Tag Archives: walkability

Where the pedestrians aren’t

October 1, 2014

Curbed Detroit has an image gallery up today ostensibly providing a photo tour of the future arenaland. The gallery is less the expected catalog of what is there and more an investigation of where the pedestrians aren’t. This could be easily turned into a children’s book about failed urban planning.

“You’ll notice there are not many pedestrians,” Curbed writes. “Not here,” it continues calmly under the following image, flipping what should be the next heavy page of a teething-resistant board book, “or here.” With its soothing repetition (except for the dozen or so photos where the author seemingly tire of typing that caption — come on, Curbed, copy and paste) and eventual surprise discovery, it has all the charms of a minimalist Where’s Waldo after Waldo moves to the burbs.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

And good job, Curbed, for not counting the guy riding a bicycle the wrong way on Park at Henry as a pedestrian. Way to teach those kids what a vehicle is!

While the set of images seems intentionally skewed to tell the story that pedestrians don’t travel here, this is a great ‘before’ to 2017’s hopefully walkable ‘after.’ I usually see a number of people out when walking in this area. Perhaps they have been deterred by the rude truck drivers and other construction personnel with less fearsome vehicles who have nearly run me over in car, on bike, and on foot in their ill-mannered haste to carry out Ilitch’s bidding. The M1 employees have not been kind, either.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Today there was much activity in the area as movie crews took over the streets, erecting barricades. This meant another tough day for pedestrians scolded for trying to follow their usual routes and told to take sometimes lengthy detours. As I looked at the crews milling around, a security officer approached me, asking me to leave. “But I’m outside the barrier,” I replied. “They don’t care, they just want you to leave,” he told me. Last week, Motor City Muckraker reported that “[p]olice and security forced fans off a public street and sidewalk because they “were too close” to the groundbreaking” taking place at the future arena. While pedestrian traffic was low before, there may be good reasons it will remain that way for a while.

Keep out of the "Tiger Clubhouse"!

Keep out of the “Tiger Clubhouse”!

A second look both ways

July 3, 2014

A cardinal rule of walking in cities that everyone learns when they’re knee-high and first able to comprehend quantifiers such as ‘both’ is, “Look both ways.” In Detroit, it’s long been the case that one-way designations have been perceived only as an emphatic and occasionally policeable suggestion. Looking both ways is automatic, but with recent road construction in Midtown, it’s a great time, as rambler Michaela would put it, for a reminder from your local mom: Look both ways before crossing the street!

Like the sign says, Second is going through some ups and downs.

Like the sign says, Second is going through some ups and downs.

This particular street is Second Avenue. Last week, road crews were out making good on an old plan to restore Second to something like its historic proportions, and as Curbed contends, “ending its reign as the neighborhood’s most illogical thoroughfare,” at least since Third underwent its conversion last year, I guess.

The gesture, with planning provided by Midtown Detroit, Inc., was well-received, with media making a big deal about the “cushy” buffered bike lanes, but it seems that certain populations have been left out of the plan. You can mumbo-jumbo your way through all the ‘complete streets’ buzzwords you want, but without facilities for all road and sidewalk users these streets are incomplete.

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After a week of bidirectionality and new bike lanes, things weren’t looking any better for pedestrians. No crosswalks have been installed; not a single line demarcating a street crossing has been laid. Pedestrians can cross safely at Selden and at Forest, but in the intervening “walkable” blocks no provision has been offered. Thinking that the oversight must be temporary, I waited, then asked questions. As of Tuesday, everyone who knows anything about sidewalks in the Department of Public Works or at Midtown Detroit, Inc., was on vacation.

At least there's no parking in the crosswalk.

At least there’s no parking in the crosswalk.

Deviating slightly from my usual commute, I walked north on Second and asked other pedestrians as we crossed paths how they were doing and what they thought of the new paint job. (Not including people wearing earbuds, which may have skewed results). They were all fine, thanks, but the exchange got uglier as the subject turned impersonal. I’m not a fan of the change, but I was anticipating that at least someone would like it. No one did. “Let me tell you, I hate it, man. It’s a thoroughfare. It used to be a neighborhood, and now it’s a thoroughfare. And it sucks,” ranted one woman impassionedly. “I don’t like it,” said the next man who passed. “I liked it better when it was one way. Now there’s a lot more traffic. I’m used to looking both ways, but… I’m still getting used to it.” He looked down Second and concluded, “I like the bike lanes, though!”

