Nur Kahir juggles dual roles at the southwestern corner of University Avenue and 50th Street in the Colina Park neighborhood of City Heights. He owns the VIP Discount Store, a gathering place for the surrounding Somali community, and by virtue of that also presides over the informal court of Somali men that springs up to chat outside his shop every day.
Late Thursday morning, the group was unusually large, considering the sweltering heat. But minutes earlier, city workers had finished painting a brand new crosswalk across University Avenue, and now Kahir and about a dozen other men were standing around assessing the work.
“It’s good,” said Osman Hagisufi, who lives in the neighborhood. “Before, people look. Run.”
Residents of Colina Park — sometimes called Little Mogadishu because of its large Somali population — have always known that section of University Avenue to be a dangerous one.
There are many reasons: Fast drivers. An absence of crosswalks. The curve of the road and the hilly topography that make it hard for drivers and pedestrians crossing the street to see each other. And a high volume of people crossing midblock to get to nearby markets and mosques.
The city’s statistics underscore the danger. There were 20 pedestrian accidents along the surrounding four-block stretch of University Avenue between 2005 and 2010, including six from people crossing midblock.
So a year ago, prompted by requests from residents, the city’s transportation department began studying the intersection and settled on a crosswalk and several other changes to improve pedestrian safety.
Other than painting the crosswalk, traffic engineers eliminated parking on the south side of University Avenue on Thursday, so pedestrians standing on the curb would have a better view of oncoming cars before stepping into the street. They also got rid of a left turn lane and turned it into a refuge — a safe zone protected by pylons for pedestrians needing to pause in the middle of the street to wait out traffic.
On Thursday morning, not long after city crews left, several men dressed in flowing robes stepped into the new crosswalk to test drivers’ reactions. Some drivers slowed. A woman in a Volkswagen Beetle stopped before the crosswalk, waving a pedestrian across.
Still, Kahir said he didn’t think the crosswalk was enough.
Between signing deliverymen’s clipboards, Kahir said the city should also reduce the speed limit there. It is 35 miles per hour along that stretch of University Avenue, which does not have stop signs, traffic lights or other traffic-calming features. Drivers often exceed that limit, he said.
“It’s still too fast and dangerous for the people,” he said. “Either put stop signs here or change the speed limit.”
In some cases the city won’t install crosswalks without stop signs because it says they may actually make crossing more dangerous. In this case, several factors — including pedestrian volume and the frequency of passing cars — convinced traffic engineers that the crosswalk and other changes could actually improve safety, even without a stop sign, said Gary Pence, a city traffic engineer.
There are no plans to reduce the area’s maximum speed limit, which he said the city sets based on state law.
“We’re not at liberty to arbitrarily lower it, but we can look at it to see,” he said. A survey of traffic speeds would be required, he said, and the next one along that section of University isn’t scheduled for at least two years.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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