Shortly before noon Friday, a man grabbed a little boy's hand and they darted across Penn Avenue East in East Liberty, even though the walking figure on the traffic signal was lit up for them. A signal on Penn Avenue was giving cars the green arrow to turn at the same time.
Darting wasn't necessary, though. A group of protesters held up traffic, chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!"
It was hard to tell from the blare of horns whether any drivers were honking in support of the rally, but the protesters' message was clear: Penn Avenue's traffic infrastructure between Beatty Street and Penn Circle East and South was not engineered for pedestrians.
Action United staged the rally to urge Pittsburgh officials to improve the timing of lights and to add signs to make pedestrian crossings safer. About 15 protesters walked the three-block stretch, holding signs and chanting.
The issue has reached a boiling point at the heady crossroads of new residential and retail development. The Target department store has a full underground, free parking garage that attracts shoppers from all over the city while 90 units are occupied in the former Highland Building, 54 new apartments at Penn and Beatty are full of new residents and about the same number of apartments are being built across Penn.
A housing development as part of the redesign of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway at the Target intersection will put 300 new apartment units there.
Police Officer Christine Scalise patrols Zone 5 on a bicycle. She said she has seen some accidents, "a lot of close calls" and more people jaywalking during traffic lulls rather than risking a precarious intersection.
The four-way stop light at Penn and Penn Circle East and South gives cars in all directions green arrows for turning in competition with the lit-up walking figure for pedestrians.
"You just have to bully your way across, c'mon!" called one man who began running in front of traffic, encouraging other protesters to follow. Some drivers' expressions registered mild panic.
It is a big, yawning intersection that was less like a floodgate before Target was built. Cars could not enter Penn Circle South from Penn Circle East.
Officer Scalise said she would like to see a restricted red at the Target intersection, allowing pedestrians to cross in all directions while all cars stop.
"I'm not sure if there was a traffic study done," she said, "but if it was done several years ago, they might need to revisit it, with more people living here and more people walking."
Lee Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, lives in one of the new apartments at East Liberty Place North and said a two-way stop sign there "is not enough" for pedestrians or drivers. "There are some things that don't need to wait for a study. Some things you can just see."
She said her group has talked to traffic engineers and planners with the city "and they don't see a problem with the crosswalks."
East Liberty Development Inc. has led community planning discussions that made walkability and accessibility priorities. A 2010 planning process made a priority of opening Penn Circle South and East to two-way traffic. ELDI's planning coordinator, Loralyn Fabian, said a walkability study is underway.
"We are on the same page with Action United," she said. "There is a need for pedestrian safety improvements; this is a high priority of ours."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.