This pedestrian made it across safely, but will you?

This pedestrian made it across safely, but will you?

This is hardly about which format is better — it’s about disregard for pedestrians, no matter what the roadway itself holds. Nobody really knows whether the purported benefits of two-way streets actually pan out. Two-wayification is a traffic calming strategy intended to reducing vehicle speed, miles travelled, and pollution emitted, while hopefully increasing pedestrian safety and walkability. Studies have shown evidence for both outcomes — safer for pedestrians, not safer for pedestrians, and so forth — so like many cities following the trend, Detroit is another willing to pay a good deal of money to do an experiment on which it isn’t even collecting data.

In my experience, none of the planner’s promises have materialized following the Third Street conversion. Crossing has been at best a nuisance. Avoiding speeding cars coming from both sides, poorly timed so as to require waiting longer to find a suitable gap, has been an issue both as a pedestrian and a cyclist. Even if the change had caused traffic speeds to drop, slower traffic often equates to more fumes and road noise — not the types of amenities Midtown aims to offer its residents and guests. After recently establishing that the dominant scent of the Midtown Loop is exhaust, creating more smelly “walkable” areas is an odd priority. Leaving Second alone and putting bike lanes on Cass, the adjacent more heavily-travelled existing two-way, could have been a consideration, though it’s a tight fit as it is.

This transition could be done well, making life better for both pedestrians and cyclists — it just hasn’t been yet. Perhaps it wasn’t a slip of the tongue when the Free Press quoted DPW director Ron Brundidge saying, “Whenever we have an opportunity to promote more non-motorized transportation use, whether it’s bicycle paths or making it more pedestrian friendly, we definitely want to employ that as part of the principles of design” (emphasis mine). This isn’t an either-or proposition. It’s a rare opportunity where everybody can easily be safer and happier.

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Like city employees and Midtown Inc. planners, I’m going on vacation. Perhaps when I return from walking around where there is no concrete to bicker over lining with crosswalks (North Country Trail!), the city will yield great surprises. Could it be a fleet of yield signs for crosswalks, like at Hancock and Cass (where I always resist the zealous impulse to walk though the intersection just for fun)? Maybe DTE’s gas line dig sites at Canfield will lay foundations for a pedestrian bridge or lead to a subterranean crossing, like the vestiges of one further north on Second. Just kidding; a concrete hole in the ground probably doesn’t count as a greenway.

The Detroit Area Rambling Network is all about making the most of pedestrian opportunities in the city — we already live in some permutation of a walkable city, so let’s use it. Some lines on the ground probably aren’t going to save my life, but crosswalks at least promote awareness that hey, people actually walk around here. It’s a sad day when an area like Midtown becomes less safely walkable, even if within the context of greater progress.

Smells of the Midtown Loop

June 29, 2014

Aside from wandering around, one of my favorite things to do is pore over maps, which is why I’m so fond of the diligently-updated DETROITography blog. When I awoke Friday morning to a post relating a psychogeographic approach to the Midtown Loop by Alex Hill, I was inspired to do some more deliberate psychogeography myself and replicate Hill’s walk.

Hill’s impression of the Midtown Loop in early June was heavy on the exhaust and diesel fumes, and he concluded by suggesting that reducing car use be a priority on a route that is supposed to be one of Detroit’s walkability showpieces. For the most part the Midtown Loop resembles your average street and sidewalk pairing, except with fancy pavement designs and noticeably upgraded landscaping near the Science Center. Hypothesizing that results of my walk would differ between night and day, I decided to travel the loop twice.

Day

Day

It was a more yogic walking experience than I’m used to, forced into awareness of my breath as I tried to detect some scents. On both walks I took, one on Friday around noon and another on Saturday around midnight, lovely winds rushed at me, especially on the long north-south stretches of Cass and John R. Many of these gentle gusts brought clean riverfront air, concealing native scents.

