Updated November 6, 2014*
Many veterans have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with permanent, disabling wounds. Many suffer head traumas from concussions or fractured skulls when vehicles they’re traveling in are blown up by Improvised Explosive Devices.
Pedestrians and Cyclists in Saint Paul are also seeing combat type head traumas—like Sowinta Kay, age 20, who was hit by a car on Snelling Avenue in a crosswalk; Cléo Thiberge, a 19-year-old exchange student who had her head crushed by an SUV while crossing Hamline Avenue; or 11-year-old Bikram Phuyel who was hit by a car while crossing Rice Street on his way to school. He required brain surgery and was last listed in “Very Critical condition.” According to recent Ramsey County data, at least 99 pedestrians and cyclists were hit by cars on Rice Street between Larpenteur and Sycamore Ave during the last ten years. That’s ten people hit every year, on a stretch of street that’s less than two miles long. Snelling Avenue has around fifteen people hit per year, and the short stretch of West Seventh Street between I-35E and the TH 5 Bridge over the Mississippi sees over four people hit every year. It’s like this on lots of streets in Saint Paul, including portions of Dale, East Seventh, Lexington, White Bear Avenue, and University Avenue. Most are four-lane “Death Roads,” as fellow streets.mn columnist Bill Lindeke calls them.
More pedestrians die or get injured on US streets than have been killed and injured in overseas conflicts. They are victims of a national War on Pedestrians. It’s a war led by highway engineers, automobile manufacturers, elected officials, and media pundits, and it’s a war supported by a sizable chunk of the car-driving public. It’s time to look at that war, its leaders, its supporters, its victims and the philosophies and justifications that keep it going.
The Vietnam and Iraq Wars had leaders— people like General Westmoreland, Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld. They were convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They didn’t hate the enemy. They just had a naïve or distorted perspective of the enemy because their own experience and priorities were so different that they lacked a certain empathy and understanding. In the final analysis, the “enemy” were just people who stood in the way of achieving some desired U.S. economic or political goal.
When it comes to urban street design in Saint Paul, the War on Pedestrians also has leaders. They are the “experts” whom elected officials consult on most transportation issues, just as national elected officials have always consulted the Pentagon on matters of war. These engineers don’t hate pedestrians. They’re just more interested in moving motor vehicles. So pedestrian safety often gets in the way of their goals. As people who mostly get around by car, they also don’t relate to pedestrians and can’t necessarily understand their needs and motivations. They use metrics and philosophies that exclude pedestrians like “Level of Service for Cars” the way Robert McNamara used the “Domino Theory” of reflexive anti-communism in Vietnam. When Bikram Phuyel was hit by a car last Monday, City Engineer John Maczko told the Pioneer Press:
The city reviews a streetscape “when incidents happen that are particularly tragic like this one to see if there’s anything that can be done,” . . . But he said he doesn’t think a painted crosswalk at the intersection would have prevented the crash, saying they can give people an illusion of safety. . . . “Everyone needs to be part of the solution,” Maczko said. “Vehicles that are driving around other vehicles need to wonder why that other vehicle is stopped and understand if a car is stopped, it’s stopped for a reason. . . . As pedestrians, when we cross these four-lane roads, we have to cross every lane as an individual roadway.”
Let’s parse this response. Maczko seems to be blaming drivers, who are driving at the design speeds of the roadway and are unaware that an unmarked intersection is a crosswalk that could have pedestrians. This response seems to blame the victims themselves, saying “People need to treat crossing a 4-lane road like crossing four individual roadways (which the victim didn’t).” This kind of statement implies that, “There’s nothing we in engineering could do. Crosswalks wouldn’t have helped.” At least in this quote, there is no mention anything more radical like signage, pavement markings, traffic signals, HAWK signals, a pedestrian refuge island or a 4-lane to 3-lane conversion of Rice Street—all things that, individually or in combination, can dramatically reduce both pedestrian and motor vehicle crashes.
This isn’t the first time I have heard this response. When the Central Corridor light rail line was still in its final planning stages, the Bicycle Coalition, Transit for Livable Communities and District Council Collaborative representatives met with the project engineer. We were questioning the need for four travel lanes on University Avenue based on pedestrian safety and some of the traffic modeling they’d done. We asked if they had included pedestrian counts in their traffic models, something that has a big impact on right-turning motorists at stations and large intersections, but they were unable to provide us with any pedestrian count data. Then we asked about the safety of having mid-block, unsignalized crosswalks at the back ends of station platforms and asked how pedestrians were going to negotiate two lanes of traffic. The engineer responded, “We don’t think people will actually use these crosswalks.” Everyone stared at him, amazed that he’d said this. He looked around the room, then at me and said, “You look like a guy who walks a lot. Would you cross University Avenue at an unsignalized intersection?” He seemed to be saying that unsignalized crosswalks are unsafe on four-lane boulevards, he didn’t think people will use them for that reason, so didn’t bother to model them. To me, it was crazy he didn’t seem to see anything wrong with thinking this.
Snelling Avenue has many stretches of a quarter to a half-mile with no traffic lights. It’s one of the things that makes this boulevard so deadly and hard to cross. When a coalition of groups asked MnDOT for pedestrian improvements to Snelling Avenue including more signals, I remember an engineer who was fond of saying, “More pedestrians are hit at signalized intersections than at non-signalized ones.” This was a repeated excuse for not adding more traffic signals. Strictly speaking, he was right—more pedestrians are hit at signalized intersections—but this is because vastly more people cross at them, because the non-signalized intersections are so dangerous.
