Six weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, regarding the dangerous street crossing at their public library. My hope was that, after years of inaction, our letter would prompt city officials to deal with this deadly problem. I offered to help them come up with an alternative design and indicated that, if they failed to take responsible action, I would serve as an expert witness in a case against them the next time someone is struck.
Sadly, we seem headed for the second course of action. It doesn’t need to be this way.
I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve examined court cases involving similar circumstances where the city has been found liable for gross negligence, an important finding since it opens the city up to punitive damages. There is a lot of legal nuance in a gross negligence suit, but Massachusetts case law suggests a definition similar to what is found in other states:
Whereas ordinary negligence is simply failing to act in a reasonably prudent or cautious manner under the circumstances, gross negligence is exhibiting substantially less attention or care than that which is required by the circumstances. It is conduct that is just a step away from a reckless indifference or disregard for the probable consequences of one’s actions or omissions. See Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 591-592 (1919).
Again, I’m not an attorney and you would need to consult one in Massachusetts for a legal opinion, but the plain language could not be clearer: Is the city of Springfield exhibiting substantially less attention or care than that which is required by the circumstances? With multiple people dead and injured, and with ongoing dangerous situations well documented, it’s hard to comprehend what “less care” would be.
They’ve done nothing, despite being aware of the uniquely dangerous circumstance presented in this location.
In fact, they’ve done less than nothing. They’ve openly acknowledged the problem but then given a myriad of baseless reasons for why they won’t act. As MassLive reported on June 27:
In comments to MassLive, city officials said the unofficial crossing is a source of concern - but that there is no practical way of making it safe for pedestrians. The city examined possible improvements after the fatal crash but no immediate fixes are in the works, Springfield Director of Public Works Chris Cignoli said in an interview.
"Do I want to try to find some solution? Yeah, but I never want to go against the rules and regulations of what we should do and expose the city to more problems," Cignoli said.
There is no “practical way of making it safe for pedestrians” is not a factual statement of engineering capacity – there are many ways to make the street much safer for pedestrians – but a statement of priorities for the city. It's a matter of values. As the mayor of Springfield stated later in the article:
Mayor Domenic Sarno echoed Cignoli's concerns about installing a crosswalk, and objected to structural changes to the roadway that would slow or halt traffic.
Changes that would keep people safe are not acceptable if they “slow or halt traffic.” Stated another way, the city is intentionally placing a greater value on the speed and flow of traffic than on the safety of people, especially small children, at a crossing that has been proven to be deadly.
In fact, the mayor goes further and blames the victims, including those very children who have been injured and killed at this crossing:
Mayor Domenic Sarno echoed Cignoli's concerns about installing a crosswalk, and objected to structural changes to the roadway that would slow or halt traffic. The city could consider installing signage telling pedestrians to walk to the nearest intersection to use a crossing, he said - but added that it is pedestrians' responsibility not to "put themselves in harms way."
"You have a traffic light not even 50 yards away," Sarno said. "Unfortunately people want the shortest distance to get somewhere, but that might not be the safest way to get somewhere."
So the mayor is aware, as is the professional staff, that people desire to cross here, that the placement of a public library across the street from the library’s parking lot creates an inducement and that 50 yards is a long ways for many people to walk (note that it’s actually double that distance). They are well aware that there is a problem – a serious problem that has resulted in repeated incidents of injury and death – yet they continue to exhibit substantially less attention than that which is required by the circumstances.
The inattention is due to, as their public works director suggests, “a mixture of liability, safety and traffic concerns.” Let’s take these all separately.
On liability, the city is suggesting that they are required to follow – to refrain from contradicting – the state’s traffic safety manual. From MassLive:
And contradicting the state's traffic safety manual could set up the city for legal liability, he [Cignoli] added.
"We have to make it safe because if one person does it and gets hurt I have to justify why I'm doing stuff that's against kind of the bible of traffic design," he said. "If I'm going to get sued, I want to have the rules and regulations behind me."