Night

Night

Daytime is much smellier for the Midtown Loop than night, with thirty-two scent events compared to eighteen after hours. While I wasn’t struck by its unpleasantness while walking, exhaust fumes were abundant on my daytime loop, accounting for eight scent events where traffic lined up at stoplights. The nighttime walk was dominated by five great woodsy whiffs of fresh mulch. More mysterious scents floated through the night air — chlorine, gasoline, and a funny plastic reek, none of which had an origin visually evident.

The lunchtime smells of fried food at La Palma, tempura outside of Wasabi, the meat and fried things at Warren and Cass, and a generic restaurant smell outside of the Whitney gave way in the night to a lone greasy odor at Woodward and Canfield. Predictably, the loop smelled of other pedestrians much more during the day than at night — smoking, cologne, deodorant, and laundry smells were as much a part of the experience as the landscape itself.

It was interesting how poorly scent mapped onto place, how dissociated an aroma might be from its origin. Without the usual visuals, I had no idea where I was. For all I could tell, the nasty barren lawn of the hospital complex may as well have been a forest trail, and the daylilies blooming along Canfield were invisible to the nose. One might conclude that the Midtown Loop was designed to be experienced less with the nose than the eyes.

Although it’s no joking matter, this may be the one way Detroit is safer for walking at night. The daytime air pollution from traffic that was so unappealing for Alex Hill during his walk dissipated at night. The relatively clear air after dark is a significant benefit for pedestrians uninterested in basking in noxious fumes and harmful particulates as they stroll along a greenway.

Curb cuts

December 28, 2013

Looking back at 2013’s top news, Motor City Muckraker reminds us of their survey two years after the city’s installation of curb cuts allowing pedestrians with disabilities access to some of the infamous “sidewalks to nowhere” that truncate abruptly in weeds, unkempt trees, garbage, and rubble.

This is especially interesting in retrospect given the ongoing struggle over curb cuts, which included a wheelchair protest last month on the west side, where crucial intersections are lacking any kind of ramp for sidewalk access.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

The curb cuts in question are the result of a 2005 lawsuit against the city by an Ann Arbor lawyer on behalf of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Center for Community Access, the settlement of which stipulated that Detroit revamp its ramps. Detroit installed many curb cuts in the 1980s, before new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements were established in 1991. Specifically, the nubbly “detectable warning” surfaces on modern ramps are made of reddish rubber, while old ones sport concrete nubs or smooth surfaces making wheelchair traction a challenge. Never mind that the rubber ones tend to shear off and can sometimes be found decorating the gutters like cheerful Heidelberg dots.

In his article, Steve Neavling makes no mention of where the tax dollars came from, intimating that Detroiters should take umbrage at this, as if it were exclusively city money that financed these measures of questionable necessity. The headline alone, “Detroit spent $45 million on sidewalk ramps to nowhere while sinking into debt,” implies that Detroit had the option of spending the ADA sidewalk compliance funds on other city services, like streetlights, firefighters, or police, when this was not the case. While revenue from Detroit’s gas tax funded some of the ramps, the federal dollars that covered the rest of the bill were specifically earmarked for this purpose. Whatever the source, noncompliance with the court order is likely to have a higher price tag, both financially and socially.

“The law is clear as a bell that curb ramps have to be installed at every intersection,” attorney Mark Finnegan told the Free Press. This includes the mostly abandoned areas to which Neavling takes exception, failing to note that it’s often these places where higher concentrations of elderly people and people with disabilities live, those who are less upwardly mobile and unlikely find themselves using the ADA-approved ramps downtown. As one commenter put it, “They’re not going to write in the law… ‘Every city must comply, except Detroit, which is a lost cause.'”

The problem with Detroit’s ADA compliance is less that it is doing it citywide, but that it is doing it with no discernible order. Areas that receive a lot of traffic and might be prioritized, like Eastern Market, are still missing appropriate curb cuts in unexpected places. It seems that merely keeping track of which curbs have already been addressed would be a bigger job than it’s worth. The oversight feels spiteful. In explanation, Detroit Department of Public Works director Al Jordan told the Free Press in 2010 that installing curb cuts on main roads where pedestrian crossings are absent might communicate that it’s safe to cross the street at any point where there are ramps, assigning the blame to larger infrastructure issues.

