When design kills: The criminalization of walking
Photo: Vivian ChenBad design kills people.
That’s right. It’s not a matter of aesthetics, or of politics, or of opinion. It’s a plain fact: When you design streets solely for cars, people die as a result. The underlying conditions that are responsible for those deaths are rarely or never challenged. The victims often get blamed for their own injuries or deaths.
Don’t believe me? Well, let me refresh your memory about Raquel Nelson, the Atlanta-area mother who was recently convicted of vehicular homicide, second degree — but not for anything she did behind the wheel. No, she was crossing a busy road with three children when her 4-year-old son was struck by a car and killed.
Yes, you heard that right. The mother, who was also struck and injured, was charged with vehicular homicide, second degree, in the death of her son. Meanwhile, the prosecutor dropped vehicular homicide charges against the driver — who later admitted to having been drinking, was on painkillers, and was legally blind in one eye — allowing him to plead guilty simply to hit-and-run. Oh, and he had previously been convicted of two hit-and-runs that occurred on the same day in 1997 — one of them on the same road where he struck the Nelson family.
When the crash occurred, Raquel Nelson had gotten off a bus after a long trip with her three children, ages 2, 4, and 9. Here’s how Sally Flocks, president and CEO of Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group PEDS, describes Nelson’s journey the day her son was killed:
In April 2010, Raquel Nelson and her three children had gone out for pizza to on a Saturday afternoon to celebrate a family birthday. They also stopped at Walmart to buy a cake and groceries. The family had no car, so they used public transit to get home.
Their bus arrived at the bus transfer center just after the next bus they needed had left. Bus service on Saturdays is infrequent, and the next one arrived over an hour later. When that bus stopped across from their apartment building, it was the first time Raquel had to cross the high-speed divided highway with her children after dark.
Together with several other adults and children who exited at this stop, the family crossed two lanes and made it the median safely. When 4-year old A.J. Nelson saw one of the other adults attempt to finish her crossing, he broke away from his mother and ran into the road. Raquel followed, attempting to keep him safe.
As they crossed, a van plowed into them, killing A.J. and injuring Raquel and her 2-year old daughter. The driver, Jerry Guy, sped away.
It’s true that the Nelsons were not in a crosswalk when they attempted to cross the street. But the stop where Raquel Nelson and her children exited the bus is located three-tenths of a mile from the nearest crosswalk, the equivalent of three city blocks. No one would walk 1,500 feet to cross the street, so Raquel’s decision to cross where the bus let her family and neighbors off was hardly a “gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in this situation.”
But a jury decided otherwise. And so Raquel Nelson might face 36 months in prison. Sentencing is next week. [Update: The sentence is now in.]
Imagine that you are Raquel Nelson. Imagine the horror of the violent death of your child.
Then imagine that you are charged with, and convicted of, vehicular homicide in that death — simply because you tried to cross the street from the bus stop to your apartment.
Raquel Nelson wasn’t the first mother to be put in this mind-boggling situation. Altamesa Walker faced charges in a very similar case two years earlier. And in Virginia, cops have issued summonses to pedestrians hit by cars for “interfering with traffic.”
Let’s talk frankly about one important aspect of this story: It’s partly about class and race. People who walk and use transit to get around are, in most parts of the country, lower-income than those who drive. Many are people of color. Transit riders and pedestrians are marginalized and looked down upon. In many places, transit service is meager and crappy, and the same can be said for pedestrian facilities. Cobb Community Transit, the service Nelson was riding, has cut service on many routes in the past few months. Who suffers most? Poor people.
Here’s what David Goldberg of Transportation for America wrote in a powerful post about the Nelson case:
Nelson, 30 and African-American, was convicted on the charge this week by six jurors who were not her peers: All were middle-class whites, and none had ever taken a bus in metro Atlanta. In other words, none had ever been in Nelson’s shoes:
They had never taken two buses to go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart with three kids in tow. They had never missed a transfer on the way home that caused them to wait a full hour-and-a-half with tired and hungry kids for the next bus. They had never been let off at a bus stop on a five-lane speedway, with their apartment in sight across the road, and been asked to drag those three little ones an additional half-mile-plus down the road to the nearest traffic signal and back in order to get home at last.
And they had never lost control of an over-eager four-year-old as they waited on a three-foot median for a car to pass. Nor had they watched helplessly as a driver who had had “three or four” beers and two painkillers barreled toward their child.
When I spoke to Flocks, she told me that the local transit agency, in its planning, acknowledges that one-quarter mile is too far to expect a person to voluntarily walk to get a transit stop. And yet they place their bus stops farther than that from the pedestrian facilities that allow people to cross the road in (relative) safety.
The transit agency did not respond to my request for comment. On their website, they have some “pedestrian tips to ensure that you stay safe when crossing the road,” including this (emphasis mine): “Always use crosswalks and pedestrian-activated signals when they are available.”
When they’re not? Well, take your chances.
Students of urban planning and design talk about a phenomenon known as “desire lines.” In French, the language of origin for the expression, it’s “chemins du désir.” Paths of desire. Some people call them “intention lines.”
Whatever words you use, they are a phenomenon recognizable to anyone. They are the paths traced along the ground by living creatures trying to get from one point to another. The ribbons of dirt worn in the grass.
For centuries, designers and planners have used these paths to determine where they would put the paved streets of their cities, or the walking paths of their campuses and parks. You’ll find plenty of anecdotal discussion of those techniques in the comments here.
You can see desire lines worn into the surface of gra
ss. You cannot see them on asphalt.
But you can bet that the route Nelson and her children and all the other riders of that bus were taking across that road was a desire path, trodden by many hundreds of feet before. It was the logical, organic way to get from the bus stop to the apartment building.
But no planner saw fit to acknowledge it. No traffic engineer marked it with paint. No municipal official put a traffic signal there so that the humans could proceed safely along the route that everyone knew they would inevitably take.
Why not? Because it was too important for the cars to get through. The cars must not be inconvenienced. The cars must go faster.
Out in Colorado, a fancy competition was recently held to design a bridge that would help bears and cougars and lynx to cross from one side of a highway to the other in safety. Elsewhere, “toad tunnels” have been constructed to help the amphibians get to their breeding ponds. British Telecom paid $32,280 for an otter tunnel to be built near one of its satellites after a female otter and two of her cubs were killed crossing the road to fish.
That is all fine and good. Let’s help the animals cross the road, by all means.
But what about the people?
All over America, there are roads that people cannot safely cross, and yet — just like the lynx and the otter and the toad — people do cross, because they have to get where they are going, and they won’t walk a half mile out of their way (or more) to use a crosswalk that is often inadequate anyway (many fatal traffic incidents happen in crosswalks).
They just won’t do it. Bus stop on one side, apartment directly across: It’s like a trap designed to lure a person to do something forbidden and dangerous.
So why don’t we design streets for the reality of human needs and behavior? Why is there so little interest in making it possible for humans to cross in the places where we know that they are going to cross? Why does the Congress want to take money away from pedestrian facilities?
Why is normal, instinctive pedestrian activity criminalized?
Why do we care so little about people like Raquel Nelson and her children? Why do we care so little about ourselves?
I wish I had an answer.
Update: I added “in 1997” to the fourth paragraph for clarity.
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