswalks and ensure that flags stay stocked.

The challenge for Kirkland is convincing people to use the flags at its nearly 60 locations, said David Godfrey, transportation engineering manager for the city. The city has set a goal of 40 percent usage by 2010, but when the issue was studied last April, only about 8 percent of pedestrians used the flags, he said.

"We're working on trying to make the flags seem more mainstream," Godfrey said.

The city is making improvements to the program through a $60,000 state grant, such as redesigned flags and informing people about the flags' effectiveness.

A joint study conducted by the Transit Cooperative Research Program and the Nation Cooperative Highway Research Program concluded that pedestrian flags were, on average, 65 percent effective at getting motorists to stop for pedestrians. Signs alone were much less effective, while flashing lights were generally more effective, according to the study.

In addition to education, Kirkland also rolled out a new incentive program with local business partners last October. Companies can advertise on the side of flag holders in exchange for replenishing stolen flags and handing out coupons to pedestrians they see participating.

"It's a little reward for using the flags," Godfrey said.

As for SOU students, many just don't feel the need to pick up a flag.

"I look people in the eye when I walk," said senior Luke Hanson. "If they look like they're coming fast, I don't walk."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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