It didn’t take long for word to spread: The woman who had been struck by a driver in a Marin Avenue crosswalk on a recent Friday afternoon was Jacque Ensign, the 90-year-old co-founder of Berkeley Path Wanderers.
Update: Jacque’s family has created a GoFundMe for a stair lift
Ensign is well known in Berkeley as a “champion of walking in our town,” a woman who for decades has been a “tireless advocate” for the city’s public pathways, the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (BPWA) said in an email to members Sunday titled “Best Wishes for Jacque Ensign.” Ever seen the map of Berkeley pathways showing their routes throughout the city? It was developed on Ensign’s dining room table. In September, after Ensign turned 90, the city held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate a path newly named in her honor.
Ensign also happens to be the third older Berkeley resident to be seriously injured while walking or biking on a short stretch of Marin Avenue over just 10 days in December. Two other people lost their lives on Marin earlier this year in a fatal car crash, likely due to brake failure. The problems on Marin, said to be one of the steepest streets in the Bay Area, have so far confounded the efforts of city officials, staff and the community to make the route safer.
As of this week, Ensign remains in the hospital with multiple severe injuries.
“We are very concerned about the recent rash of pedestrian injuries on Marin Avenue,” the Path Wanderers wrote in Sunday’s email, which was the first time in recent memory that the group has urged public advocacy in relation to traffic safety. “If you are too, please let your city councilperson know. We’d like to see improvements to Marin Avenue and the city in general to make it safer for pedestrians.”
How can we keep each other safe, Ensign’s daughter asks
The day Ensign was injured, Dec. 10, she had just been visiting a friend in the neighborhood. As she crossed Marin from north to south in the crosswalk at Shattuck Avenue just before 3:40 p.m., a woman coming downhill in a Volvo Wagon struck her.
Ensign was taken to the hospital while the driver, a 49-year-old Berkeley woman, remained at the scene and cooperated with the investigation. Police do not believe drugs or alcohol factored into the crash, they said. As of Monday, BPD said the collision report remains incomplete. As a result, BPD could not confirm whether the driver had stopped at the intersection’s stop sign or say who was at fault for what they called a “slow-speed collision.”
Police have, however, determined fault in two other recent crashes on Marin Avenue that caused serious injuries to a pedestrian and cyclist. Both survived, but limited information has been available about their conditions.
On Dec. 9, the day before Ensign’s crash, an 83-year-old cyclist entered Marin Circle where a driver who was already in the circle hit him, according to police. BPD found the cyclist at fault for failure to yield.
Jane Johnston, Ensign’s daughter, said her hope now is for the community to look at what happened to her mother from a solutions standpoint rather than as yet another opportunity to point fingers.
“She looks forward to getting back to the Berkeley she loves and the paths she loves,” Johnston said. “We’re hoping for a speedy recovery.”
Johnston now wonders what kind of creative ideas might help promote traffic safety in Berkeley at the grassroots level. Her aunt, she noted, lives near Monterey Market; for a time, pedestrians used small flags to increase their visibility as they crossed the busy intersection. Before long, however, all the flags were gone.
But the concept has worked well in other places, she added, including the northwest: “I would love to hear if they have good ideas about how to keep each other safe. How can we make this a positive conversation? If there’s anything I’ve learned from this, it’s that we have to embrace each other’s humanity more and more in this world. If we just stand in our space and say, ‘They’re wrong and I’m right,’ we’re never going to get anywhere.”
She continued: “Most of us are on both sides: We’re out walking and we’re driving. How could we make it a win-win for everybody?”
Johnston said her mother, a retired social worker, still walked regularly in Berkeley before the crash, often for at least a mile and with some elevation: “She is 90, but she’s a pretty fit 90.”
When the crash happened, Ensign had been lucky, Johnston learned, because one driver at the scene had medical training and was able to help Ensign until the ambulance arrived.
Johnston, a physical therapist with experience in neurological and spinal cord injuries, also credited her mother with remaining very still after the crash, a decision that may have prevented even more serious damage.
