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Pedestrian-Friendly Traffic Lights Draw Praise

Anna Schraffenberger leans against a ledge, catching her breath and cussing herself.

She usually walks with a cane, but on this day she left it at home. So instead she's shuffling around downtown Louisville, running errands on a bum knee that still ails her after more than a dozen surgeries in five years.

Schraffenberger says the knee gave out after nearly 40 years of working on her feet as a nurse's aid in a Southern Indiana hospital. She can walk, but she's slow and finds herself stopping every 20 feet or so to rest, catch her breath and cuss the absent cane.

"I'd do better with a cane," she said.

When she's ready to cross Jefferson Street — bustling with four lanes of lunch-hour traffic — she pays close attention to the traffic signal and takes off as soon as she sees the light of the crosswalk sign.

Every second counts for Schraffenberger. She doesn't want to get caught in the street with traffic barreling in her direction.

About a year ago, Louisville Metro officials unveiled a plan to address pedestrian injuries and fatalities in Louisville.

At the time, the city's rate of pedestrian fatalities of 2.57 was slightly higher than the national rate of 2.33 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents, according to information provided by the city.

The latest change came last week, when city traffic engineers calibrated about 70 downtown traffic lights to allow a four-second delay between crosswalk signs and traffic green lights, said Harold Adams, spokesman for the city's public works department.

The idea is to allow pedestrians crossing the street to get a slight head start on the vehicles, Adams said. This lets walkers get into the street and be more visible to drivers.

"That's certainly a good thing," said Chris Glasser, executive director of Bicycling for Louisville, a local group that advocates for bicycling infrastructure and Complete Street urban design.

Glasser said previous efforts to reduce pedestrian injuries and fatalities — like cracking down on jaywalkers — have fallen short of actually making the streets safer.

Glasser said the retimed traffic lights are a good step toward creating a Complete Street model in downtown Louisville. But more can be done.

For instance, narrower traffic lanes and other efforts to slow and calm traffic would be a feasible next step, Glasser said.

"It's not a hard sell if you're not taking away a driving lane," he said.

Ideally, Glasser said, any work raising visibility and safety for walkers or cyclists would be done in concert with other pedestrian-centric street changes.

Adams, with public works, said funding levels limit just how complete a street project can be.

"There's not always enough money to take care of every Complete Street aspect," he said.

For Scheffenberger, whose persistent limp makes crossing the street difficult, a few extra seconds is welcome.

As for bike lanes or other Complete Street concepts, the 65-year-old doesn't have time to think about that. She's got more streets to cross, more errands to run.

"If I only knew I had to do all this walking," she says, "I would have went and bought another cane."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.