Mayor, City Council and Senior Staff, City of Springfield, Massachusetts:
I am writing to let you, and the broader Springfield community, know that I am making myself available, pro-bono, to serve as an expert witness for the plaintiff if someone decides to bring a lawsuit against the city the next time a person is struck crossing State Street at the Springfield Central Library. I am a licensed civil engineer and a certified land use planner with over two decades of experience with communities similar to yours.
I say “next time” because it is obvious to me, to you and to everyone involved that, without meaningful changes to the design of the street, there is little doubt that there will be a next time. It is inevitable that another person crossing the street from the library to the parking lot will be struck, perhaps even killed, by a passing automobile.
When this tragedy does happen, it will not be random. The history of this street clearly illustrates that.
Google Street View shows the way State Street looked back in 2007, complete with a representative person waiting to cross from the library to the parking lot on the other side of the street.
The city was clearly aware of the danger posed by the issue because, by 2009, changes had been made to frustrate people who would seek to make the natural crossing between library and parking lot. A modest barrier had been erected in front of the library and the stairs to the parking lot had been realigned so as not to be directly across the street.
It was obvious that the decorative fence was insufficient discouragement and so, by 2012, a row of hedges had been planted on each side to provide an additional obstacle.
It's clear by the desire path, visible even in 2012, that people are merely walking around the hedges. This is wholly logical. Except for a couple of short periods each day, there is little traffic on the street. The distance to the nearest signalized intersection is 275 feet, an unreasonable two to four minute delay for someone on foot (depending on the signal timing). The current design ignores this aspect of human nature, a fact that is clearly on display.
The city is not oblivious to human nature, however. The city has merely chosen to focus on one facet of human behavior -- the behavior of the driver -- and ignore the other, the behavior of the non-driver. In focusing on the driver, the city has deployed what are known as forgiving design techniques. The street has been made straight, the lanes wide, parking removed, buffer zones installed on each side and -- despite the urban setting, the high number of people walking and the comparatively low rates of car ownership in the neighborhood -- steps have been taken to reduce interference by pedestrians with the traffic flow. These steps are taken to forgive -- to render inconsequential -- the common and predictable mistakes of drivers.
The side effect of forgiving design is faster driving speeds. The added comfort afforded the driver makes him feel more secure operating at higher speeds. This fact is well known among traffic engineers and would be clearly measurable on State Street if the city were actively concerned enough with this situation to conduct a routine traffic study.
The design being used provides drivers with a false sense of security, which translates into increased speed and an increased level of risk for those not protected by the shell of a vehicle. This is a tradeoff the city has consciously made and, with the demonstrated efforts to frustrate the crossing of people in this location, fully acknowledged.
The fact that people crossing in this location is dangerous is not in dispute. The fact that large numbers of people continue to cross here -- a reasonable course of action given the proximity of the parking lot and the time and distance of the delay in traversing to the signalized intersection -- is also not in dispute. People are observed crossing mid block continuously during all of the library's operating hours.
Cities in the recent past have considered themselves immune to lawsuits of the type I am suggesting you are soon likely to find yourself facing. There has been a sense that industry standards, however despotic they are to those outside of an automobile, would provide protection from liability. This is proving to be an erroneous belief.
The city of Los Angeles recently agreed to pay $9.5 million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit for a situation very similar to yours. With a swimming beach on one side and parking on the other, the fast speeds and highway-scaled lanes of a Los Angeles street suggests a willful disregard for the plight of the people the city knew were routinely crossing it.
A plaintiff in a lawsuit against New York City was recently awarded $20 million when the city was held liable for failing to redesign streets with a history of traffic injuries and reckless driving. The city was found negligent in their design. In the decision, Justice Eugene Fahey quoted language similar to what I would use to describe State Street:
Plaintiffs’ expert testified that it was known among traffic engineers that straight, wide roads with little interference from pedestrians and other vehicles, such as Gerritsen Avenue, encourage speeding because drivers feel more comfortable on roadways with those characteristics. He testified that traffic calming measures deter speeding because they cause drivers to be more cautious, and that such measures are known to reduce the overall speed on roadways.
I last visited your city in December of 2014, the night a mother and two children were struck on State Street crossing from the library to the parking lot. One of the children was killed. I am not aware of any traffic calming measures that have been taken since that tragedy, despite pleas and protests from some of your residents. The inaction speaks volumes.
While I have offered to work on behalf of a plaintiff seeking to hold you to account for the dangerous design of State Street, it is not my desire to be part of a lawsuit. I would rather be part of a solution to this ongoing problem. To that end, I also volunteer my time in advance of – and hopefully in lieu of – any lawsuit filed against the city to work with you to calm State Street at the Springfield Central Library. I would welcome an opportunity to meet with you and discuss ways of improving this situation.
In closing, these are your people. In addition to being your constituents, these are your friends and neighbors. I know their health, safety and lives matter to you. The City of Springfield has every motivation (and no reason not) to slow down traffic on State Street and take the needed steps to make the library crossing safe for everyone. The time has come for this important step. I strongly encourage you to take this action before another tragedy occurs.