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Neavling, responding to a comment, said that “[s]ome dense neighborhoods received [no curb cuts] while many desolate areas, some with no houses on a block, received installations.” No area is immune to this illogic, however. In some of Detroit’s higher-density, more walkable neighborhoods, curb cuts have been replaced as nonsensically as anywhere else. Creating ramps where there are no sidewalks in populous areas is as wasteful there as it is where sidewalks terminate in wilderness a few paces from the intersection, but hardly makes for a sensational headline.

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A block away from this corner, curb cuts have not been replaced despite being on a reasonably well-trafficked sidewalk running along a main road.

For once, Detroit isn’t alone in its dysfunctionality with regards to this issue. It’s happened everywhere there are attorneys trying to pay back their law school debt and everywhere stimulus plan dollars can stretch, like a small town in Oklahoma, where residents bemoaned a $90,000 sidewalk leading to a ditch that was replaced three times in a five-year period before finally arriving at ADA compliance. At least these curb cuts have only been replaced once that we know of.

And who’s to say that these curb cuts in largely vacant spaces such as the Packard Plant lead to nowhere — maybe the arrival of new neighbors will lead to development in these unlikely areas. This sidewalk will be perfect for Fernando Palazuelo’s morning stroll.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

For a project already of such boggling duration, it seems a darn shame that such muckraking is still needed, and that we will likely be hearing lots more about Detroit’s sidewalk woes in 2014.

Snowy day

December 15, 2013
from The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

from ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats

Saturday’s commute isn’t quite as fantastic as Ezra Jack Keats’ famous treatise on the merits of snow days, but it’s close.

Snow is hitting me in the face. People come bundled in pairs, shuffling along. It’s hard not to think of duos boarding the biblical ark before the flood. In questionable logic, pedestrians take to the streets as cars grapple for traction.

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A pair of pedestrians walking down Woodward.

A pair of medics are out in front of an apartment building, waiting agitatedly. As I hike closer to them, one yells, “Hey, are you the patient?”
“The patient? No,” I holler back, laughing. How, in this moment, hale and red-cheeked, might I look as though I require medical assistance? Maybe these perambulations are an outsider’s preoccupation.
They shrug, frustrated, and climb back in the ambulance. When I catch up with them a minute later, they roll down the window. “How far are you going? Do you need a ride?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say, all instinct, “Just to the library,” abbreviate my course for their benefit. The streets aren’t empty; the buzz is that the library is closing early. Hastening is absurd. There’s still time. The snow slows everybody’s footsteps, covers their tracks.

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Darkness takes longer than usual to show up this evening. When it does, the snows reflects light, giving the sky has that comforting wintery pallor. It brings about memories of being small and warm, someone making hot chocolate with marshmallows, the lofty roof of a blanket fort overhead. Brushing off my coat and hat, I take the long route home, searching for snowmen other than myself. There aren’t any yet. No snow angels either, but residents are out with shovels and brooms in a seemingly futile effort to keep the still-falling snow. Someone walks with a dog up past its elbows in fluff.

Snowfall gauge.

Snowfall gauge?

All in all, it was hardly a snowpocalypse. The National Weather Service claims just six inches of snow in Detroit, but as the blustery flakes fell into windswept dune-like formations, it seemed like more. Of course, winter is yet to come.

Ghosts: remembering

December 9, 2013

Note: This is the second installment in a series about public awareness of pedestrian fatalities in Detroit, once one of the most dangerous cities for walking. Read part one of “Ghosts”. Seriously, we’ll come across something heartwarming soon, even with lower attendance at a very chilly Noel Night, its signature whimsical handheld neon letters clamoring on the DIA steps spelling out “not for sale,” and it won’t be another Heidelberg house catching fire.

The dearth of memorials in Detroit for pedestrians killed by vehicles warrants a look at what other cities are doing with this conundrum. Death in this manner is tragic, and an added offense is the idea that a person will recede from their formerly vibrant life without a public trace. When something of profound collective gravity happens in a certain location, it should not pass unnoticed. As other cities show, history’s natural erasure can be easily shifted.

