Letter: Oakland’s dangerous streets demand attention, a champion

This was written to be a letter-to-the-editor in early September, 2016, but for some reason was never sent.

I work for a small non-profit affiliated with Pitt–an international professional association for academics–which has been based in Bellefield Hall since 2010.  I’m also a 2007 Pitt graduate with a BA in Linguistics.  As a student and a staff member, I’ve spent nearly nine of the last thirteen years on campus in Oakland.  At various points, I’ve primarily driven, biked, or taken a bus to Oakland; in the last several years I’ve increased my riding and now bike to work nearly daily.  Public transit is my second choice, and through several moves since 2011 I have consciously chosen to live near a direct bus line to Oakland.

As a Pitt alum and staff member of an affiliated organization on campus, I have been and continued to be appalled at the University’s response–or lack thereof–to the death of one of its own last fall and the continuing terrorizing of its students, staff, and faculty on a daily if not hourly basis.  According to one Post-Gazette article last fall, after the death of Susan Hicks in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, the only comment from Pitt spokesman John Fedele was that ‘the university has bike racks throughout the campus, encourages car-pooling and stresses pedestrian safety to students beginning with their freshman orientation’.  None of which does a thing to protect their personnel from reckless, speeding drivers.  At least CMU’s students and staff are getting trees between them and Forbes’ flying vehicles…

Except during special events, Bellefield is usually two lanes, and with no speed or crosswalk enforcement, many drivers speed and few yield to the hundreds of students and staff that cross the road to and from Bellefield Hall each day.  I can’t so much as walk to lunch without nearly getting hit by a car directly in front of my office.  Every day, I watch people trot, jog, and outright run across the street because drivers refuse to yield despite the painted crosswalk and cross-here signs.

As this week’s crash indicates, speeds on the roads that ring the University of Pittsburgh are dangerously high–if anything, the constant congestion which slows drivers and reduces PennDOT’s holy Level of Service is a good thing; it’s awfully difficult to flip a sedan at twenty miles an hour, and any person hit by a car is orders of magnitude more likely to survive at low vehicle speeds.

As Linda Bailey, Executive Director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (an organization of which Pittsburgh is a Member City), wrote this week,

“With 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas, we should be building streets and designing cities that work for everyone, including those traveling on foot, on bike, or via transit.… In particular, arterial streets [such as Forbes Ave in Pittsburgh], which represent less than 10% of roadways but are the site of 49% of fatalities, should be prioritized as places where we can quickly make the biggest safety gains….All levels of government must do better. Elected officials should be champions for safe street designs.”

Where is our champion?

As Noel Mickelberry, Executive Director of Oregon Walks, wrote this week,

“None of these crashes look like one another. Yet each crash reminds us that a true change to the status quo on our streets is required to provide solutions. Each person injured or killed on our roadways demands attention and action from our city’s leadership and from everyone traveling through our streets.”

Where is the attention and action from our city’s leadership in Pittsburgh?  The mayor Friday urged us to wait for Port Authority to make a decision on BRT, but as even Port Authority’s own representative acknowledged at Wednesday’s meeting, that decision has been delayed repeatedly.

How much longer must we wait?  How many more students must be terrorized before Port Authority manages to get its act in gear?  How many more community members must die before we act?

We’ve spent sixty years tossing up our hands and ceding public space to public menaces. It’s time to take our roads back for all users.

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Still seeking justice for Susan Hicks: Blaming victims will not create safer streets

Yesterday marked four months since Susan Hicks was killed riding home from work. Next month, friends and others will join to complete her commute.

I want to hope that by the end of March there will be some news of the investigation or efforts to make Oakland a less dangerous place to be, but it is difficult to be optimistic.  Our local leaders try to find ways to make it illegal to cross the street while ignoring rampant reckless speeding. Our safety studies give brownie points to transportation associations who tell students to “walk safe” and “don’t be a road zombie” but don’t even comment on the lack of safe-driving messaging—nor do they have any idea why large numbers of students would want to cross the road between classroom buildings.  The university itself responds to pleas for a safer campus with bike racks, carpool marketing, and walk-safe messaging. Our bus drivers and police accost cyclists for occupying lane space, and even drivers who kill while sober rarely get more than a $500 fine and a few points on their licence.

When will we act to protect our people from those who actually do them harm, instead of blaming victims for the positions we force them into?

Windshields are surprisingly effective at deflecting fault

Today in the PG: “Viewing Oakland through the windshield of a Port Authority bus driver: Bus drivers describe dangerous behavior of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists

Oakland Transportation Management Agency called it an “Interesting perspective from the view of our local PAT drivers.”

“[Pedestrians] can’t see and they’re not looking. People absolutely do not pay attention.”

“[Cyclists] can be frustrating… We put up with the Triangle Messengers Downtown for years, but now [bike riders] are all over.”

“Drivers unfamiliar with Oakland add another layer to traffic strife.”

Apparently the problems and dangers on Oakland’s streets are everywhere but behind Port Authority’s wheels. “Interesting perspective”, indeed.

