With more vehicle deaths than murders, the city tries to change a car-centric culture.
From the July, 2016 issue
In the past five years, three Ann Arborites were murdered. In that same time span, six pedestrians and bicyclists were killed by motor vehicles.
That alone could explain why no one running for city council in August's primary is calling for hiring more cops--but three candidates are making pedestrian and bicycle safety central to their campaigns.
It's part of a burgeoning movement to make streets safer for people walking or cycling. "For me it's absolutely life or death," says Linda Diane Feldt, chair of the city's Pedestrian Safety & Access Task Force. "Over the last ten years, I've lost almost 130 pounds, and I've done it by walking more. It makes a difference in the quality and the longevity of my life."
"It's personal for me," says Chuck Warpehoski, the Fifth Ward council rep who cosponsored the task force's creation. "A couple years back, my wife got hit on the way to work while she was on her bike ... She was on crutches for a little while and couldn't bike or drive."
Ward Five rep Chip Smith says his biggest fear is that his young daughters will be hit by a car. "It's the issue I'm most passionate about," he says. "I walk most places. My kids walk."
The city has already re-striped miles of streets to create bike lanes and marked dozens of crosswalks, many with warning lights and islands to shelter pedestrians mid-street. That includes a formerly unmarked crossing on Plymouth Rd. where two U-M students died one night in 2003 while walking to the Islamic Center.
After those deaths, the city built more crosswalks there with pedestrian-activated warning lights. But even crosswalks can be dangerous if pedestrians trust them too much. In 2012, a woman was killed in a crosswalk on Plymouth when she walked past a car stopped in one lane and another driver mowed her down.
"Public awareness of how to drive when confronted by pedestrians has lagged behind the changes in infrastructure," emails First Ward rep
Sabra Briere. The lesson, she says, is that "better engineering matters a great deal, but better public awareness matters more."
A public awareness campaign got council to pass the state's most ambitious crosswalk law in 2010. The Washtenaw Bicycling & Walking Coalition put together a video of horrifying scenes on city streets, including schoolchildren darting across S. Seventh St. as cars shot through a crosswalk without stopping. A largely unenforced state law already required drivers to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk; council passed a law requiring cars to stop for people even approaching a crosswalk.
When the activist majority that passed that law briefly fell from power in 2012, council opponents dumped that requirement in favor of the state law--encouraging one celebratory driver to shout "that's not a law anymore!" at a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk on Huron. In fact, a mayoral veto had preserved the law, and a nearby police officer pulled over the driver for an educational discussion.
But training drivers to anticipate pedestrians' intent remains a very distant goal. The city has its hands full just trying to get them to stop for people already in crosswalks. The birthplace of the auto industry, Michigan has historically privileged cars over pedestrians.
California passed its crosswalk law in 1951, and by now, generations of Californians have grown up using crosswalks and yielding to them in cars. For Michiganians, though, it's still a very unfamiliar concept. Observer editor John Hilton tells me that at the two crosswalks he uses most often, on Stadium Blvd. and on Beakes St., fewer than one car in ten stops for pedestrians--and even then, more cars speed by in the outer lane until another driver finally stops.
But however reluctantly, Michigan and other states are heading California's way. The Federal Highway Administration launched an initiative to reduce pedestrian deaths in 2004, and Michigan adopted its first Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Action Plan in 2013.
"People all over the country are doing this successfully," says Feldt, "and it's not because they know their laws. It's because they don't feel as entitled as a car. We're changing a culture."
Feldt says the pedestrian safety task force owes its existence to Warpehoski and First Ward rep Sabra Briere.
"We recommended using $75,000 [left from an earlier project to fill sidewalk gaps] for an expanded project that looked at crosswalks, lighting, sidewalk widths--everything up to and including sidewalk gaps," Briere recalls. "This was in 2013. I worked with staff to draft the resolution, and Chuck and I took it to council, and council approved the funding."
After meeting for a year and a half, the task force presented its final report to council last September. It also invited the winners of August's council primaries who wouldn't be formally elected till November. Chip Smith was one--and Feldt remembers that he was "totally with us."
Indeed he is: pedestrian safety was the core issue of his campaign last summer. "The recommendations that came out of [the task force] were as good as any citizen body that I've ever seen," says Smith, a full-time urban planner. "You've got to give the chair a lot of credit. They built a consensus and came up with very actionable items."
"There was some great stuff in there," says Warpehoski. "They talked about the three Es: engineering, education, and enforcement.
"I've been biased towards engineering. We need to design our roads and crosswalks with safety in mind. I've seen the benefit of this on Plymouth. I've driven down that road on a foggy morning, and the only way I could see that someone wanted to cross was because of the beacons."
