How long does it take a pedestrian to cross a street? Longer than it used to.
New federal standards applied in California will give pedestrians a few additional seconds to cross from curb to curb, meaning that motorists will face longer red lights -- and local agencies will have to pay millions to upgrade old equipment.
The policy is aimed partly at making the streets safer for an aging population, but it also is expected to slow traffic.
Instead of assuming that people on foot can cover 4 feet per second, the new policy slows the pace to 3.5 feet per second.
That may not seem like a huge difference, but at a 100-foot intersection the change means an extra four seconds of walking time for pedestrians and red lights for drivers. On wider roads, such as Mission Boulevard from Fremont to Hayward, it could be a change of five to eight seconds.
Those extra seconds could make a big difference for Rossmoor resident Lucy Tulanian, 83.
"I have back and knee problems. Sometimes when I push the button to cross, there isn't enough time to get across," said Tulanian, who uses a cane.
"This is a dancing game where no move is totally right, because it affects another," said Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety. "If you add time for pedestrians to cross, you hold up traffic longer. (But) you may have saved pedestrian lives or serious injuries by allowing more time to cross."
The federal change was approved last year and is expected to become California policy within two years. Walnut Creek has changed its intersections to comply with the new regulations; San Francisco and San Jose have made changes at intersections where signals are being retired, and Hayward will adjust the signals on Mission when it upgrades that busy street.
The new timing plan may be needed as the state's population ages and more walkers are slower. California's pedestrian fatality rate of 1.69 per 100,000 population is above the national average of 1.44.
"Accommodating pedestrians is good," said Ananth Prasad, who oversees signal timing along Santa Clara County's heavily traveled expressway system. "But this change will significantly impact the expressway coordination."
For some drivers, the thought of waiting longer at traffic lights is not appealing.
"People have to get to work, and this will slow them down," said Frank Wallis, of Walnut Creek.
"This could be a burden for cash-strapped cities," added Arne Simonsen, former president of the East Bay Division of the League of California Cities. "Where are cities like Vallejo going to get the money to do this?"
It will cost about $5,000 for the city of El Cerrito to change the timing on just 10 traffic signals it maintains, said Yvetteh Ortiz, the city's engineering manager. Caltrans handles most of the city's traffic signals.
In some cities with heavy pedestrian traffic, equipment will need to be replaced to handle this major change.
"That's our big problem in Palo Alto," city transportation planner Jaime Rodriguez said. "Our controller is not modern and can't accommodate (this)."
Santa Clara County is testing a new signal system at Bascom Avenue and Renova Drive near Valley Medical Center in San Jose. Pedestrians still must push a crosswalk button to trigger their light, but sensors on poles at curbs will then detect how many pedestrians there are and how much time they need to clear the crosswalk.
If walkers are fast, the pace could be as high as 4 feet per second. If they are older or disabled or just ambling across, it could be slowed to about 2.8 feet per second.
The extra time provided by pedestrian detection will not show on the countdown signal, but the light for cross traffic will remain red until pedestrians clear the crosswalk.
"With this approach," Prasad said, "the pedestrian timing is only extended when needed rather than extending it every time, with or without pedestrians. Our approach will result in significant time savings."
However, it is costly. Adding the new system could run from $12,000 to $20,000 per intersection, or about $2 million for the expressways.
Any change is good news to Lucy Lam, 35, of Cupertino, who suffers from the autoimmune disease lupus. When her joints swell, her pace slows on her regular walks along Lawrence Expressway.
"I will not cross unless I'm in the crosswalk immediately after the walk signal begins, and I will usually take the entire time allowed to make this crossing," she said. "I could certainly use the extra five to eight seconds to cross and can understand the need to extend the timers for the elderly, disabled and those with small children."
Staff writer Janis Mara contributed to this story. Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.