I’ll probably have more response later as this percolates further, but for now I offer this: I will be more willing to consider increased jaywalking enforcement, as suggested by one driver quoted in this piece (of, I believe, two total), to be a valid tactic when police increase by a proportionate amount the resources devote to driver behaviours that make crossing legally unsafe.

For every student who walks out in front of a bus, how many are forced to stand on the curb for minutes at a time by bus operators and other drivers who refuse or simply fail to stop at marked (let alone unmarked, though legally defined) crosswalks?

For every person who runs across in the last seconds of the blinking “don’t walk” light, how many are brushed back by a bus driver trying to squeeze through the waning seconds of an “orange” signal, or jumping the light before it turns green?

For every individual who appears to expect that “a 20-ton bus can stop on a dime”, how many have simply miscalculated the available time to cross based on the mistaken assumption that drivers will obey the speed limit?

Our lives _are_ worthy. This _is_ political.

New York’s “Bike Snob” has an excellent column in Transportation Alternatives’s Reclaim Magazine today on the need to stop using ‘accident’ to refer to traffic crashes.

Besides traffic crashes, the most common context in which you’ll come across the word “accident” is in child-rearing, where it’s usually employed as an excuse. For example, during potty training, we assuage our children’s guilt for soiling themselves by assuring them that “accidents happen.” They soon figure out the absolving power of this word, and a few years later when you ask them why they hit a sibling over the head with a Barbie doll, they assure you that it was “just an accident.” Lesson learned.

Our language and our streets have much in common: they’re both something we all share, and they’re both something we need to update from time to time.  Clinging to retrograde terms like “accident” is like failing to calm [Forbes Avenue], or [Route 51], or any of the other arteries badly in need of safety improvements. In both cases we need to discard the features that are obsolete and outmoded, and then we need to adapt them to reflect the reality that crashes are preventable.

Because “accident” is just a cop-out.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, via Adam Shuck’s Eat That, Read This newsletter:

On Friday shortly before 5:30 p.m., 34-year-old Susan Hicks was astride her bicycle at the red light on Forbes Avenue at Bellefield, on her way home from work, when someone driving a car “attempted to cross over into the turning lane” but, in the process, hit a car in front of him, causing a “chain reaction” of car collisions that knocked Hicks off her bike and pinned her between two vehicles. Hicks, a skilled rower and multitalented academic, died from her injuries. Hicks’s death has been “ruled accidental,” and the driver who veered into the lane and set off the multi-car collision “has not been charged with anything.” On the Wild West roads of Pittsburgh, on which cyclists and pedestrians fight every day to stay safe against infrastructure built to prioritize automobiles above human lives, and on which gross driver negligence seems to be the rule rather than the exception, it is a cruel insult added to injury to relegate this to the domain of “unpreventable,” “accidental,” “stuff happens.” Read the Pitt News‘s obituary for Susan Hicks, read Carolyne Whelan’s post, and grieve for her death–but do not acquiesce to those who urge us to bury our anger, saying, “Don’t politicize this.” Our lives, rather than an automobile-dominated status quo, are worthy, and that is something that should be fought for on the level of local, state, and federal policy. This is political.

Just days after the shock of Susan Hicks’s death, two more people have been slaughtered by negligent automobile drivers: Yesterday a woman at the Centre/Allequippa/University Drive intersection…drove her SUV into a man in a wheelchair who was crossing the street after descending an 83 Bedford Hill bus. The impact of the SUV knocked him back, and a woman who had also just gotten off the bus moved to rescue him–but by then the bus driver, unaware of what had happened, pulled away from the stop and ran over the two pedestrians, killing them. One passenger and witness reported that “he saw the driver later leaning against a wall and crying.” According to KDKA, “the driver of the SUV stopped and did not try to flee. [Police] are determining whether charges should be filed” against her. “If the driver [had] fled then it would be a clear case: There would be charges,” Toler told WTAE, showing that regardless of the outcome–that is, the senseless death of two people–the law may decide that, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, stuff happens, and no one person is really culpable. The aggressive, careless way that people drive on Pittsburgh streets is a constant threat to human lives–and though the grief we feel is sincere and deep, the mass delusion of Car Culture has inured us, paralyzed us, captivated us to understand traffic violence as accidental rather than the result of poor decision-making, careless behavior, and our shamefully misbuilt environment. These are patterns of error that we need to fix. We should feel sad when someone’s life is snuffed out for the simple act of crossing a street. But then, crucially, we should get angry.

(Bolding mine.)

I hardly even know what to say anymore.  Not two weeks ago, I was at an Oakland Green Team meeting and specifically called out driver behavior on Forbes and Bellefield as a particular danger to cyclists and pedestrians.

I am stunned and shocked to have this demonstrated so clearly, and so close to me physically—I work around the corner on Bellefield Ave—and so soon.

I am also stunned and shocked to have this demonstrated so clearly, and so close to me personally—while I did not know Susan personally, a number of my friends did, and while I do not ride this section regularly, I have taken multiple 412 Flock rides on this road.

I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure that people who bike and walk through Oakland, and the rest of Pittsburgh, have safe places to do so, for Susan, for the new riders Flock is committed to nurturing, for our students, for everyone.

No more cop-outs. Our lives are worthy.  This is political.