James Okazaki holds up a map as he discusses a new traffic signal at Third and Omar streets. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)
Former L.A. Department of Transportation official James Okazaki holds up a map as he discusses a new traffic signal at Third and Omar streets. At right is LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Report

Describing 2014 as the “Year of the Traffic,” one of Los Angeles’ top cops confirmed July 29 that enforcement of crosswalk and jaywalking laws has indeed increased, the result of a citywide effort to prevent deadly accidents.

Speaking to a town hall meeting of Japanese- and English-speaking stakeholders, LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara observed, “Little Tokyo is going through a change. We’re living with that change.”

The rise in the number of pedestrians and in people taking public transportation and riding bicycles and skateboards over the past five years has led to a culture change in the downtown area and in Little Tokyo in particular, with drivers having to share the streets with many more people than before, according to meeting organizers.

“The (Little Tokyo) population continues to grow in a good way,” Hara added. “We are seeing the tension and frustrations of change.”

Hara, who began as a motorcycle officer in 1987, said he has witnessed the city’s growth first-hand.

LAPD Officer Boka (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
LAPD Officer Dan Boka. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

According to a survey by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, the number of district residents was 28,878 in 2006 and increased about twofold to 52,400 people last year, with a corresponding increase in accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists. According to the LAPD’s Central Division, 312 pedestrians in Los Angeles were seriously injured in traffic accidents last year, and 92 died of their injuries.

The meeting at St. Francis Xavier Chapel-Japanese Catholic Center (Maryknoll) was attended by about 40 people and was convened by the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District, Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, and The Rafu Shimpo.

A Rafu article by Japanese section reporter Ryoko Nakamura was the impetus for the town hall gathering. She recently received a $197 ticket for violating Vehicle Code 21456B by entering a crosswalk while the countdown numbers were flashing. The response to her article was overwhelming as it became apparent that few were aware of the law.

Hara was joined by LAPD motorcycle officer Dan Boka, former L.A. Department of Transportation official James Okazaki, and Little Tokyo Business Association President Ellen Endo.

Rules for Pedestrians

It was pointed out that the word “jaywalking” has been used incorrectly. Since it means crossing the street at a location where there is no crosswalk, the reporter was not jaywalking; rather, she was in the crosswalk but going against the flashing red signal.

According to Boka, the only time one can legally enter a crosswalk is when the white figure of a person walking is displayed, usually from 5 to 7 seconds; the flashing red hand means “Don’t walk,” and the moment it appears, the crosswalk is off limits.

The countdown clock, he said, is intended for those who entered the crosswalk while the white “Walk” sign was displayed, telling them how long they have until the signal turns red; it is not for people who have not yet stepped into the crosswalk. Boka acknowledged that many people misunderstand this rule and strongly reiterated that the flashing red hand means “Stop.”

According to Okazaki, who had jurisdiction over traffic signal management in the city for 35 years, the countdown clocks were first installed about 10 years ago, with the goal of enabling pedestrians in crosswalks to safely cross the street.

Hara said that if all pedestrians observe the rules, the backup of cars waiting to make a right or left turn will be reduced, and hazards will be decreased for both cars and pedestrians. In conjunction with “the Year of the Traffic,” enforcement has been stepped up, with the choice of issuing a citation, a written warning or a verbal warning left to the discretion of each police officer, he said.

Little Tokyo BID’s Actions

For years, the Little Tokyo community has discussed the establishment of a crosswalk at the T-intersection of Third and Omar streets for the benefit of Little Tokyo Towers residents, many of whom visit the medical building across the street. The nearest signal, at San Pedro Street, may be too far for them to walk. Okazaki said that traffic signals at Omar, with buttons for pedestrians to push, are scheduled to be installed by the end of the year.

Little Tokyo Business Association President Ellen Endo. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)
Little Tokyo Business Association President Ellen Endo. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

Hara noted that there are two side streets, Omar and Crocker, off Third Street between San Pedro and Central, and crossing at those intersections is technically not a violation even though there is no crosswalk. However, he stressed that Third Street is often dangerous because the traffic is so heavy, and pedestrians should only cross at Omar or Crocker if they will not get in the way of traffic.

Attendees asked questions about additional dangers — the increased number of bicyclists in bike lanes (or car lanes where bicycles are allowed full use), skateboarders using the sidewalks at high speed, and pedestrians so focused on their mobile phones that they ignore traffic signals.

Okazaki pointed out that many drivers know the rules of the road because they have to study to get their driver’s licenses, but people who don’t drive don’t have an opportunity to learn the rules. He recommended that gatherings be held at senior facilities and elsewhere to educate pedestrians about traffic laws.

Little Tokyo BID works to keep Little Tokyo and the Arts District safe by having officers on bicycles patrol the area regularly between 9 a.m. and midnight. During its business hours, escorts can be provided for individuals who have to walk alone at night to a parking lot or residence. Little Tokyo BID also responds to calls about sightings of suspicious people or harassment by homeless people. Call (213) 500-4326.

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