The pedestrian flag system in downtown Astoria is being used for a lot of things, but crossing the street doesn’t appear to be one of them – with more than 245 stolen in the first six weeks since the system’s introduction.

The city initially purchased 300 flags. Assistant City Engineer Nathan Crater said March 20 the city had 300 more ordered and on the way. Each flag costs 75 cents plus shipping.

“Initial observations show that the use of them is pretty minimal, unfortunately,” Crater said. “And we’re getting a pretty high volume of flag loss, on an average of about seven flags a day. It varies, actually some days we end up getting a few back, which is comical,” he said, pausing with a laugh. “Somebody had a change of heart and brought them back.”

The topic came up during the city of Astoria’s last Traffic Safety Committee meeting where City Councilman Drew Herzig stated he believed he knew why the flags weren’t working – a lack of community ownership.

“I think the city is slightly at fault for not getting out ahead of that and making a ‘big to-do’ about the opening. We didn’t get the community involved,” Herzig said. “We didn’t make people feel that these are their flags and we want to make sure that they are kept.”

Herzig also placed blame on The Daily Astorian.

“There wasn’t a story, there wasn’t a photo op before the flags went in, and I regret that. The sad thing is that the story with the photo was of the flags being stolen and the online comments were, ‘Shame on the city council for wasting our money this way.’ So I think we need to coordinate the efforts more when we unveil something. We need to make that a public story so the community feels a real investment in having it succeed, rather than coming in afterwards and saying, ‘This was another stupid idea from the council,’” he said.

Committee president Zetty McKay asked Herzig how he suggested doing that, to which Herzig replied he was just venting because the committee does not have the power to do that.

“It’s not this commission’s fault,” Herzig said. “I think the city council needs to be more in front of the story, including going out and posing for pictures, having Arline (LaMear, councilwoman) cross the street with a flag. I hope we, on our side, we can do better in the future because these are important things and we shouldn’t let them get sort of battered by the lack of control of the message.”

The flags were featured in the paper Jan. 23 and 25, and Feb. 20.

They have been in place since mid-February and in a 45-minute period during the lunch hour last week, four people were observed using the flags; 60 did not use the safety technique to make pedestrians more visible to cars. The flags are available at 10th Street and Marine Drive and 10th and Commercial streets for use in crossing both busy intersections.

Astoria City Council approved their use as part of one of the 2013 city council goals for improved pedestrian safety, stemming from several incidents last year that included the death of James Alan Lum of Colorado Springs.

Chris Maciejewski, a traffic engineer with DKS & Associates, presented to the council in February on the topic of pedestrian flags and other ways of improving safety on the city streets. He told the council and traffic safety committee of Seattle’s experience with the flags, in which seven percent were used and nearly all were stolen. The plan has since been discontinued.

Crater said other cities have been monitored and reported a 7 to 12 percent usership rate.

But Astoria is giving it another try, with the additional purchase of 300 flags.

With that will come the next steps of pedestrian safety in the form of public education outreach, parking spot removal nearest to intersections and sign color and size enhancement. Crosswalk markings will also be upgraded. Herzig said education before changing the striping style of the crosswalk needs to happen within the community, “before people know those are crosswalks.”

Unsignaled crosswalks will employ rapid flashing beacons. Modifications will also be made to crosswalk signals.

Six pamphlets are offered on the topic at City Hall. They will be sent out with utility billings at a cost to the city of $685.44 for 3,808 copies of each. The pamphlet is free, the cost is for insertion.

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