Although ghost bikes originated in San Francisco, and Los Angeles infamously suffers ill repute as a treacherous and unlikely place for walkers, it’s the half of the country with less clement weather that’s more active in memorializing the dead. The ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, Missouri as a symbolic tribute a year after the San Francisco art project began. New York has a number of activist groups for pedestrian and cyclist safety putting their mark on the territory. Advocacy groups Right of Way, TIME’S UP!, and Citystreets have been doing stencil markers at pedestrian fatality sites since 1996. A more recent development is the Streets Memorials project, which aims to honor each pedestrian with an often personalized plaque.

Right of Way traces the beginning of the stencil project to December 1996 and has memorialized over 270 lives to date, in addition to their analysis of traffic statistics and active organization of demonstrations to keep local roads safer. Citystreets and Right of Way were allegedly once the same entity, but split due to cyclists’ objection to the stencil project as focusing too much on pedestrian issues. Citystreets founder Harris Silver credits his group with the first of such pedestrian stencils after the death of Alice Wang in 1997, months after Right of Way began stencilling. Silver doesn’t describe how he heard of Wang’s death, but says that it touched him — it could have been him, or a friend, anybody. He says he then worked with an advertising art director at a prestigious firm to create the simple outline stencil darkly dubbed “Flatso” now used, it seems, by all three groups. TIME’S UP! shares the same medium with a more vocal and inflammatory stance, declaring that “Cars and trucks not only destroy our environment, but they can destroy each of us instantly!” Each group’s status seems to have fluctuated between periods of dormancy interspersed with their usual activity. The apparent lack of communication means that one group or another is working to establish memorials, but how they avoid overlap is unclear.

The stencils are abstractly human-shaped, and look as though they are dancing in place on the asphalt. According to Right of Way, which offers a fairly comprehensive FAQ on stencilling, they last several months, unless placed in parks, where they vanish overnight. They’re colorful and surprisingly cheerful, the dotted line reminiscent of children’s toys or craft projects, maybe even sprinkles on a cake. While death needn’t be somber (and one suspects many of these cyclists and pedestrians would have chosen against something drab), the memorials lack a sense of finality. Doesn’t it look like she might just be stretching after a nap?

A more recent development in pedestrian memorials in New York are the Street Memorials plaques installed on fences and posts near the scene of a pedestrian’s death. This group, founded about seven years ago by members of TIME’S UP!, Transportation Alternatives, and the anonymous art collective Visual Resistance, seems to benefit from better funding than previous efforts, and credits the ghost bike movement as their inspiration. A member of Visual Resistance said that while installing ghost bikes around the city, they had a “large response from people saying that they wish we could do for pedestrians what we do for cyclists who are killed.” Echoing a sentiment expressed by many others involved in the memorials, she said, “It’s oftentimes the same issues, where pedestrians are killed by cars and the drivers are usually not held responsible,” a polite phrasing of the belief guiding the instructive headline “How to get away with murder” on TIME’S UP!’s site.

This project has significant advantages over the stencils — a more concise deployment, perhaps within greater legal favor than what is tantamount to graffiti. It also looks more dignified, a seemingly undeniable tribute to the pedestrians who died. It’s something enduring that will not be run over thousands of times a day, with the possible irony of being hit again and again by the very car that killed the person.

Photo from Mode Shift

Photo from Mode Shift

Detroit certainly isn’t without memorials. As pictured in a recent article connecting Detroit’s streetlight woes, by now a national joke, to the summer’s high-profile pedestrian deaths on Gratiot, Dreadlock Mike has a memorial wheelchair. The collections of flowers and stuffed animals, crosses and hearts, that spring up worldwide in reaction to personal tragedies from shootings to car crashes are visible here, too. These memorials are potent, curated by family and friends, those who best knew the wishes of the deceased person.

They don’t, however, draw attention to the fact that a person died at a particular place while walking, the most simple, basic human activity that unites just about all of us. They don’t tell the full story. As long as something persists unknown, there is little chance of improvement. As another Visual Resistance member said, “I’d like to see the need for this really dwindle to nothing, but that’s not going to happen until there are changes on the streets.”