It’s not clear what “bible of traffic design” he is referring to but I guarantee that every single one of them – without exception – has language prompting the design professional to use their own judgement in unique situations, that the manual is a guideline for ideal circumstances and does not replace professional judgement.
One of our members shared with me this excerpt from AASHTO's Guide for Achieving Flexibility in Highway Design, which is standard stuff:
My experience has been that, when traffic engineers cite liability concerns, they are actually just using what they perceive as standard practice to resist doing something they don’t care to do. It’s the defense of a teenager: everyone else is doing it so what's the problem? It defies all notion of the licensed professional empowered to make mature judgements in unique situations. Plain and simple, this is about priorities – the speed and volume of traffic – and not liability.
Case in point: Has the city contacted their insurance carrier to ask their opinion on what situation exposes them to more liability? If they are really worried about people being killed and they want to take action but feel thwarted by the liability it exposes them to, have they actually investigated it? I suspect not as I’ve done this in other communities and always – always – the insurance provider states that, if the city is aware of a dangerous situation and chooses to do nothing, it opens them up to far more liability than varying from some generic design guideline.
When it comes to safety, the city is suggesting that a bunch of bad ideas would make the situation worse. We agree. It’s reckless to put a crosswalk here without doing anything to slow the speed of traffic. A pedestrian island would likewise do little to help. Again, if the city is serious about wanting to address this dangerous situation, they need to bring in an expert who has a broader understanding – and a more expansive toolbox – than what their professional staff seems willing deploy.
That lack of willingness comes down to the central crux of the problem, the third “concern” that keeps them from acting: traffic. The city has chosen to prioritize the speed and volume of traffic over the safety of people walking. From the Masslive article:
Cignoli also dismissed more substantial changes to the roadway as impractical. He said the road is not wide enough to support adding a pedestrian island or curb extensions, and that widening the road would be "extremely costly."
"With the buses and schools in that area, the two lanes of traffic are a necessity," he said.
In other words, despite being in a grid system – an approach that handles high volumes of peak traffic at slow, neighborhood speeds – the city has chosen to push their traffic to State Street where they can provide a high-speed arterial corridor, despite the proven danger to people crossing from the library to the library parking lot.
This is a design choice, one with consequences. Again from MassLive:
And the idea of adding a signaled crossing and traffic light in between intersections can work at other locations, Cignoli said, but would cause severe backups during rush hour on State Street.
"It would probably end up being a traffic nightmare there," he said.
Again, another bad idea – a mid-block crossing – from a limited toolbox, but the reason for not attempting it is the telling part. It would cause “severe backups” during rush hour and “end up being a traffic nightmare.”
Maintaining high traffic speeds and peak volumes on State Street: those are the values of the city as expressed with the current design. These are the values that keep the city from exhibiting the attention and care warranted by the injury and death repeatedly experienced in this location.
These are the values that are going to cost someone else their life. And these are the values that are going to get the city a lawsuit and, potentially, a multi-million-dollar judgement against them as we’ve seen recently in other communities with similar deadly designs.
Here’s what I said to MassLive:
"I would love to work with them to think about ways to apply a different set of values to that street," Marohn said. "In lieu of that I'm willing to work with whoever is willing to bring a lawsuit against them to force a set of different values."
My offer still stands. I’ll work pro-bono with whoever comes to me first. There is no good reason for this deadly situation to persist, for anyone else to be killed simply because our toolbox is too small.
It’s not good enough to blame the people we serve. We actually need to serve them. And if we’re baffled by what to do, there is a whole profession of people – many great engineers in Massachusetts and across the country – who have worked in similar situations. Let’s swallow our pride and do the right thing.
I would imagine that the people of Springfield would rally around leadership that made fixing this deadly crossing a priority. At Strong Towns, we would love an opportunity to herald Springfield as an example of national leadership instead of the case study in turning a blind eye and, ultimately, a tale of warning to others. It’s a great city, but the clock is ticking on the next person to be maimed or killed at this crossing. Please fix this.
(Top image from Wikimedia.)