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In Search of Safe Crossing 

Tri-County Independent Living, residents raise alarm over pedestrian safety on Eureka's Fourth, Fifth streets

click to enlarge Robert Lane crosses Fourth Street using a hand-held stop sign loaned to him by Tri-County Independent Living, which has reached out to officials to express concern about pedestrian safety in the area.

Photo by Thadeus Greenson

Robert Lane crosses Fourth Street using a hand-held stop sign loaned to him by Tri-County Independent Living, which has reached out to officials to express concern about pedestrian safety in the area.

Sitting in the rec room of the Bayview Heights apartment complex on Eureka's Fourth Street earlier this month, Robert Lane says he feels like he's become a prisoner in his own home. Every time he goes out — whether to walk his beloved 13-year-old boxer mix Sadie, or to visit friends — it's the same story. On the good days, it's just the frustration of sitting in his motorized wheelchair at the corner of C and Fourth streets, watching the traffic zip past as no one pulls to a stop at the crosswalk and the minutes tick past. On the bad days, there are the near misses, like the one recently in which cars in the nearest two lanes of the three-lane road stopped at the intersection, prompting him to roll two-thirds of the way across only to have an impatient driver zip out of the middle lane into the far lane and speed through just inches from where he sat.

"It's to the point I don't even want to leave my house anymore," Lane said, his chair pulled close to the conference table. "It's just got so overwhelming. It's every single time I go out."

Over on Fourth Street, Mari Dorenstreich, an independent living specialist and program coordinator at Tri-County Independent Living, tells a similar story. Slight in stature, Dorenstreich uses crutches to get around and takes the bus to work, which requires her to cross Fifth Street to get into the office. The traffic, she says, almost never stops, adding that she's had several close calls like Lane's, with cars speeding by mere inches from her, so close she can feel a whoosh of air on her face.

"Twice, I feel the air pass by and I'm thinking, 'Do I have my will together?'" she quips, sitting in her office at Tri-County.

Dawn Albrecht, Tri-County's emergency preparedness coordinator, sitting to Dorenstreich's left, says these aren't isolated stories but daily occurrences. She says she constantly worries about Tri-County's clients, many of whom have mobility or sensory challenges, crossing the busy thoroughfares to access services, not just at Tri-County's offices but the other providers nearby.

"I cannot believe someone has not been struck and killed yet," she says, adding that she keeps a hand-held stop sign next to the office door and often interrupts her mornings to run out and help people — clients or otherwise — cross safely.

Albrecht recently penned a letter to Caltrans officials and the city of Eureka and the office of traffic safety pleading with them to implement traffic calming measures to increase pedestrian safety. Lane, meanwhile, started circulating a petition calling on the agencies to put a traffic light at the intersections of B Street and Fourth and Fifth streets. Within four days, he'd gathered nearly 150 signatures, mostly by rolling up and down Fourth and Fifth streets and asking passersby to sign.

The problem, as Lane, Albrecht and others explain it, is multi-fold. First off,  three-lane roads running through an urban center are inherently unsafe, giving drivers a "freeway" feel and leaving pedestrians a lot of ground to cover to get safely from one curb to the other. Then, they say, the fact that there isn't a stop light on either thoroughfare from E Street down to Broadway gives drivers a lot of time to gain speed.

"This whole stretch is just, accelerate, accelerate, accelerate until they get to the light," says Roy Gomez, standing in front of his cannabis dispensary at Fifth and B streets, adding that he's seen a handful of accidents — one involving his son — and too many near misses to count at the intersection.

Adding to those issues, Gomez and others say, is that parked cars often line the streets abutting the intersection, creating visibility issues for crossing traffic and pedestrians. And bus stops — on Fourth between A and B streets and on Fifth Street between C and D streets — ensure a constant stream of people looking to cross.

But what really keeps Albrecht up at night are those Tri-County clients with mobility issues, as well as Lane and the nine or so other folks, most of them veterans, relying on wheelchairs who live at Bayview Heights and have to navigate these crossings daily.

"There are going to be people crossing who don't have the ability to jump out of the way," she says.

About an hour earlier and over on Fourth Street, Lane taps his chair: "This thing goes 4 miles per hour and it takes a bit to get up to 4 miles per hour."

By the numbers, these aren't Eureka's most dangerous intersections, says Colin Fiske, the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP).

"CRTP has been focused for a while on Broadway for bike and pedestrian safety improvements because that has historically been the epicenter of the safety crisis in our region," Fiske writes in an email to the Journal. "But Fourth and Fifth Streets are not far behind. And actually, if you look at a heat map of fatal and severe bike and pedestrian injuries over the last decade (2012 to 2022), they are most concentrated on the east side of Fourth and Fifth near Myrtle Avenue/State Route 255."

That said, Fiske adds that the stretch of Fourth and Fifth that is the focus of concern for Albrecht and Lane is far from safe.

Eureka Police spokesperson Brittany Powell crunched some numbers at the Journal's request and reports that since 2020, eight vehicle-versus-pedestrian collisions have been reported on Fourth and Fifth streets between E Street and Broadway — about 8 percent of the city's total. Five of the eight, she adds via email, were hit and runs, and another was fatal.