Watch for the third post in this series in the coming weeks as we consider these changes and measures we can take in the meantime.

Ghosts

November 19, 2013

You wouldn’t know it, but earlier this month, a pedestrian died crossing Grand River at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Posting in a private facebook group for the neighborhood, a Woodbridge resident said:

“My wife witnessed a pedestrian/vehicle accident at MLK and Grand River tonight (outside of the liquor store on GR). Person was wearing all black and bending over in the middle of GR to pick something up, and got creamed. Not a hit-and-run; the person stayed. Cops came and threw a tarp over the guy so he probably didn’t make it. Please be careful out there.”
November 6 at 8:42pm

Responses were instantaneous and sympathetic, many expressing wishes that the post author’s wife was okay after the the trauma of unexpectedly witnessing the incident. Some focussed on the accident, deeming it “messed up” and “tragic, but not surprising at all.” One person said, “Hopefully there will be lights someday.”

What is disturbing is how anonymously this person vanished — no news report, no memorial, unknown to all except those who were passing by and the select community of people in this facebook group. A person “creamed” and covered by a tarp — this is how it ends?

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Pedestrian fatalities have attracted sporadic media attention, usually used to highlight some more universally lamented city flaw. The hit-and-run crash at Gratiot and Russell this summer resulting in the deaths of the “Eat ’em up, Tigers” guy and his friend Dreadlock Mike, both local celebrities of a sort, were depressingly construed as an opportunity to talk about the shabby state of Detroit’s streetlights. While undeniably streetlights in the city are a problem impacting pedestrian safety, it’s a hot enough topic on its own to attract scorn from the New Yorker without going so far as to invoke the emotional appeal associated with these deaths.

In some ways, the disparity in coverage is unsurprising — most deaths go quietly, unnoticed by the larger public, so why should the passings of pedestrians be any different? The news has an obituaries section for a reason, and certainly there are more dramatic ways to perish than being smushed by a car. The difference may be in that these deaths are in some way public — they occur outdoors, on streets we all use daily. Shouldn’t we know if people are dying by preventable external factors that effect us as well?

Commenting on the original post about the crash, another neighbor said, “Ever since the ghost bike appeared at Temple/Grand River I’ve been extra cautious biking on Grand River.” Ghost bikes have been around for the past decade, perhaps taking inspiration from a San Francisco artist’s work, painting white and chronicling abandoned bikes he saw as ‘skeletal remains.’ Ghost bikes now function as a memorial to a deceased cyclist and as a reminder to drivers to watch out for other road users.

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Since pedestrians don’t have bikes or other implements, what is an appropriate memorial that will similarly serve to caution drivers? Teddy bears and other plush objects clinging to a tree or pole risk perception as public art, an escaped Heidelberg project installation taking up residence. Roadside flowers, candles, crosses, and memorabilia are often seen at the sites of car accidents or shooting deaths. A plastic sign disappears too quickly, cardboard disintegrates.

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As for Grand River and MLK, the last time a pedestrian died there was on a Saturday in May 2012, when an intoxicated elderly man hit a woman with his Mercury Mountaineer on Grand River just north of Ash. It was past midnight. She died. The accident report contains no mention of a tarp. This intersection is hardly the densest location for vehicles crashing into pedestrians, but it is more deadly than the surrounding areas, where crashes resulted in either no or “nonincapacitating” injuries. MLK and Woodward was also the site of two crashes, and Cass and Michigan, a seemingly less complicated intersection, had three nonfatal crashes last year.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a 'single motor vehicle' crash; green 'other / unknown' out of options such as 'head-on,' 'rear-end,' 'sideswipe,' and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a ‘single motor vehicle’ crash; green ‘other / unknown’ out of options such as ‘head-on,’ ‘rear-end,’ ‘sideswipe,’ and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

Detroit saw a total 435 crashes involving pedestrians in 2012, according to data from Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning’s Michigan Traffic Crash Facts, which amazingly has full accident reports for each incident. Thirty-one of these crashes were fatal, and 12 of those, about 38%, were hit-and-run. This is about 62 crashes per 100,000 citizens in Detroit, compared with 18,558 total car crashes of all types, or 2645 crashes per 100,000. A little more likely than being struck by lightning, which victimizes 0.14 of 100,000 people.

