These three posts and the accompanying podcast were the most important work we did this year. At least, it’s the work I’m proudest of. Our #slowthecars campaign combines everything we are most passionate about: improved design of our places, embracing complexity, giving our cities back to people and a realization that a good financial strategy is also humane.
Yesterday it snowed here in Brainerd, Minnesota. From the comforts of my vehicle as I dropped my kids off at school and then went to the office, I saw way too many people – the forgotten and overlooked in our community – struggling to navigate the nasty streets we have built. They were not able to walk through the ditches and alleys like usual so there they were, on the edge of the stroads, including those with walkers and wheelchairs, just feet away from drivers navigating at fatal speeds on slippery surfaces.
What are we doing? Is this the world we want to live in?
The sad reality of it for me is that I didn’t start off with concern for the people on the side of the road. I subconsciously dismissed them like most everyone else, an easy thing to do at 45 mph. For me it was the realization that this approach was bankrupting us – literally forcing cities into steep decline – that got me looking for answers.
And I found them on the side of the road. There they are, showing us what needs to be done to make our places better, stronger and more successful. And also more humane.
A year ago I wrote in Just another pedestrian killed about how the cruel design of a street in Springfield, Massachusetts – a design that facilitated auto traffic at convenient speeds but attempted to force, through the use of fences and other obstacles, people to walk a thousand+ feet out of their way just to cross the street – resulted in the death of a beautiful little girl. I’m heartened to say that the people of Springfield still care; they are not letting this one go. They are still out there demanding change.
Let’s do that in every city. Let’s not let this continue any longer.
At basic training for the U.S Army, we did an exercise late one night where I and my fellow trainees were prompted to crawl about 100 yards through a course containing barbed wire, trenches and other obstacles while machine gun fire blasted over our heads. I remember looking up and seeing the tracer rounds fly from a tower to a target back behind the course. The bullets were well over our heads -- I am sure I could have stood up and they still would have been well above me -- but it was disconcerting nonetheless. While it was very unlikely that I was going to be killed by a stray bullet, it was far more likely that I would be killed by one than my friends back home who weren't crawling beneath M-60 fire.
Imagine my drill sergeant set up an M-60 nest in the middle of the street and a nice big target a couple blocks away, also in the middle of the street, then began firing from one to the other. He'd hit the target every time -- he's a pro -- and so there would really be little to no risk of getting hit. Would you walk along the street?
Probably not. I wouldn't. In fact. I wouldn't let my kids go within six blocks of this if I knew this were going on. Is that irrational? Statistically speaking it perhaps is, but when a small mistake means the difference between life and death, why risk it? What is the upside that justifies the downside risk?
At the end of last month there was a terrible incident where a car left the roadway, killed a child and injured another, while they were walking through a park. Here's the news report:
A child is dead and another is in critical condition after a car struck them in Delaware Park.
The vehicle left the road while traveling westbound on Route 198 - the Scajaquada Expressway - just past Parkside Avenue around 11:30 a.m. It struck a three year old boy who was taken to Sisters Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:15 p.m. His five year old sister is in critical condition at Women & Children's Hospital.
The two were out walking with their mother in the park, and one or both may have been seated in a stroller.
Sadly, the unique thing about this incident is not the death of a child -- children getting run down and killed by vehicles happens ALL THE TIME -- the unique thing is the reaction to this specific tragedy. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the speed on Highway 198, which runs right through Delaware Park bisecting a number of community amenities and neighborhoods, to be reduced to 30 mph. His directive included the following:
While law enforcement agencies are still investigating the circumstances surrounding this terrible crash, it is clear that immediate action needs to be taken to improve safety for motorists and pedestrians on the portion of the Scajaquada Expressway that passes through Delaware Park.
For this reason, I direct you to immediately lower the speed limit on this section of the roadway to 30 mph, install speed messaging boards, and construct park-appropriate guard rails to protect pedestrians.
These actions are to be taken as the Department of Transportation continues to investigate long-term solutions to prevent further tragedies on this part of the Expressway.
This administration will continue to take every available action we can through engineering, education and enforcement to avoid crashes like this in the future.
This might seem logical to many of you, but I want to direct your attention to a nuance that demonstrates our confusion over the tradeoffs we make each day when designing our transportation systems. The governor has directed the DOT to (1) lower the speed limit and install the signs that indicate that, and (2) build guard rails. In the language we use here at Strong Towns, Cuomo is saying (1) make Highway 198 more like a street and (2) make Highway 198 more like a road. Stop firing bullets but also put up protective barriers.
