Study charges some streets are “dangerous by design”

The six-block trip to the bus terminal from 64-year-old Karen Smulevitz’s East Oakland home is fraught with peril.  To cross 73rd Avenue — an intimidating, arrow-straight, six-lane road, where long stretches have no crosswalks and buses and cars zoom by relentlessly –“you have to time it with the traffic lights,” Smulevitz said. “You have to wave at drivers to get their attention. It’s an adventure.”

The dangerous walking conditions Smulevitz faces are too common in the US, according to a national report released this week on “preventable pedestrian deaths.”  Over the past 50 years, declares the study by the Transportation for America and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, “we have built a transportation system almost singularly focused on high-speed automobile traffic, at the expense of community livability and the safety of people.”

Entitled “Dangerous by Design,” the report found that in the last 15 years, 76,000 people in the US have been killed while crossing or walking along a street. That figure constitutes 12 percent of all traffic deaths nationwide. But despite this “epidemic,” the authors say, less than 2 percent of federal funding earmarked for traffic infrastructure improvements is used for pedestrian or bicyclist safety.

That’s in spite of Congressional efforts in recent years to make it easier for states to fund pedestrian-friendly projects, the report says. The authors recommend that 12 percent of local and federal transportation funds be used for walking and bike-friendly infrastructure projects–a number deliberately chosen to match the percentage of traffic deaths caused by car-on-pedestrian collisions.

Alameda County scored relatively well in pedestrian safety overall, coming in at sixth place out of a total of 26 large metropolitan areas in California. But according to Transportation for America’s local partner, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, much still needs to improve – namely, shifting funding away from car-centered road projects and instead toward “completing the streets” by converting four-lane streets into two-lane streets with bike lanes, and installing speed bumps, wider sidewalks, and crosswalks.

According to the “Dangerous by Design” report, senior citizens and people of color are most likely to be killed by cars while walking. People over 65 years are two-thirds more likely than younger persons to be struck and killed. Statistics are even more grim for adults over 75; they’re almost twice as likely to be killed by cars as pedestrians under 65.

The report also found that “Hispanic and African American residents, on average, drive less and walk more than other groups,” adding that statistics analyzed by the Center for Disease Control showed African Americans suffered a “pedestrian death rate” that was nearly 70 percent higher than that of white people. Hispanics didn’t fare much better: Their pedestrian death rate was 62 percent higher than the rate for whites.

“Look! There’s someone now,” Smulevitz exclaimed, pointing to a young African American woman in a dark jacket and jeans who was walking along the edge of the traffic median, waiting for a break in the rush of traffic. “She’s got to cross somewhere,” Smulevitz murmured. “She can’t stay in the median forever.”

While she spoke, a man, also African American, jaywalked across three lanes to the same median.

“In pedestrian-speak, this is a ‘path of desire,’” Smulevitz said, motioning toward the road where both the man and woman, stranded on the median, watched traffic whiz past. “If this was grass, you’d see a path here made by people crossing. The path is invisible here, but this is my path of desire.”

Smulevitz smiled, her ice-blue eyes glinting behind her glasses. Since she sold her car 12 years ago, Smulevitz, who has called East Oakland home for the last 40 years, walks or takes a bus everywhere she goes. It was a crisp, sunny morning, and she wore a knit black-brimmed hat over her shoulder-length silver hair, and black gloves. She carried a McDonald’s coffee cup (“Fifty cents for seniors!” she announced cheerfully) as she walked down the busy thoroughfare with 26-year-old Eileen Eng, who wore a gray turtleneck sweater and blue crystal earrings. Both women work with United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County, a non-profit organization that advocates for senior citizens’ rights.

About seven years ago, the United Seniors group worked with seniors throughout the county to survey their neighborhoods for “walkability.” Together they made note of stray dogs, availability of benches, and obstacles for pedestrians. Smulevitz says that after surveying their neighborhoods, many seniors formed “walk clubs” all over the county, including in East Oakland. “The walk clubs provided an umbrella that allowed people to feel safe. It increased fitness and provided sociability,” she said. “If a neighborhood is safe for seniors, then it’s safe for everyone.” She said she’s currently trying to get a new walk club started in her neighborhood.

Walking down 73rd Ave. past the massive, multi-level complex that is the Eastmont Mall, it’s easy to see how someone on foot could feel invisible, unwelcome and under attack by the endless barrage of heavy traffic. The sprawling six-lane, shadeless streets and airplane hangar-sized big-box stores that loom along the horizon easily dwarf the people who dart between the racing automobiles.

“The speed limit here I think is 30,” Eng said as she walked. “But everyone goes 45, because it’s got multiple lanes and it’s a straight shot.”

She said that for a little while, police enforced the speed limit laws, but that appears mostly to have  stopped now. Besides, Eng added later, police themselves speed “just as much and faster” in Oakland.

According to the pedestrian safety report, lowering speed limits and issuing citations only slows drivers down temporarily. The report’s authors argue that more permanent, infrastructural “traffic calming” measures are more effective: constructing roundabouts, putting roads on “diets” by converting one lane into a bike lane, and installing speed bumps.

Eng motioned toward red brake lights ahead. “See where all that traffic is backed up? That’s where the school is.”

The school is Markham Elementary, just off treacherous 73rd. Two neon orange-suited figures, wielding stop signs at opposite ends of a brightly-painted crosswalk, seemed barely able to keep vehicles from crashing into the children and Spanish-speaking women pushing strollers.

On weekdays, for two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon, adults as well as children benefit from the presence of these beleaguered neon-clad guardians.

Mildred Bonner was hired recently as a second crossing guard to accompany her co-worker, three-year intersection-veteran Purisimo Julian. She shook her head with alarm at the mention of what kids would do without guards to help them cross. “Oh, they just wouldn’t make it across!” she said, looking a little panicked.

Pedestrian injury, the Transportation for America report cites, is the third leading cause of  “death by unintentional injury” for children 15 years and younger.

Julian, the other guard, seemed to share Bonner’s quick and alert, roving gaze. He said that in his three years of working this intersection, he’s seen “a lot” of cars come within inches of hitting children. But he says he hasn’t seen a fatality yet. “Only cars,” he said, grinning. “They hit each other. That’s why you have to…” he demonstratively waved his arms frantically, “run run run!”

The stretch of 73rd Ave. near Markham School is doing some things right, by the standards of the “Dangerous by Design” pedestrian safety report. A fresh coat of paint outlines the crosswalk, and there is a bike lane.

Eng studied the lane. “There is a wide gap,” she finally said. “But mostly I’ve just seen people drive in the bike lane to pass other cars.”

Just then, Smulevitz stepped defiantly into the road at the crosswalk, without the aid of the crossing guard. Eng followed, a few paces behind her, while Julian, still on the opposite side of the street, began to make his way across, holding his orange glove to traffic. Cars reluctantly braked.

As soon as Smulevitz and Eng reached the sidewalk, a driver shouted angrily at them: “Why are you making all of us wait on you?” She sped off.

Smulevitz took the outburst in stride. “The entrenched motorist doesn’t want to give up their cars. They say it’s a right,” she said calmly. “But we have to make sure they know walking is a right.”

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