“She knew she had been hit. She was down and she did not move her body,” Johnston said, adding: “It may not be common sense, but try, as much as you can, to keep breathing, stay calm and not move. Call out for help and wait for medical personnel.”
Councilmember Wengraf: “We cannot wait years”
On Monday, council members Susan Wengraf and Sophie Hahn, whose districts span Marin Avenue, both said they were very concerned about traffic safety along the corridor. Wengraf told Berkeleyside she had just received 4-5 emails referencing Ensign’s crash and asking what the city planned to do.
“It’s not that we don’t care or that we’re not doing anything. We are doing things but it’s not being implemented,” Wengraf said. “That’s very frustrating to me, because I do really care.”
Earlier this year, the officials secured $150,000 in funding for traffic improvements on Marin after the fatal crash near Cragmont Elementary. But the pace of progress has been slow, they said, because the city doesn’t have staff available to do the work. Wengraf said she has been lobbying to get outside contractors for the projects — but even they aren’t available.
The city has made several small changes, including painting a curb red to limit parking across from Cragmont Elementary. But officials said more must be done with the money they have allocated. Wengraf said she hopes to see blinking lights installed to make crosswalks more visible, and for the city to shift the location where drivers stop so pedestrians have more space.
Wengraf said she had lobbied successfully to reduce the weight limit for oversized vehicles on Marin, from 4 tons to 3 tons, but had been frustrated because new signage has not been installed. She said she would also like the city to reduce the speed limit on Marin Avenue — both for safety and in an effort to discourage traffic apps from directing so many out-of-town drivers through the Berkeley Hills. Community members have also suggested making Marin one-way: heading uphill only, other than during emergency evacuation.
“We cannot wait years to implement these things,” Wengraf said. “People are dying.”
According to a recent federal report, she added, traffic fatalities have been up around the nation since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Another area of concern, she said, is the age of the people who have been seriously injured in many of the city’s traffic collisions. Thirty-three percent of her district is over 65, she noted, and many older residents have been out walking more frequently as a result of the pandemic. Those individuals can be particularly vulnerable, however.
“When an older person over 75 gets hit, their injuries impact the remainder of their lives,” Wengraf said, “in a way that the data doesn’t tell you. When older people get hit, the ramifications can be catastrophic in terms of their injuries. Sometimes they don’t ever recover.”
Councilmember Hahn told Berkeleyside that her first initiative after being elected had been to seek community input about safety on Marin Avenue.
“I am deeply committed to improving safety in this corridor,” she said Monday. “I certainly recognize that there are dangers on the street.”
But at this point, she said, it’s a question for Public Works: “When the needs are urgent, when you have a number of accidents where people are injured and killed, where you have the council members and school board members drawing attention to the needs, and you have a huge outpouring of community concern, and you allocate money — and you have been drawing attention to this for a long time — short of going out there and doing the repairs ourselves, I don’t know what is missing.”
Path Wanderers: “Marin Avenue needs to be better”
On Monday, the Berkeley Path Wanderers sent an email to council members in an effort to push for action — now.
“Excess speed of downhill traffic, crosswalk intersections without stop signs, some 4-way stops and some with only one or two stop signs make this street confusing for pedestrians (and cars, too, we’d imagine). Lots of car traffic during pickup and drop off times at the Cragmont School, school kids walking across the street, and cars parked on the narrow street all add to the difficulty for pedestrians,” the organization wrote.
Read more about Jacque Ensign and her incredible history
“The idea of making Marin Avenue one way uphill or shutting it to through traffic might be worth studying; however, we urge immediate action such as repainting crosswalks, flashing lights alerting drivers to pedestrians at all intersections, 4-way stop signs at all intersections, a 15 MPH speed limit, no parking above Marin Circle, and increased traffic enforcement,” according to the letter.
“We strongly advocate for the City of Berkeley to immediately address the many dangers on Marin Avenue,” the Path Wanderers said. “While we are not traffic engineers, we know the stakes are high and Marin Avenue needs to be better.”