Even frequent city hall critic Kathy Griswold was impressed. Though the former schools trustee has worked on many other issues, Griswold is most ardent about pedestrian safety. "I've seen a number of accidents," she explains. "When I was growing up, there was a little boy who got hit by a car, and he was in a body cast for six months."
The task force set an ambitious goal: zero pedestrian and bicycle fatalities by the year 2025. Its recommendations include building more crosswalks, giving more tickets to drivers who ignore them, and lowering speed limits.
To Smith, achieving those goals "comes down to funding. And the fact is that not only Ann Arbor but Michigan has set up funding for transportation so that it's cars and roads versus everything else. We need to change that thinking."
"You cannot improve pedestrian safety without money," Griswold agrees. "All I'm going to focus on is funding."
As Warpehoski points out, money has already been spent on pedestrian safety; "We recently hired three new cops, and one was directed to traffic enforcement." Smith adds that "we voted to change the budget [to pay] for crosswalk improvements at Huron High School." The city spent $117,000 on a crosswalk and warning beacon on Huron Pkwy., and is scheduled to install a similar one near Pioneer before school starts this fall.
Crosswalks help, of course, only when pedestrians use them and cars respect them. Hilton says that even on W. Stadium near the Observer's office, where there's now a light or crosswalk within a block of any destination, he sees as many people jaywalking as using the crosswalks--workers from the oil-change shop trotting across to Burger King for lunch, families making a beeline for McDonald's at night.
Smith vehemently objects to the suggestion that pedestrians' penchant for following the shortest possible path might limit the city's ability to protect them. "The jaywalking argument has been put forth before by those who oppose our crosswalk law and I find it both offensive and disingenuous," he emails. "Offensive because it's victim blaming. Disingenuous because all drivers are trained to 'expect the unexpected' and to be able to operate the motor vehicle even when confronted with unexpected situations."
Prosecutors agree: all four drivers in the pedestrian deaths were charged with vehicular homicide, as was one who killed a bicyclist. (No charges were filed in the other bicycle death, because the rider was considered at fault.)
Smith acknowledges that the city could do better on the engineering side. "We have different styles of crosswalks for different places, and it's seemingly very haphazard. We need to spend some time coming up with standards." But he returns to what he sees as the central issue: "We need to condition all drivers to stop for pedestrians. We're not there yet--not even close."
"We need to educate pedestrians and cite the cars," agrees Feldt. "Seventy thousand people a day come into Ann Arbor who do not live here. That's why education [alone] is not going to work. Ann Arbor can get a reputation: not only do we have this crazy crosswalk law which empowers pedestrians, but we're enforcing it."
When it's pointed out that in practice the city's law is nearly identical to the state's--our crosswalk signs differ only in citing "local" instead of "state" law--Feldt modifies her statement in a follow-up email: "It is not crazy, it is profoundly reasonable actually. And is not in any way unique to Ann Arbor. I traveled the west coast last year, and was again reminded how natural it is for pedestrians to be immediately given the right of way."
Feldt is optimistic that the city will continue to promote non-motorized mobility. "This is the best council, the best opportunity, we have had for years, if not decades, and we need to take advantage of it."
Pedestrian safety is already an issue in the August Fifth Ward council primary, where Warpehoski faces challenger Kevin Leeser--but not because either wants to re-empower cars. "We both care about pedestrian and bicycle safety," says Warpehoski. "We're both parents of young kids. We both use bicycles to get us and our kids around. Where we're trying to get we agree. How we get there we disagree." Warpehoski supports the upcoming street and sidewalk millage renewal, saying it would give the city more flexibility to work on streets and sidewalks as parts of a single transportation system, including crosswalks and bike lanes. Leeser opposes the renewal, saying "I don't think they're spending [the existing millage] wisely."
But Leeser is the only candidate to come out against the renewal, which would extend the existing 2.125 mill tax for five years and provide $11 million annually for street and sidewalk work. In the Fourth Ward, all three candidates--incumbent Graydon Krapohl and challengers Diane Giannola and Eric Lipson--say they'll vote for the renewal.
"I've been jumping up and down about pedestrian and bicycle safety at city council meetings and board of education meetings," Lipson says.
"I can't imagine [the millage] wouldn't pass," Smith says. "People here understand that stuff costs money, especially stuff that they want."
"The most common response to requests for pedestrian improvements is the money isn't there," he emails. "Spending just on potholes and for car and truck transport is frankly archaic."
The task force's recommendation to lower speed limits throughout the city would be a more drastic change. "We're looking at twenty-five in a residential neighborhood, and thirty to thirty-five in corridors," says Feldt. "We know we can't touch state owned property [like Huron]."
"It would be reasonable to reduce the speeds," says Briere. "It would be more reasonable to redesign the streets. It's more effective. Narrower streets and wider sidewalks slow traffic down."