Was his comment based on ignorance or indifference? It doesn’t really matter. It represented leadership attitudes that perpetuate the War on Pedestrians.
Politicians become part of this war and its pedestrian carnage when they fail to question and challenge expertise. A frequent refrain I hear from some city council members is, “The engineers say we can’t accommodate bikes or pedestrians on this bridge or street, and they’re the experts. There’s nothing I can do.”
Then there’s the sector of the public for whom driving and parking cars is a top priority. They show up to public hearings and complain that we can’t put in a traffic signal or HAWK signal at a given location, add bike lanes or do a four-to-three-lane street conversion because they might lose their free, on-street parking spaces or it might take them five minutes longer to drive to work. At a hearing about snow plowing on Marshall Avenue, some of us wanted parking to be banned for one night per week so they could remove snow from the parking and bike lanes. One Marshall Avenue resident loudly and repeatedly objected to the idea of having to move her car, even for one night a week. After the hearing, a friend and I went up to her and asked, “Don’t you have a garage?” to which she replied, “Yes, but it’s full of stuff.”
Most drivers don’t realize that every intersection is legally a crosswalk where they are required by law to stop for pedestrians whether the crosswalk is marked or not. So they never stop for pedestrians, even on a four-lane street where the car in the adjacent lane has stopped. This is how both Sowinta Kay and Bikram Phuyel were hit by cars. The attitude of many drivers is: Why slow down or drive cautiously when our priority is to get to our destinations as quickly as possible?
If you listen to the traffic reports on the radio, it even sounds like a war. Helicopters, surveillance cameras and reporters give up-to-the-minute status reports on the national, state and city goals of trying to move as many cars as possible through our cities as quickly as possible. In this war, pedestrians and cyclists become collateral damage.
But these pedestrian and cyclist victims have names, faces, families and lives that are permanently shattered. A quick search of the web finds: Sandra Wethers, hit while crossing Summit Avenue with her dog; Therese Klotz, age 53, killed near Randoph and West 7th; Wade Souster, 31, partially blinded with a brain injury and left for dead in a median on Phalen Boulevard; University of St. Thomas students Rebekka Peterson and Nicholas Bergeland; Emma Holman, 24, killed crossing Grand Avenue; and countless other unidentified pedestrians and cyclists in the “Fire Calls” section of the Highland Villager. Here’s a map of Saint Paul locations that have seen multiple pedestrian crashes during the last four or five years: https://cjsinner.cartodb.com/viz/88c5bab8-6043-11e4-ab03-0e853d047bba/public_map
Pedestrian War Pundits like Joe Soucheray or Patrick Reusse speak about pedestrians and cyclists like they’re a menace or go as far as to advocate hitting them with cars. But Soucheray and these other pundits are primarily drivers. They have programs or columns named after cars, like “Garage Logic,” whose main function is to sell automobile advertising. Unless a driver is drunk or flees the scene, police and reporters often refer to pedestrian crashes as “accidents” as if they are unavoidable consequences of driving.
Another line I often hear from Pedestrian War leaders, pundits and supporters is “There’s a traffic signal two blocks away. Why didn’t the victim cross there?” Two blocks on streets like Snelling or Rice can often be as much as a quarter mile. So, if a pedestrian wishes to cross a street to a destination on the other side (like a store, bus-stop or school), that’s a quarter mile walk to the light and a quarter mile walk back down the other side of the street, for a total of a half-mile of extra walking. At an average speed of 3 miles per hour, these leaders are asking pedestrians to spend ten extra minutes and a lot of extra energy every time they want to cross a street– things they would never accept as drivers.
All this reminds me of the Bob Dylan Song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” The song considers all the factors that led to a boxer’s death in the ring. One could easily rewrite it for Minnesota Streets and call it: “Who kills thousands more? Why’d they die and what’s the reason for?”
“It wasn’t us” said our elected officialdom, “we’re building roads, parking lots and stadiums. We just do what the engineers say, they tell us there’s no other way.”
Said the highway engineers, “It wasn’t us! Crosswalks, lights and islands cost too much. Besides they reduce the traffic flow. We’re the experts, we ought-a know.”
“It wasn’t us” said the driving cranks. “Don’t take away our parking, thanks. Slowing traffic goes too far. Everyone should subsidize our cars.” . . . Etc etc.
In his book Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton chronicles the takeover of American streets by motor vehicles during the 1920s and 30s. It’s not accurate to call car crashes with pedestrians “accidents.” Accidents happen, but the War on Pedestrians is by design. John Maczko is right, “Everyone needs to be part of the solution,” but being able to safely cross a street on foot is a basic human right. Until we realize this as a city and a nation, and make upholding that right a priority, nothing is going to change. The War on Pedestrians will continue and the dead and injured will keep piling up.
* Editors Note: The original version of this article has been changed to better reflect streets.mn Editorial Policy (specfiically Policy #8). While we strive to ensure every post meets our guidelines, sometimes we make mistakes. We appreciate the robust commentary that streets.mn posts generate, and we especially appreciate those commenters who help us live up to our own standards.