As much as we hate to admit it, Detroit is a dangerous city for walking by these metrics, but the good news is that it’s nowhere near as bad as it was. The average pedestrian fatality rate for 2012 in Detroit is 4.42 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 2.33. As of 2010, Detroit’s fatality rate was reported to be 10.31, almost twice that of Chicago, as the Transport Michigan blog pointed out, immortalized in a labyrinthine infographic from GOOD magazine. Still, Detroit has almost twice the national average, making it one of 22 focus cities eligible for grant money “to try out new education and enforcement initiatives.”

Constructive thinking and potential solutions are not hard to come by. One of the five entries into Let’s Save Michigan’s Highways for Habitats contest is a redesign of the Grand River-Trumbull-MLK intersection by Jimmy McBloom, who says he travels through it daily and doesn’t “know a single person who doesn’t think it’s completely ridiculous.” Results of the contest will be announced later this week, although it’s unclear how winning will effect change other than providing the winner with a new bicycle to ride through the same hazardous intersections.

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Check back soon for more on this subject. Meanwhile, on your way over to Norm’s Liquor Express to pick up something to celebrate Detroit’s commendable decrease in pedestrian fatalities, make sure to look both ways before crossing the street(s) of this uncompromising intersection.

SAFEWALK your way around campus

November 6, 2013

Addressing Wayne State after the death last week of a law student whose body was found near the Packard Plant after being transported there from campus, university president M. Roy Wilson said:

Most people feel very safe walking around our campus. However, even if you do not feel threatened, you should still exercise caution, and consider taking advantage of our Safe Walk program, particularly if you are alone after dark. Call 313-577-2222, and officers will either monitor you on camera until you reach your car or your campus destination, or escort you personally.

Who knew? As it turns out, this useful and undoubtedly well-intended program has existed for eight years, the “most underutilized service” offered by the Wayne State police, according to Lieutenant Scott, who monitors crime statistics and sends out the monthly CAMPUSWATCH email.

The program is simple: call the Wayne State police, let them know where you are and where you’re going. Depending on location and availibility, either a cadet will come to escort you on foot, or, if no cadets are available, a uniformed officer in a marked car will come drive very slowly behind you until you arrive safely at your destination. “Official policy is, we’re supposed to watch you walk,” Lieutenant Scott explained, and usually they do. “Unofficial policy is, hop in the car and we’ll take you where you need to go.” With some places on campus “it can take some time, you know, to watch you walk.” That’s why, he said, driving is easier. “It frees us up faster, but it’s basically whatever you want.”

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If nobody knows about the program, who uses it? Since the reminder after the law student’s death last week, pedestrians have requested about seventy SAFEWALKs. To how this compares to averages for the program, Scott responded that they don’t really keep track of numbers for it, or a breakdown of student versus faculty use. “People need us, we’re there for them. That’s what we really care about,” he said candidly. Being there for people is more challenging than it sounds. One of the most frustrating reasons for low awareness is that the police just can’t get the word out. “We used to talk to each incoming freshman class during orientation, but in the past few years they won’t let us. Some upper-level administrator decided that students didn’t have time.” The priorities set for students are questionable if time can’t be made for a quick presentation on campus safety at a university like Wayne State.

Retracing our steps to the means of monitoring pedestrians, the omnipresent cameras mentioned in Wilson’s statement may not be as creepy as they sound. The use of cameras isn’t actually very common, and depends on where you are and where you’re going — and in how much of a hurry you are to get there, another officer added wryly. “In some cases, we can follow with PTZ — pan-tilt-zoom — cameras, but we don’t say we can watch you walk on camera if we can’t see you all the way there, if there is any kind of obstruction.” Due to incomplete visual coverage of campus, most service is rendered in person.

If officers can watch students and faculty walk around campus, can they not also watch those who might be preying on them? Sometimes, but not always, Scott said, sidestepping the matter of the camera feed’s helpfulness in preventing crime or identifying criminals. Whatever their use, the department is vying for more cameras, and perhaps more usefully, more awareness in the university community.