Over the same time period, according to data provided by Powell, about 15 percent of the department's traffic stops occurred on the entirety of Fourth and Fifth streets. (She wasn't able to limit the data to the stretch from E Street down to Broadway.) But the total number of traffic stops citywide fell from 5,133 in 2020 to 1,717 last year, which Powell attributed to staffing levels and "EPD not being able to staff a traffic unit." As such, she says no targeted enforcement is planned in the area.

Eureka Public Works Director Brian Gerving says most potential changes to the configuration of Fourth and Fifth streets would fall "firmly under the control of Caltrans," leaving the city little flexibility to implement pedestrian safety measures on the thoroughfares. But Gerving says the city can impose parking restrictions on Fourth and Fifth streets, already regularly evaluates requests from the public to alter curb markings and would welcome input from Tri-County.

The one larger exception, Gerving says, is the "C Street Bike Boulevard" project which will be implemented next year with an Active Transportation Program grant the city received. The boulevard will run from Waterfront Drive to Harris Street, and will see "rectangular rapid flashing beacons" — which flash yellow to alert traffic that a pedestrian is looking to cross — installed at C, Fourth and Fifth streets.

Caltrans District One spokesperson Myles Cochrane says "nonmotorized safety along U.S. 101 in Eureka has remained a continued priority" for the agency. Much of the agency's focus, Cochrane says, has been on the Broadway corridor that Fiske dubbed the "epicenter of the safety crisis" in the area. Cochrane listed a number of projects in the works there. Cochrane says Caltrans also recently installed a new signal at Fourth and L streets, and added bulb-outs — curb extensions that shorten pedestrian crossing distances — as well as ADA curb ramps.

Cochrane points out that over the past five years, nearly all the intersections north of Broadway along Fourth and Fifth streets "have met or stayed below the state's average for collisions in comparison to similar locations."

"It's worth noting that historically, safety projects have typically been initiated at much higher collision rates than what we're seeing in these areas," he says, adding that Caltrans' safety team is planning a "thorough investigation" of the area, which may lead to additional safety measures.

Fiske, for his part, says mitigation measures can help. For example, he says "daylighting crosswalks — or prohibiting parking near them to improve visibility — is a "proven strategy." Installing the flashing beacons like are planned for the C Street intersections will "probably help a little," he says, though he'd much rather see crossing signals installed that provide actual red lights to stop motorists completely, like the one installed near Broadway Cinema. But the real problem, he says, is structural and beyond easy fixes.

"We know from decades of research that (similar to Broadway) the design of Fourth and Fifth Streets — wide, three-lane, one-way streets with a relatively high design speed in a busy urban setting — virtually guarantees a high level of injuries and deaths for people walking, biking and rolling," he says. "Making Fourth and Fifth Streets truly safe for everybody will require major redesign. It will likely require a reduction in the number of lanes along with other traffic calming measures, as well as protected bike facilities and redesigned intersections to prioritize safe crossings for people walking, biking and rolling."

Aaron and Crystal Woodbury Haynes are relatively new to the neighborhood, having recently moved up from Petaluma to take over the former Eureka Reporter building at Fourth and C streets, which they are transforming into 4th Street Mercantile, slated to open next month.

The pedestrian safety issues became immediately apparent, Aaron Woodbury Haynes says, noting he recently saw a parent with a stroller sprint across the street.

"It broke my heart," he says.

"If you're in here, you hear screeching brakes all day," Crystal Woodbury Haynes says, adding that every time it causes her heart to jump into her throat. "People need to stop calling them Fourth and Fifth streets. It's a highway."

Tired of hearing and seeing close calls, the couple has decided to take matters into their own hands and implement a small mitigation measure they saw in Petaluma at intersections near schools that didn't have crossing guards. They say they are buying two plastic baskets, with plans to affix one to each of the light polls on the north side of the intersection of Fourth and C Streets. Then they'll put orange caution flags in each, the idea being that pedestrians can pull a flag, use it to capture drivers' attention and slow traffic and then leave it in the basket on the other side when done.

"We're just going to pay for it and put it up," Crystal Woodbury Haynes says.

Lane, too, has taken matters into his own hands. Armed with a hand-held stop sign given to him by Albrecht, he says he's been able to bring traffic to a stop and cross safely in recent days.

"Oh man, they stop instantly," he says, a big smile stretching across his face. "I stick it out there and they put them skids on. It at least makes me feel a bit safe."

But the safety has come at a cost, as he doesn't feel comfortable walking Sadie, the boxer mix, while navigating the sign.

"I not only have to watch out for myself but I have to look out for her, too," he says, noting he doesn't take her out much anymore.

Albrecht, for her part, says she's glad the stop sign is providing Lane some relief but notes, "You shouldn't have to carry around a stop sign with you in your wheelchair just to cross the road." She says she remains hopeful the city and Caltrans will do whatever they can to add "just any additional safety features."

And she wants motorists to keep in mind that there are a lot of people looking to cross these stretches of road, and they need to drive accordingly. If they notice a car in an adjacent lane slowing to a stop, she says that's probably because a pedestrian is in the crosswalk and they should slow to a stop, too. Mostly, she says, people just need to slow down.

"I just want to give a nice, friendly reminder to all of the people out there in Humboldt: Please slow down on Fourth and Fifth streets," she says. "I would feel so awful if I accidentally hit someone and I don't think I'd ever get over that. I would never want to be that driver and I don't think anyone wants to have that happen in their lives. So just a reminder: 'Hey guys, there are a lot of people who cannot move faster. They don't have a choice. So, slow down.'"

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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