Published on June 3rd, 2014 | by Andrew Austin7
Crosswalks: More than just paint on the asphalt
This guest post is part of an ongoing series of Tacoma musings I have after being away on the East Coast for two years. See my first post on transit here.
Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time traveling across the country. In particular I made numerous trips to Atlanta.
A sprawling mega-region of exurbia, Atlanta is not known for its embrace of walkability. In fact, in 2013, a mother in an outlying county was convicted of vehicular homicide when, as she and her daughter were crossing the street, her daughter was tragically killed by a car driver (yes that’s right, the mother holding her daughter’s hand was charged with vehicular homicide).
Yet walking around the city of Atlanta I noticed something: there are crosswalks at nearly every intersection in the city. They aren’t pretty, lined with brick, or filled in with creative paint designs. They are two white lines with a stop bar, and they are everywhere.
Thanks the to the valiant guerillas who painted crosswalks all over downtown and the city’s prompt removal of them, the issue of crosswalks has finally been raised in Tacoma’s political consciousness. The city is changing their tune and has started to add crosswalks (or at least stop bars) into new projects like Stadium Way and has committed to increase funds for crosswalks in 2014.
A few months ago the city announced the pedestrian crossings improvement project. This project is a welcome step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t pretend it is anything more than that. It signals a tardy acknowledgement of Tacoma’s often inhospitable pedestrian environment.
Let’s put this into financial perspective. The entire city budget for the 2013-2014 biennium (excluding TPU) is $1.7 billion. In that same timeframe, the city’s transportation, capital, and engineering expenditure is $165 million. The pedestrian crossing improvement project is a one-time capital injection of $2.5 million.
All told, the much-lauded pedestrian crossing project amounts to 1.5% of the city’s biennial transportation budget and a mere .01% of the entire city’s budget. Any investment in pedestrian infrastructure is welcome relief, but this is just a first step in the long walk to put people first in Tacoma.
When it comes to pedestrian fatalities, our state and the Tacoma-Seattle-Bellevue region fare well when compared nationally. That said, the loss of one, ten, or 300 human lives due to automobiles is tragic excess.
Here is a close-up identifying those killed by cars in Tacoma between 2003 and 2012. It should be noted that this map only captures pedestrian fatalities and not injuries or unreported crashes. It is no means a perfect measure of safety, but still a very useful one.
These statistics should lead us to a few challenging observations:
1. Pedestrian safety is absolutely a social justice and equality issue. Pedestrians killed in Tacoma are heavily concentrated in the south end of town, especially in the Eastside along Portland and Pacific Avenue.
While it is encouraging to see that the economically stable North End is relatively safe, the neighborhoods in our city with greater resource disadvantages and more diverse populations are clearly experiencing more deaths due to fast-moving vehicular traffic. Perhaps this is partially due to historic street design in the North End, where narrow grid streets are inherently traffic calming, while the wider curvilinear postwar avenues of more recently constructed neighborhoods allow higher volumes and speeds. It could also be a result of better pedestrian infrastructure in more affluent areas of the city, or both. That debate aside, this data clearly illustrates that urban street design and city policy surrounding human safety is fundamentally a matter of rights and justice.
2. High-speed, high-capacity roads such as Pacific Avenue between South Tacoma and downtown, which are essentially miniature freeways, are fucking scary places for those who travel them on foot or bicycle, as I have.
Research proves that pedestrians hit by cars going under 20 mph have a 95% chance of survival. After 25 mph the survival rates get exponentially worse. If struck at 40 mph, chances are you’re dead meat (85% to exact).
3. Given its heavy traffic and lack of pedestrian amenities, it is shocking that nobody has died on Yakima Avenue along the Hilltop neighborhood. I hate to say it, but without design changes it is only a matter of time.
4. Consider the proximity of our public schools to dangerous traffic. School-age pedestrians are among the most vulnerable users of city streets. Tacoma should follow the lead of many other jurisdictions in our region and install speed cameras around schools. This encourages people to slow down, which saves lives. As a further benefit, traffic ticket revenues from the cameras can be put invested in pedestrian improvements adjacent to schools. In Seattle, speed cameras have raised nearly $15 million dollars for safe routes to schools.
The citizens of Tacomas should not have to wait years for our city to be a safe place to live. Tacoma’s political and administrative leadership needs to do more, faster.
Four years ago when the Tacoma City Council approved the Mobility Master Plan, the city adopted a policy that prioritizes pedestrians as the most important street users. That means considering the safety and mobility of human beings as the top priority during initial design and every time a road is paved or an intersection revised.
It is time for the city to put their money where their mouth is and make crosswalks a top public works priority. At the very least, let’s take the simple step of painting them at every major intersection. It is the cheapest, easiest, and quickest way to beautify Tacoma, make our city more equitable, and save human lives. If sprawling Atlanta can do it, then by god, we can.