My View: Motorists, road design to blame for lack of pedestrian safety

My View: Motorists, road design to blame for lack of pedestrian safety

By Kevin Posey

On a recent Thursday evening, Rosemarie Cruz, mother of four in Alexandria, tried to walk home from work. When she reached the intersection of Mount Vernon Avenue and West Glebe Road, she pressed the button that tripped the pedestrian signal. She stepped into the long crosswalk, but she never reached the other side. A motorist struck her with a car and killed her.

That same day, the Times ran an editorial entitled “Pedestrian safety should come first.” But rather than call unequivocally for the city to accelerate implementation of its Complete Streets policy and prevent deaths like that of Ms. Cruz, the author chose to lambaste cyclists:

“It’s infuriating and frightening to see a motorist driving erratically — including rolling through stop signs — while talking on a cell phone. And many Alexandria cyclists don’t even slow down, let alone stop, in intersections.”

Cruz wasn’t killed by a cyclist. Nobody in Alexandria has been killed this year by a person on a bike. But four people have died and others have been seriously injured on Alexandria streets thanks to the actions of motorists. One such serious injury was to Ryan Brown, who was nearly killed by a motorist when he tried to cross Duke Street. He was on a bike.

After accusing the city of putting pedestrians last in its implementation of Complete Streets, the Times demanded that the city “actually enforce jaywalking prohibitions.”

“When pedestrians cross in the middle of busy roadways, like Duke Street or U.S. Route 1, they vastly increase the chance of an accident, particularly at night. And when pedestrians move into crosswalks against the light, they put themselves at risk and disrupt traffic.”

Such a crackdown makes no sense, as Cruz was using a crosswalk. She was even seen on video pressing the button calling for a pedestrian signal. Brown also was making legal use of a crosswalk while biking.

Cracking down on jaywalking ignores one of the primary factors in pedestrian deaths: motorist speed. The long distances between intersections on thoroughfares like Duke Street and U.S. Route 1 allow motorists to build up speed.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the likelihood of a serious injury from being struck by a car jumps from 10 percent at 17 mph to 50 percent at 33 mph. If there were fewer long blocks, and more stop signs and traffic lights to go with them, speeds would be at the bottom of that range. That requires physical changes to Alexandria’s roads, which is what the Complete Streets program aims to accomplish.

The mayor and city council know this. Yet they continue to call for the Alexandria Police Department to crack down on people who bike in Old Town, specifically along Union Street — miles from where Brown was injured and Cruz was killed.

Worse still, the city’s Complete Streets budget is less than even the budget for economic development — especially if tax subsidies for major developments are included. This is in one of the nation’s most prosperous cities. What good are jobs if people can’t safely cross the street?

So what can be done to make Alexandria safer? First, city council must lead on street safety as much as they do on economic development matters. They can start by jettisoning the city’s requirement that a so-called “champion” garner neighborhood support before any new sidewalk is approved. Homeowners cannot be allowed veto a sidewalk on public right-of-way just because it is in front of their house.

Second, city council must focus on areas where deadly crashes are occurring, not just where the residents are loudest. Cruz was killed in a diverse, yet lower-income, area of the city. Union Street, where cyclists are ticketed if they don’t come to an absolute halt at the many all-way stops, is in the extremely wealthy enclave of Old Town.

Residents of the former do not have the time on their hands to write letters to the editor or attend the hundreds of public meetings held each year, so their voices don’t get heard. City council must step up on their behalf.

Third, officials must get serious about funding street reconstructions. The city was left with a terrible legacy from the height of the motorist era. Wide roads put motorists first by encouraging speed and lengthening crossing distances. That puts people who walk and bike in greater jeopardy.

The city’s practice of restriping for road diets after repaving is a great start, but too many streets will remain high-speed deathtraps in the interim. The stretch of Duke Street where Brown was hit is a prime example.

For inspiration, we should look at Atlanta, where voters approved a massive $65 million funding package, known as T-SPLOST, that will mostly go towards sidewalks, road diets, bikeways and other improvements. Atlanta is a city notorious for its car dependence, yet they are now fully committed to shedding that deadly trait. If they can embrace such a change, surely Alexandria can manage something similar.

The writer is the former chairman of the Alexandria Transportation Commission.