Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pedestrians struck on sidewalk

According to multiple news reports, two teenage girls walking along the sidewalk on the 2800 block of North Keystone Avenue were struck by a drunk driver Tuesday evening. The girls were severely injured and are currently hospitalized. Initial reports indicate the driver, with prior DUI convictions, who fled the scene but was apprehended shortly thereafter, is suspected of being intoxicated. Obviously, it would appear that the driver is completely responsible for this horrific tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the girls and their families and friends.

However, being familiar with this street, I can't help but wonder whether a different street design could have possibly prevented these girls from being victims of this collision. Anyone who has walked this stretch of Keystone Avenue likely remembers that it is not designed to be safe or inviting for pedestrians. Sidewalks are immediately adjacent to the four-lane street, which does not permit parking on either side of the street. Although this is not an extraordinarily wide street (the lanes appear to be 10-11 feet wide), vehicles seem to typically drive in excess of the posted 35 MPH speed limit, probably because there is little to nothing of interest along or adjacent to the street to provide a natural cue to slow down.

What if the sidewalk was not directly adjacent to the street? What if pedestrians were not required to walk within a couple of feet of speeding vehicles, with nothing but a concrete curb of six inches in height or less? What if the sidewalk was separated from the street by a tree lawn? What if a tree would have been in the path of this driver and either stopped or slowed his vehicle before reaching the sidewalk?

I'm not proclaiming that if the street/sidewalk were designed differently, that this tragedy would have been avoided, but it very well might have. Quite frankly, with the widespread application of this street/sidewalk design throughout Marion County, I'm surprised that we don't hear about more pedestrians being struck. Imagine walking two abreast on a 5-foot wide sidewalk. To prevent constant shoulder/elbow bumping, one person needs to be walking just inches from the curb. One misstep, one dizzy spell, one unexpected crack in the sidewalk, could lead to a pedestrian instantly falling into the path of a moving vehicle with little to no time to react. Of course, the infrequency of such collisions could likely have a significant correlation with the fact that very few people use these sidewalks. Walking along sidewalks such as this one are typically only done by those with no other choice: no car and no other path to get where they need to go.

The solution is simple: build all sidewalks with a buffer from moving traffic. Typically, a landscape strip with trees is ideal, not only to provide a physical separation, but because it makes the street corridor more attractive to pedestrians and drivers alike and raises adjacent property values, along with all the environmental benefits. (Regularly used on-street parking can also provide a safety buffer between pedestrians and moving cars.) The Indianapolis-Marion County codes actually support the idea that sidewalks should be located with a buffer from the street, however, the City continues to build sidewalks similar to the one on Keystone Avenue.

The City is gearing up for a complete reconstruction of West 38th Street, between High School Road and I-65. The project will include construction of new sidewalks on both sides of 38th Street, but they will be immediately adjacent to the curb, forcing pedestrians to walk just a matter of inches from cars regularly traveling at 40-45 MPH, often faster. Although most of this corridor currently lack sidewalks, several portions actually include sidewalks that are buffered from the street, all of which will unfortunately be destroyed, regardless of their current condition, so that sidewalks can be rebuilt uniformly located right next to the street.

Why is the City doing this? I wish I knew. Maybe it's a buck or two cheaper to pour the sidewalk concrete right next to the curb because you only have to frame in on one side, rather than two. Although that would seem like a ridiculous reason to build an unsafe, unattractive, uninviting sidewalk, I can't think of any other reason. It's not for lack of available dedicated public right-of-way. A quick check of the General Data Viewer on the City's website shows that there is plenty of space in which to set the sidewalk back from the roadway. (The City's construction plans show that 38th Street is not being widened beyond its current curblines. It is only being reconstructed.)

So, while continually paying lip service to the idea of creating a more sustainable city conducive to alternate transportation, the City will take yet another step backward by destroying useful sidewalks and wasting money building sidewalks that will only be used as a last resort by the poor and downtrodden, furthering the belief that "Hoosiers love their cars" and they just wouldn't have it any other way.