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How bad pedestrian infrastructure can turn deadly
When indifference rules in the design of public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure, the result is often a nuisance. For Raquel Nelson's son, it was lethal — a tragedy born of an unconscionable oversight.
I ran into another example of this phenomenon not long ago at a seminar in suburban Toronto. I’d been invited to speak to a gathering of new provincial government employees who were involved in an all-day session on the government’s “green” initiatives. The venue was an event hall in Oshawa, an auto-making city 30 miles from Toronto that has been partially transformed into an outer-belt bedroom community in recent years.
I was delighted to find that the Toronto metro area’s excellent commuter train service ran to a stop essentially across the street from the venue — meaning, or so I thought, that I wouldn’t have to rent a car or try to decipher a local bus schedule to get to the hall. Alas, the “street” between the train station and the hall was in fact Highway 401, the broadest and busiest superhighway in Canada.
A brief exchange with my hosts confirmed that I’d have to walk well over a mile to get to the nearest overpass, and even then it wouldn’t likely have anything in the way of safe and welcoming pedestrian infrastructure. In the end, I resigned myself to the absurdity of taking a three-mile cab ride to travel 500 feet across the street. No big loss — after all, my hosts were covering my expenses.
I was reminded of that mild inconvenience — of the luxury I had of treating it as such — when I first heard about the terrible tragedy of Raquel Nelson. There are much better synopses at Grist and Transportation for America, but in brief: In April 2010, when Nelson was a student and mother of three young children living in suburban Atlanta, she took her kids on a shopping trip to Walmart. Unable to afford a car, Nelson and her family went by bus, and they missed a key transfer on the return journey and arrived back after dark.
Her apartment building was directly across the street, but the street was a five-lane highway full of fast-moving vehicles. The nearest traffic lights were 1,500 feet down the highway; all told, the safest way across the street would’ve amounted to more than half a mile of walking to travel a hundred feet. She was tired, wrangling three kids, anxious to be home.
On any highway smaller than the 401, I might’ve made the same call as Nelson did, even without all the extenuating circumstances that must've made her just ache to get there already. As a parent, I can think of countless corners I’ve cut at such a point in a long day, and I have nowhere near the burden Nelson carried that night — a single parent on a limited income, stuck using indifferent bus service to navigate a suburban landscape openly hostile to anyone without the means to own their own car.
I can see why she decided to take the riskier shortcut; other riders joined Nelson and her kids as they scrambled safely to the median. I can’t begin to fathom what it must’ve been like to have it end with her 4-year-old darting out rashly after another person who’d been standing on the median with them, Nelson and her kids giving chase, all of them hit by a car, her young son’s life lost forever in that impulsive moment.
The driver, as it turned out, had been drinking and taking painkillers that day. He plea-bargained down from vehicular homicide to simple hit-and-run. And here comes the gut-punchingly devastating, utterly inexplicable denouement: earlier this month, Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homocide in the death of her son. Vehicular homocide. For jaywalking. She faces up to three years in prison. (Editor's note: Nelson was sentenced to community service and probation — and then offered a new trial.)
Raquel Nelson’s bus stop in suburban Atlanta is the most egregious kind of some kind of vegetabledesign, the most contemptible of urban planning afterthoughts. Either no one gave any thought or else they simply didn’t care what happened to whatever sad souls were forced to disembark at that bus stop. This was a space for cars, and if someone insisted — or was forced by circumstance — to travel here without one, this was a detail so far down the civic priority list you evidently could barely make out the design specs on the solution. And so the most basic of public transit rules of thumb — put a bus stop near an intersection and provide safe passage to the other side of the road — was ignored. And it cost Raquel Nelson’s son his life, stole forever her peace of mind and her family’s, and may even take a few years of her freedom.
[T]he 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.
To underscore: the transit agency knew Raquel Nelson’s bus stop was a potential hazard. They just didn’t care enough about people like her — suburban pedestrians — to do anything about it. To say pedestrian in a place like suburban Atlanta, after all, is basically to imply poor and minority. (I’m reminded of a line in Hari Kunzru’s novel, "Transmission": “Anyone on foot in suburban California is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill or jogging.”)
If it’s not too much to say that free and unfettered travel from your home to the places where you meet your daily needs is a basic human right — and it’s not, freedom of mobility is widely recognized as such in a great many jurisdictions — then on top of the other crimes of poverty visited upon her and her family, Raquel Nelson’s human rights have been violated. Not just by her conviction, but by the daily violation of having to live a pedestrian life in a world built only for cars.
She deserved much better than this. So did her son. So do we all. We are all pedestrians, but not all of us have cars. Let’s start planning our urban spaces with that in mind.
One more piece of essential reading on this topic from the good folks at Grist: "Confessions of a recovering engineer." Also, MNN contributor Ken Edelstein went to the scene of the crime to report on how not to build a bustop. Watch his video report below:
To talk walking in 140-character bursts, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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