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Walkers getting a count

S.L. is installing digital timers for its pedestrians

It's kind of a "Name that Tune" you play with your feet but with estimates of your walking speed instead of your knack for notes.

At 50 S. Main, the midpoint of downtown's mall canyon, pedestrians all must face the countdown. It's the one Salt Lake intersection with a digital clock that tells pedestrians how many seconds they have to cross the street. Some do it in eight seconds; others scoot across in six, and if it's rainy and windy, whole waves of walkers sprint on the 1.

These countdown timers are flashing around the country, from Seattle to Chapel Hill, N.C., said Salt Lake City Transportation Director Tim Harpst. This week, he ordered 122 more of them to blink at about 20 intersections around town.

"The timers are giving people more information than they've had in the past," Harpst said.

While old-fashioned pedestrian signals provide little warning before they redden — causing some walkers to freeze in indecision when they see the flashing hand — the countdowns show exactly how much crossing time is left. The total crossing time is about 25 seconds.

Many have told Harpst they prefer the countdown to the old-style sudden signals. And while you can be cited for starting to cross after one of those hands is flashing, the countdown clock gives you more legal leeway.

Dan Bergenthal is the city transportation engineer who spends much of his time seeking to reduce pedestrian discontent. He has condensed the verbiage in city ordinances involving foot traffic by 75 percent, according to Harpst. The new simplified ordinance regarding the countdown signal essentially says you can "cross whenever you feel comfortable and safe walking — not running," said Bergenthal.

Still, it costs money to simplify pedestrians' lives. Installing a pair of countdown clocks at a midblock crosswalk costs about $1,000, and four-way intersections need eight timers and up to $4,000 for installation. And for the new shipment of signals, Salt Lake City will write a check for about $41,000, not including installation. About a third of the signals are paid for with money in the city's signal-maintenance budget; the rest will come out of a capital-improvements fund that will be spread out over the rest of 2001.

The first wave of timers will be put in this summer, Harpst said, at midblock crosswalks and four-way intersections near Main Street on South Temple, West Temple and 100 South. Then, as the capital-improvements money is meted out next fall, more clocks will flash at intersections from 200 East and 300 South to 300 West and 800 South. Intersections at 2700 South and Highland Drive and 1300 South and 300 West will also have countdown signals by the end of this year, Harpst predicted.

Harpst and Bergenthal have also asked the Redevelopment Agency to fund another 270 timers, but they won't know until June whether they'll get the money. "If we do, we will have enough timers to do most of the city-owned traffic signals in downtown and near downtown," Harpst said.

In the meantime, the city's "Adopt a Crosswalk" program produces quicker results in terms of safety. Individuals, families or businesses can ask the city to stock a nearby crosswalk with those orange flags pedestrians can wave as they walk. The city provides the first set, and if those dwindle, the adoptive neighbors can purchase replacement flags for $1.88 each. For information, call the city transportation department at 535-6630.

Unfortunately, neither flags nor any kind of flashing lights are guaranteed to prevent pedestrian accidents, as 9-year-old Scott Ho learned the hard way in February. The boy was carrying a flag while roller-skating across the intersection of 900 West and 600 South when a car struck him. Scott is recovering from minor injuries and can now use the pedestrian-activated overhead stoplights just installed at that intersection near the Chapman Library.

At a west-side town meeting this week, however, Mayor Rocky Anderson voiced his fear that the signals may not be enough. "It terrifies me," he said, "to think that (children) would be lulled into a false sense of security" by the new stoplights. "We've got to teach our kids defensive walking," he said. "It could mean their life."