The question we should be asking here is this: Is Highway 198 a road or a street? Is it a connection between two productive places OR is it a platform for creating wealth? If it's a road, which it seems like to me, then lowering the speed limit is the wrong thing to do. With the way this highway is engineered for high speeds, an artificially low speed limit will create a dangerous situation. If this is going to be a 30 mph stretch (still too fast to be compatible with people outside of their cars), then the roadway needs to be redesigned so that the typical driver only feels comfortable when driving at safe, neighborhood speeds. Lowering the speed limit might be good politics -- it is an action that can be taken immediately to give the veneer of doing something -- but it's not good policy, even as an interim step.
How about the guard rails? Again, if we're building a road and so the goal is moving cars quickly, then the guardrails are a good interim step, but long term we will need something more robust to keep people and traffic safely separated. I note that the governor called for "park-appropriate" guard rails, which I take to mean guard rails that won't harm the view of the park as seen from the driver's seat. If that's the case, then we're confusing the purpose of a park here just as badly as we're confusing the purpose of a highway. Urban parks are not aesthetic amenities for passing motorists. There's no return on that investment. Urban parks are meant to provide value -- improve the quality of life -- to people living within walking, biking or transit distance of the park. If we're doing it right, that value should be reflected in the value of the tax base, the real creation of wealth.
All of this confusion goes back, of course, to the original bad decision to run a highway through the middle of a neighborhood. You have a park, a college, the river and lots of housing. These should not have been so casually disregarded, but they were. If Buffalo today were to eliminate Highway 198 -- turn it into a true parkway with 20 mph neighborhood design speeds -- I would applaud. I'm guessing that many in the neighborhood would as well. After a transition, there would be many opportunities for growing their tax base and improving the community's wealth. For a whole bunch of reasons, I doubt this will happen.
If it doesn't, that leaves Buffalo with only two other viable options: Build your barriers high and thick to protect your people from stray cars OR accept a certain level of tragic, random death and injury as a byproduct of the stroad you have built. Both of these are expensive, unproductive and just plain sad uses of public resources.
If bullets were being expertly fired by a marksman at a target along Highway 198, New Yorkers would go berserk, even though the chance of accidental death would be minimal. I would not blame them for this reaction, but I'm completely baffled as to why we routinely accept much greater risk from drivers and their automobiles. I also don't know why we continue to accept incoherent, half-measures as a response.
Put in a real barrier to make it a road or slow the cars to make it a street. The continued street/road hybrid approach of this and countless other stroads is only going to lead to more needless tragedy, with the side effect of our cities going bankrupt in the process.
The Bollard Defense
Yesterday I wrote about the tragedy in Buffalo where a three year old was killed, and his five year old sister injured, when they were struck by a vehicle that had jumped the from the stroad. My objective was to point out how the governor's response -- an action I'm quite sure is a popular one -- doubles down on the stroad mentality: lower speeds (as a street) and erect guard rails (as a road). We're stuck in a destructive mindset and our cities won't get systematically better until we grow out of it.
The Buffalo case isn't the most bizarre response I've seen, however. I've been sitting on the one I'm going to share today for a while -- there are just so many -- but now is a good time to put it out there. I apologize in advance because this one is even more sickening than yesterday's.
Out of Orlando; here's the lead from the article:
Florida Highway Patrol troopers said Lily Quintus, 4, of Orlando died following a car crash at a day care in Orange County Wednesday afternoon.
A small memorial for Quintus was set up at the KinderCare center by Wednesday night.
Robert Corchado, 28, was named a suspect in connection with the crash that injured 15 at the day care on Goldenrod Road near University Boulevard. He may be trying to leave Orlando, authorities said.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers said they believe Corchado, the driver of a silver Dodge Durango, rear-ended a Toyota Solara, which crashed into the building.
The car wound up inside the front room and was removed around 6:45 p.m.
The driver of the Toyota wasn't injured.
Eight children were taken to Arnold Palmer Hospital.
Please note that I'm not sharing this one because it involves children -- if my goal was to shock you with tragic child death stories, I could do that multiple times a week because that's how many kids are killed on our stroads -- I'm sharing it because of the policy response.
Here's the view of the daycare (on the right) from the stroad.
Car leaves the stroad, smashes into another car which smashed into a daycare killing one and injuring many others. What do the adults here do to keep their kids safe?
Do they slow the cars? Do they address the incompatibility of having highway speed vehicles on a nasty, complex stroad just feet from the doorway to the facility? Do they look at the sidewalks adjacent to vehicles traveling at highway speeds and think it strange, even barbaric, that we would place anyone -- let alone young children -- in such a dangerous environment?
