Right of Way
Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America
Island Press, August 2020, 227 pages
By Angie Schmitt
Book Review by Lee Batdorff
Horror begins Angie Schmitt’s Right of Way. Eleven pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles during a seven-day-period in Phoenix Arizona. Late Ignacio Duarte-Rodriguez, 77-years-old, was killed by a hit-and-run driver, one of three people dying in recent years trying to cross a particular stretch of a six lane road.
Horror grows: Rodriguez’s son, Felipe Duarte, pleaded with the city to have a designated crosswalk installed in the middle of a ten city-block-long stretch with no indicated crosswalk where his father was killed. Mr. Duarte had hope to stop the carnage here. The city had done nothing about this in over two years since.
In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians were killed across the U.S.—53 percent more that were killed in 2009, writes Schmitt, a journalist who until recently worked for Streetblog.
Pedestrian traffic deaths receive halting consideration from U.S. leaders. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic when, according to Schmitt: “…many right-wing figures, including President Trump, used traffic deaths—some 37,000 annually (U.S.)—to make the case that some amount of loss of life is an acceptable price to pay for a strong economy.”
And, unfortunately, the U.S. news media is often ignorant and negligence in reporting about pedestrian deaths.
As with Covid-19, pedestrian traffic deaths are disproportionately among “poor, black and brown, elderly, disabled, low-income…marginalized people with fewer political resources to demand reforms.”
As a bicyclist for many decades in the U.S., I too share Schmitt’s view that many automobile drivers here, “view pedestrians, (and bicyclists), as an annoyance or irritation, a potential obstacle on their journey.”
Schmitt competently sorts through this dilemma—though, lying in wait for anyone trying to solve this is: Flawed public policy; State constitutions not allowing gasoline tax money to be used for non-motor vehicle uses; Increasing volumes of big SUVs—ever more dangerous to pedestrians; Demographic change has put more pedestrians out into auto-oriented suburbia; and a host of other pedestrian-killing realities; nested with indifferent or hostile bureaucratic and political inclinations toward pedestrian safety that inflicts the U.S. today.
Schmitt’s initial suggestion of an overall solution, provided on page five, is: “Understanding the systemic causes is the first step to saving lives. Given the right level of public commitment and resources, pedestrian deaths are preventable.”
While a large and growing amount of America’s pedestrian carnage is in the south and south west, the horror occurs where ever thoughtless infrastructure has been installed—in many places in the U.S.
“Pedestrian deaths, in other words, are a design problem. Certain streets are designed to kill,” writes Schmitt.
Schmitt enumerates concentrated places of pedestrian death across the U.S. Accounts from bereaved family members—often who are now pedestrian safety activists—and words from municipal and academic authorities, all provide hope for change that Schmitt builds upon.
Potential solutions are never far away in this book. New York City authorities overhauled Queens Boulevard, (known by locals as the “Boulevard of Death”), in 2014, after 189 people, mostly pedestrians, were killed in the previous 24 years. The redesign, “was cheap,” $4 million. There were no traffic fatalities on that road for three years after the redesign.
Unfortunately, the forces against bettering the lot of pedestrians have much power. A city councilman-led campaign claiming that extreme slowing of traffic would be drivers’ plight if a pedestrian-accommodating proposal was instituted. This was broadcasted to his 19,000 member social media list in Phoenix Ariz. After which, almost to the last member, the appointed volunteers seated on the Phoenix Complete Streets Advisory Board resigned en masse. They said they were “maligned by developer lobbyists, disrespected by City staff…”
Schmitt provides repeated accounts of excruciating journeys to find solutions that finally pop up as an improvement. Her research is extensive—the components of this story are from many knowledgeable sources across the U.S. In a way, this book is a knock-off of Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ the 1835 sociological-political-geography study by a French writer observing the new United States of America.
‘Justice for American Pedestrians’ could be the title of this book! Current errant norms across America today can be changed—which Schmitt shows through accounts of a variety of Americans taking hold of and bringing positive change.
And, there is hope for the U.S. news media—as Schmitt bobs the reader back to surface once again. The advocacy treatment of a an especially horrific pedestrian death in East Cleveland Ohio by Fox News 8 provides an outstanding example of how news media can shine.
It stirred Ohio Republican governor Mike DeWine to take a direct role. (He travelled over 200 miles round trip to visit the site of this traffic death, in a ‘ghetto’ suburb, and commiserated with the family who’s loved one was killed).
Pressured by the broader news media attention that followed, soon the Ohio Department of Transportation installed a crosswalk light, which ODOT had negligently removed without replacement some months before.
Schmitt repeatedly operates a narrative that first drops readers into horror, then uplifts readers into humanoid success at improving public health.
Schmitt’s ever wiggling back and forth from horror to solution from horror, reminds me of the minister of a church I attended in my early teens.
In the early 1960s, with my late biological mother Virginia, attended the Sunday adult services at a protestant Christian denomination in Akron O.
Kindly, Mom allowed me to avoid ‘Sunday School,’ which I despised. With her, I sat with the adults. The minister’s preaching style took the congregation down into Hell, then, at just the right moment, brought congregants back up into redemption. To get you out of Hell, you need to be saved. To become a member of the church it was required to be saved twice.
If you have a smidgen of feeling for humankind, Angie Schmitt, in Right of Way, is more or less, like this minister. She joggles the reader loose through a hell-to-redemption roller coaster. As for saving one’s soul a second time, working as an activist to change this, one way or another, may redeem you.
Lee Batdorff has been a pedestrian and bicycle advocate in Cleveland Ohio for many years.