To understand this topic in the way I do, it might help to see the thousand stories a year of children killed, not just by careless drivers, but by traffic engineers who made speed limits too high and roads too wide. You have to watch helplessly, as I did, as a burrito delivery truck plows into a 70-year-old woman traversing a crosswalk. You have to get blood on your green hoodie (one which you never wore again) while using it to staunch the bleeding from her head. You have to watch as the driver, a grown man, silently sobs on the side of the road. You also might get some lived experience if you are, as a four-year-old on his father’s shoulders, flung 20 feet after being hit by a texting driver while crossing a crosswalk. My skull cracked in a couple places.
Safety is real. It’s bone fragments in eye sockets, barbed wire through throats and lifelong impairments. The seemingly cosmetic design of a street affects the number of Americans who will survive into the next calendar year; narrower streets cause lower speeds, lower speeds make collisions with pedestrians and other cars less likely and less deadly.
A colleague of mine writing for The Michigan Daily’s magazine, The Statement, published a piece recently. If you’re reading this in the physical edition of The Daily, it was in the print paper three weeks ago, but can still be found online. This piece — framed as an exploration of the changes made to State Street this past summer and entitled “Reckoning with State Street’s changes” — posits what I believe to be an incorrect view of State Street’s past, present and future. Though appreciative of the pedestrian improvements, the author seems to be playing a balancing act between convenience for cars and human lives.
I talked to Dr. Molly Kleinman about this issue. She’s chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Commission (an advisory body to the Ann Arbor City Council) as well as the managing director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “The thing that makes streets unsafe is cars — in particular, the speed of cars. So the faster a car is going, the more likely it is to do serious damage to the person that it hits,” Kleinman told me. “At 20 miles an hour, a person who was hit by a car has something like a 90% chance of survival, at 30 miles an hour, that drops to 50%. And at 40 miles an hour, that drops to 10%.”
I also talked to Kleinman about the claim that drivers are getting a raw deal. “So in terms of the balancing act,” Kleinman told me, “the fact is that cars don’t really need any help on our streets, and our cities are already designed for the convenience of drivers.” Many people, Kleinman, myself and even most of the pedestrians presented in the piece would describe this renovation as a veritable success story.
Some of those defending the rights of drivers have cited data from the Ann Arbor Transportation Commission showing that (pre-construction) 8000 pedestrians used this area at peak compared to 6600 vehicles. Considering the numerical majority of pedestrians, and the fact that the vast majority of these vehicles are carrying only one occupant, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find out that we’re prioritizing pedestrians and bicyclists. Kleinman emphasized changing priorities in transportation planning. “So, shifting this focus from ‘how many cars can you move?’ to ‘how many people can you move?’ the state redesign starts to make a lot more sense.” She also noted that, even though pedestrians already outnumber cars at peak hours, the difference only becomes more apparent at non-peak hours. I would argue, and will in a future column, that Ann Arbor’s strong nightlife makes it the prime candidate in the region for pedestrian friendly development.
“It’s like Stockholm Syndrome — but for pedestrians,” Kleinman told me, “this idea that it’s somehow unfair for pedestrians to take precedence in that space (is) really wild to me.”
This sentiment epitomizes a larger tendency of Americans to, in some sense, morally equate cars to human beings. Cars don’t have homes. They aren’t living, breathing beings. Cars have no rights. Cars don’t deserve to get home safely; the people inside of them do. Cars don’t need space, or air free from fumes, or any of that. People have rights. People who are, you will agree, not arbitrarily grouped into “drivers” or “pedestrians” at birth, not shackled at the age of zero to either a Ford F150 or a pair of Nikes. No, these are choices that can be influenced by things like whether Ann Arbor is a charming, dense community that people can comfortably walk through, or a two-lane highway as some might prefer it.
Criticisms have been made of the renovation, citing observations that it seems to have increased jaywalking. The history of this topic is quite fascinating. Joseph Stromberg, writing on jaywalking for Vox, described auto deaths of the early 20th century, saying that “Those killed were mostly pedestrians, not drivers, and they were disproportionately the elderly and children, who had previously had free rein to play in the streets. The public response to these deaths, by and large, was outrage… on the streets, they(cars) were considered violent intruders.” The auto industry subsequently lobbied to redefine our streets, putting acute pressure on governments to pass anti-jaywalking laws and put out propaganda reminding pedestrians of their new king: cars. All of this history is to help you understand one thing: You — the pedestrian — have an ancestral right to your publicly funded roads, far above and beyond that of the oversized cars and trucks who currently monopolize them.
If there are so many pedestrians crowded up on State Street, such that they are not able to cross through in the allotted time, and driving on State Street is so terrible as described, then it is likely the most car- and pedestrian-friendly option to close the intersection to cars altogether. Anyone who was here in Ann Arbor this past summer saw what was possible with an automobile-free State Street, where you could proceed about your business without fear of a driver who’s heavy on the horn but light in the head. On the note of business, it should be noted that research shows that business owners consistently overestimate how much traffic they receive from drivers, compared to pedestrians and bicyclists.
To be clear, I’m not a New Yorker who thinks that a city without a subway stop within a five minute walk isn’t worth living in, looking down on the car-favoring hoi polloi; I’m a proud Honda Fit driver from Albuquerque, New Mexico. New Mexico, home to the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation precisely because it was built for cars and nothing else. “We’ve done so much over the last century to design for cars that it’s really now about trying to shift in a different direction,” Kleinman said, and our community is all the better for this shift. Not only have these changes to State Street made it safer, they have made it much easier and quicker for people to traverse. Ann Arbor is prosperous precisely because it is a walkable college town, and any attempts to further pull the University’s special corner of this city towards car-centric suburbia — to steal away its culture and vitality in favor of highways and strip malls — should be resisted in the strongest of terms.
Julian C. Barnard is The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Page Editor, and can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Editors’ note: This piece was removed in violation of The Michigan Daily’s bylaws. Questions or concerns can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.