Where once there was only a hedge, now five heavy planters and six concrete spheres stand guard in front of the building, presenting a barrier designed to protect those inside should another vehicle come careening toward it.
And plans are underway that could make such barriers standard at day-care centers around Orange County.
That's right. We now have our children ensconced behind a barrier of protective concrete as if they were in the US Green Zone in Iraq. Is this really how we intend to raise the next generation?
And to my broader point -- which is that our responses never question the stroad environment but instead take fast-moving cars in a complex environment as the absolute, unquestioned way things must be -- the decision to armor the daycare was not made without deliberation or an understanding of the extent of the problem. Again from the Orlando Sentinel article:
In the days after that incident, Mayor Teresa Jacobs directed county staff from various departments to look at how much of a public-safety threat vehicle crashes pose to "vulnerable" populations such as children and seniors.
The KinderCare crash was the result of a mix of factors — an initial crash involving two vehicles, followed by one driver failing to brake and hitting the day care center.
The numbers are pretty stark," he said. "What we found is nationally there's 60 a day, causing almost 4,000 injuries and 500 deaths a year."
Locally, the team found 73 incidents in which vehicles hit buildings in unincorporated Orange County over a 24-month span, resulting in 37 people requiring a trip to the hospital.
They found an additional 1,800 "road departures" — instances of vehicles losing control and leaving the roadway, but not striking buildings — over a 15-month span.
Understand what you're reading: 500 deaths per year from cars leaving the road and striking a building and our response is more concrete barriers?
The main methods to safeguard structures against vehicle impacts would be walls, planters, purpose-designed outdoor furniture or bollards, which are posts or spheres designed as traffic impediments.
Most bollards are roughly waist-high, and can be made of concrete, steel, cast iron or even recycled plastic. The spherical bollards are a common sight outside of stores such as Target.
Drozd said bollards generally cost about $450 apiece. He estimates it would cost about half a million dollars to protect all the vulnerable day-care facilities in unincorporated Orange County.
Future day care centers would be expected to incorporate the safety features before opening. But funding for existing facilities to make the upgrades could come largely from government grants, Drozd said.
So let's raise everyone's taxes to build more stroads, so that we can then raise everyone's taxes more to provide grants to build concrete barriers to keep us safe from cars careening off our stroads. All so we can have crappy fast food, low wage jobs and national chain stores.
Aren't you sick of this? #SlowtheCars
Just an Accident
I've written a couple of posts so far this week about terrible incidents that have occurred when automobiles traveling along stroads ended up killing kids (Dodging Bullets / The Bollard Defense). I've got one more that will hopefully move us from what needs to be done (#slowthecars on our streets, de-stroad our roads) to who is responsible for leading the effort.
And let me preview for you my answer to the latter question: The engineering profession has a moral obligation to lead the effort to address this problem. They are the only ones who effectively can and without them it won't happen.
An all-too-familiar story out of Springfield, Oregon, from this past February:
Police said 68-year-old Larry La Thorpe of Springfield was behind the wheel of a pickup truck when it went through the intersection of 54th and Main streets.
The truck hit and killed 8-year-old John Alexander Day; 5-year-old Mckenzie Mae Hudson; and 4-year-old Tyler James Hudson.
Medics took their mother, Cortney Jean Hudson, 26, of Springfield, to the hospital with serious injuries.
She was listed in fair condition Tuesday at a local hospital.
This tragedy occurred at the intersection of 54th Street and Main Street, one of this country's ubiquitous stroad environments. Here's what the intersection looks like. I'm sure your community has lots of these.
This being the third time through a tragic story like this in two days, the response should now be anticipated by the reader. People are horrified at the tragic loss of life. Temporary memorials are erected. Community dialog begins. Consensus emerges around a set of responses.
City officials and residents are proposing safety improvements after a driver struck and killed three children in a busy Springfield, Oregon, intersection last month.
The City Council is discussing safety proposals at a meeting Monday night.
Mayor Christine Lundberg told The Register-Guard newspaper she wants everything on the table. Ideas range from increased enforcement to more public safety announcements.
Public safety announcements, as if three dead kids -- among scores of others killed around the country each year -- isn't announcement enough. Understand that fourteen people have died on this Main Street alone in the past decade. FOURTEEN! You'd think that would wake someone up.
Now to be fair, there were other proposals beyond enforcement and education that were put on the table. Although it was labeled "complicated" there was some mention of traffic calming.
