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‘Certain streets are designed to kill’: How U.S. roadways target minorities and the poor

Pedestrian deaths aren’t random. And they disproportionately impact marginalized people who can’t demand reform.

‘Certain streets are designed to kill’: How U.S. roadways target minorities and the poor
[Source Photos: JohnnyH5/iStock, Nicole Y-C/Unsplash]

Saa’mir Williams was just 7 months old when his mother pushed him in a stroller on Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia the night of July 9, 2013, and paused to look for an opening in traffic.

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[Cover Image: courtesy Island Press]
Saa’mir was the youngest of four sons to Samara Banks, a 27-year-old daycare teacher. That night, the whole family was waiting at the curb, bound for their apartment across the street. The oldest boy, Saa’yon Griffin, was just 5 years old.

To live near Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia’s most notorious street, is to live in the shadow of a serial killer, however. Every year, an average of 12 people die along the boulevard, which has 12 lanes and stretches about 300 feet across.

That night, two men were speeding down Roosevelt. The pair had been drag racing for miles, weaving in and out of lanes. When Banks and her sons were struck, the cars were going as fast as 70 miles per hour. The force of the blow was catastrophic. Saa’yon, 5 years old at the time, was the only survivor.

In 2018, the most recent for which we have official data, 6,283 pedestrians were killed, a number not seen since the mid-1990s. (An additional 1,500 were killed in driveways, parking lots or other locations that are considered private property and so are not counted as “traffic fatalities.”)

The lack of urgency around the problem of pedestrian deaths may, in part, reflect the relatively low status of those being killed. Walking deaths fall disproportionately on those who are poor, black and brown, elderly, disabled, low-income, or some combination thereof—marginalized people with fewer political resources to demand reforms.

This notorious crash that killed the Banks’ family was a galvanizing case in Philadelphia, but it was just the tip of the iceberg in many ways. Roosevelt Boulevard sees about 700 crashes annually. In 2018, it was the site of an astronomical 21 deaths—about one in five of the traffic fatalities that occurred within the city of Philadelphia.

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Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia [Photo: Flickr user Doug Kerr]

Pedestrian deaths are not random. They happen in geographic clusters, at intersections, and they happen on thoroughfares like Roosevelt Boulevard.

In the planning industry, these kinds of roads are called suburban arterials: wide, high-speed roads that have a lot of commercial and residential destinations that people want to access on foot or wheelchair. In the United States, 52% of pedestrian fatalities occur on these kinds of roads, according to Smart Growth America.

In Denver, 50% of all traffic fatalities occur on 27 corridors, or 5% of the street network. In Albuquerque, the story is much the same, with 64% of traffic fatalities occurring on 7% of the city’s roads. Planners call this kind of cluster a high-crash network. Almost every city has at least one road like Roosevelt.

Pedestrian deaths, in other words, are a design problem. Certain streets are designed to kill.

“If you map out where those deaths are happening, they’re not for the most part in downtowns or neighborhoods,” said Emiko Atherton, former director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “They’re on these roads that were never intended for people to walk on.”

In Rockford, Illinois, that road is State Street. In 2018, planner Michael Smith conducted a study to find out why this five-lane federal highway was so deadly. Smith, who was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at the time, installed cameras along key intersections and recorded pedestrian behavior.

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State Street serves as an important commercial corridor for the region, but its land use is suburban. Pedestrians have to navigate a collision course of commercial driveways and parking lots to report for their shift, grab a burger, or buy a bag of diapers. Sidewalks are intermittent, beginning and ending at random points. The traffic signals in the area Smith examined don’t have walk signals. And bus stops were mostly just a pole in the ground.

Smith’s video footage showed that pedestrians were adapting their behavior to the environment. In one video, a man in a wheelchair is seen rolling out to an intersection. He reaches the curb and then turns around, rolls off into a gas station driveway, and then rolls into the street. For a few moments, he rolls right along the curb in the street, mixing with car traffic, before turning the corner and rolling up to the intersection again.

Smith saw wheelchair users perform this same maneuver over and over again. He noted that there is an affordable senior housing complex near the intersection, but there is no curb ramp at the intersection that could accommodate wheelchairs.

Again and again on State Street, Smith found that the infrastructure was failing people who were vulnerable. The situation was similar at bus stops, where pedestrians were put in a dangerous position by the lack of amenities. Rather than stand on the side of the road next to a pole in the rain or the hot sun without a place to sit, for example, bus riders would wait under an awning of a nearby business. “And then the moment a bus would come, you’d see a mid-block crossing, running across the street,” Smith said.

There is a lot that can be done to repair roads like Roosevelt and State, however.

Not too long ago, New York City’s Roosevelt Boulevard equivalent— Queens Boulevard—was known locally as the Boulevard of Death. Between 1990 and 2014, 189 people—predominately pedestrians—were killed on this 10-lane raceway through some of the most densely populated, transit-dependent neighborhoods in the United States.

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But in 2014, city officials overhauled the road. They painted the outside lane green and added plastic bollards—a series of evenly spaced posts—creating a protected bike lane. On the curbside, they added a red-painted lane reserved for city buses. The redesign was cheap—according to The New York Times, the cost was just $4 million—but it was remarkably effective. There was not a single traffic fatality on the road following the redesign until 2018.

Atherton said that classism and racism help explain the lack of concern across the United States. “We have the solutions. We actually have the funding; we’re just not spending it well,” Atherton said. “We just don’t have the political will.”

From Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America by Angie Schmitt. Copyright © 2020 by Angie Schmitt. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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