It would be nice to see this program publicized, even just with some information posted on the Wayne State police department site. It would be better yet to have it expanded to something a little less onerous, less stigmatized, less wholly motivated by grim fear. Calling to get a walking buddy on campus is a fine idea, but less so if the buddy pads along behind you on four wheels, weighing a few tons and taking up the entire sidewalk. A volunteer-based campus walking network could help students meet and relate to one another, all while taking a fresh air study break. That, or give criminals an easier way to nab five iPhones at once.

Beauty

March 12, 2013

What makes one thing more beautiful than another? Sometimes beauty can be measured, like the symmetrical arrangement of facial features; other times, it remains wholly elusive. What makes this landscape lovelier than that? What makes one street more appealing than the next? It’s a simple matter to characterize a neighborhood’s well-being by population flow, crime statistics, health trends. As Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans says, “But it’s harder to establish the softer feeling: Is this a place I like? Would I prefer the street on the left to the street on the right? That’s not a metric, but a gut feeling about comparing places.”

This last quandary is what the people at OpenPlans have set out to quantify and solve. For Valentine’s Day, they launched the Beautiful Streets project, which asks visitors to choose the more appealing scene out of the two options presented on the page. The site is populated by images of Philadelphia from Google Street View.

beautifulst

Not everything in Philadelphia is beautiful, and this is what works so well about this project — its unabashed realism, albeit through a fisheye lens. Fortunately, there is a ‘skip’ button for each pair. While sometimes one image seems almost objectively fairer than the other, it is more often than not hard to tell which streetscape would better lend itself to a good stroll. Ask yourself: what are my priorities? Trees, shrubs, sidewalks, density and attractiveness of buildings? What about the instances when these fine things are in competition? It’s challenging, too, to base a judgement solely on the content of the image, without yielding to the enticements of good composition or blue skies, the distortion of lenses and the fleeting smudges of cars. It’s tricky enough deciphering where the sidewalk leads in the umbrage of trees, and whether it would be nice to walk in their shade, or peering past the bridge to see whether the shops are worth visiting without having to assign a superlative to either potentiality.

beautiful2

Whether Beautiful Streets will become the data goldmine the planners intend is a dubious unknown, but meanwhile it’s fun to flip through the images, taking a gander at the views of human nature on display. Read more about Beautiful Streets at the Atlantic, or help make the Beautiful Streets project more meaningful with your input!

The rules

February 23, 2013

Walking into the world surrounding Harper High School in Chicago is entering a whole nother realm. A place it may be best not to walk into at all, actually, at least not without following the rules.

Rule number one, look at a map.
Rule number two, never walk by yourself.
Rule number three, never walk with someone else.

Confused yet? This American Life was too, so it sent three reporters to the school near which twenty-nine student shootings took place last year. Arriving at the school at the beginning of the academic year, they stayed for a full semester, and then they made this radio program. There is so much going on at Harper High School that the show was divided into halves; Part One aired last week, followed by another hour this week.

Rule number four, don’t use the sidewalk.
Every day at dismissal, kids drift out of Harper High School and walk along Wood Street– actually, right down the middle of Wood Street. It’s a strange scene. Cars drive slowly, waiting for students to move out of the way. One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism. The teenagers taking over. One afternoon, a girl named Alex explained, that’s not it at all.
“We feel safer like this. For some reason, we just feel safe like that. we never like to walk past trees and stuff, there’s too much stuff going on.”
“Too much stuff going on” is shorthand here for the shootings, the fights, the craziness. It’s better to walk down the middle of the street, where you can keep a broad view of things, and where you have a few more seconds to run if you need to.

"Too much stuff going on."

“Too much stuff going on.”

Some students in particularly compromising situations receive rides to and from school from administrators, and some choose not to leave the house except to go to school.

Chatting with a student named Deonte, the reporter asked, “Do you ever go out, just around the neighborhood?” Deonte insightfully replied, “Oh, no. No, not at all. And in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that’s when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold of me, because I’ve been in the house for about three years. I’ve been staying in the house a lot.”

What would you do?

Listen to Harper High School, Part One and Part Two and give it some thought.