They include reducing speeds on the corridor either by lowering speed limits or narrowing the travel lanes to give motorists a visual cue they need to slow down. Both would require ODOT approval.
The speed limit is 40 mph along most of the corridor, but it increases to 45 at the eastern end.
These are complicated, of course, because it would "require ODOT approval." Read: Not gonna happen.
Among the hundreds of similar tragedies I could highlight -- the list is endless -- I've picked this one because of an editorial column that came with it. The editorial board of the Oregonian weighed into this debate with When a tragic accident is just a tragic accident, a piece that acknowledged the tragedy while also acknowledging the fact that it is really, really difficult to condemn a person -- lock them up -- for something that was not related to how they were operating but merely a matter of chance; bad timing in a situation that any of us who drive could find ourselves in.
There are few words as inadequate as "accident" in describing a tragedy of this magnitude. It's hard not to feel outrage that LaThorpe isn't being held criminally accountable for a clear failure with such devastating consequences. How can there be no one to pay for the violent deaths these three kids suffered?
But as wholly unsatisfying as it may be, "accident" is the only way to accurately describe what unfolded at that intersection on Feb. 22. Investigators found no evidence that LaThorpe was impaired, using a phone or speeding. And while the community may be searching for a way to ease its grief, prosecutors cannot look to heartbreak and anger as the building blocks of a case.
Even though I know that is going to anger some of you, I agree with the Oregonian. But Chuck....if you're driving a big truck, you suffer the consequences of your actions. Those kids get no second chance. Throw him in jail and hide the key. While I understand this reaction, I don't find it helpful because it ignores the reality that someone can operate a vehicle as it's designed, following the rules of the environment it is designed for, doing so with all prudence and seriousness and they can STILL wind up killing someone. Many times a driver is at fault and, if that's the case, convict them. But many times it is random chance, the statistically predictable outcome of millions of chance interactions between fast moving cars and complex environments that we have designed into our system.
I have an answer to this: eliminate stroads. We need to convert our stroads into slow moving streets that are safe for everyone (#slowthecars) or high speeds roads that connect productive places in safe corridors that are free from turning traffic, pedestrians and other complex movements. It's either a street or a road, and the design must reflect that.
So who is responsible for this? The Oregonian editorial points us in the right direction.
Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner sought to provide some of that legal background in his press release announcing the decision not to charge LaThorpe. He quoted from a 2014 Oregon Court of Appeals decision in a case where a 17-year-old Curry County girl crashed into and killed a motorcyclist when she fell asleep at the wheel. In overturning her conviction, the judges said criminally negligent homicide requires proof "that the defendant should have been aware of a problem with the defendant's driving, such as swerving, inattention, or near collisions," before the crash.
Another case, decided in 1978, established "that mere inadvertence, brief inattention, or error in judgment as to proper speed does not constitute gross negligence" unless there's a component of recklessness – such as drinking – or a "conscious indifference to the safety of others."
Focus on that last part of that last sentence; a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In order to be found guilty of gross negligence, you must display a conscious indifference to the safety of others. Keep that in mind as we review the stroads where the five child deaths I highlighted this week and the one I pointed out last December took place.
Who is showing a conscious indifference to the safety of others? In other words, who is grossly negligent? Is it the driver who is following the speed limit, operating a vehicle well below the much higher design speed? Or is it whoever decided that 45+ mph traffic should be feet away from kids biking on the sidewalk, moms with strollers and children waiting to be picked up from daycare?
Is it the driver -- a mere mortal suffering a predictable, perhaps even understandable, moment of inattention or confusion while performing the monotony that we call driving -- or is it the person who took 70 mph highway standards and applied them to urban streets?
Is it the driver, whose path has been cleared of every foreseeable obstacle in a desperate effort to gain them seconds' worth of performance, or is it the person who apparently believes it is optimal to have no less than a quarter mile distance between each seven lane pedestrian crossing?
Who is the one showing conscious indifference? Who is grossly negligent?
It's not a person; it's a profession. The engineering profession -- with a growing number of notable exceptions -- employs a systematic approach to design, prioritizing the fast and efficient (but not safe) movement of automobiles over everything else. As a general rule, engineers show a conscious indifference to pedestrians and cyclists, misunderstanding their needs where they are not disregarded completely. This is the very definition of gross negligence.
This system can't be changed by engineers alone, but they are the only ones that can credibly lead the charge. A new mindset among my fellow engineers would be game-changing.
Podcast: Gross Negligence
(Top image from Wikimedia)