Warpehoski agrees. "Slower traffic is safer traffic. But data shows that just changing the number on a sign doesn't slow down traffic."
"I am always in favor [of lowering speed limits]," says Smith. "But you have to talk about the practicality of enforcement. Unless we have someone on Seventh twenty-four hours a day, we can put up a sign that says five miles per hour, but that road is designed for cars to go forty miles an hour. We'll do it through reconstruction. It'll take decades to do it citywide, but if the community wants it to happen faster, we're going to have to figure out how to pay for it."
Six deaths in five years may provoke the community to find a way. For many younger residents, nonmotorized safety is as big an issue as crime was a few decades ago.
"If people are my generation and older, they're thinking [about safety in terms] of police and firefighters," says Briere. "If they're my son's generation and younger, they're thinking about individual safety for them on a bike. They're thinking about enforcement of traffic rules."
"When I talk to people in the community, the big thing that I've heard as far as public safety goes isn't that 'We're afraid of crime,'" says Smith. "It's 'We want people to not speed through our neighborhoods.'"
Online Extra: Ways to Die in Ann Arbor
In the last five years, four pedestrians were killed by cars. A seventy-year-old Ann Arbor woman was killed crossing Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. north of Eisenhower Pkwy. on November 9, 2012. U-M student Sharita Williams was killed crossing Plymouth near Traverwood on August 7, 2013. U-M employee Nancy Sanders was killed while crossing Zina Pitcher at Ann on June 19, 2014. And on September 26, 2014, five-year-old Anna Schwalb was killed while crossing Geddes near Onondaga while leaving a Rosh Hashanah celebration with her parents and two siblings. All four drivers were charged with negligent homicide.
Two bicyclists were killed by cars in the same period. A twenty-five-year-old Ypsilanti Township man killed twenty-six-year-old Michael Curley in a hit-and-run crash on Washtenaw near Brockman on October 28, 2015, and Jeffrey Jurek, fifty-four, was killed by a vehicle driven by a twenty-year-old Ann Arbor woman on Dexter near Wildwood on November 30. The latter driver was not charged because deputy chief assistant prosecutor Steve Hiller said, "the bicyclist had turned last minute into the car's path and the driver was simply unable to avoid contact."
There were three murders in the last five years. Susan Wade stabbed her adoptive father Ronald Wade to death on Covington on June 9, 2012. The following year, Dajeon Franklin shot U-M student Paul DeWolf on July 23. Along with codefendant Joei Jordan, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, while codefendant Shaquille Jones was sentenced to twenty-five to fifty years. Then on November 23, Richard Thompson strangled seventy-one-year-old David Maurer in his Lurie Terrace apartment while Rikky Ranger and Mark Paling ransacked Maurer's apartment. Thompson was sentenced to thirty-two to fifty-five years in prison while Paling got twenty-two-and-a-half to forty years. Ranger was declared incompetent to stand trial and set free.
Though it's not what's most people think of as murder, the city's homicide count also includes a fourth death: U-M music student Bruce Kitterer's fatal heroin overdose on May 26, 2014. Brandon Philips who supplied the drug, was sentenced to five to twenty years.
There were no murders 2015, and no murders or deaths by cars so far in 2016.
This article has been edited since it was published in the July 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Kevin Leeser's last name has been corrected.
Calls and Letters, August 2016
To the Observer:
Thank you for the First Steps article on pedestrian safety [July]. The title captures the excellent community engagement process. However, we have had many Missteps as well. This is evident in the inconsistent, and in some cases illegal, crosswalk signage and poor visibility at crosswalks due to inadequate illumination, overgrown vegetation, on-street parking, utility boxes, etc.
The few misstatements in the article highlighted the complexity of the field of transportation safety. Examples are:
Michigan does not have a state crosswalk law, but Rep. Adam Zemke continues to work on one. Presently, local municipalities have the option to adopt the Michigan Uniform Traffic Code developed by the state police. More information on this and links to referenced laws and codes at KathyGriswold.com.
California's law is: The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection ... Based on my trips to California in recent years, drivers are not stopping for pedestrians at the curb, except in resort communities.
Councilmember Warpehoski referenced the three E's system: Engineering, Education and Enforcement. It is actually the five E's. Encouragement and Evaluation are equally important.
Given the complexities of transportation safety, it is best left to the experts who follow federal and state codes and the recommendations of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. For example, following NACTO, the planned Pioneer High School crosswalk, across 5 lanes of Stadium Boulevard, would be built with a refuge island, something the city staff rejected.
The most recent budget did not address the needed infrastructure. One attempt by councilmembers Kailasapathy, Lumm and Eaton to secure an additional $320,000 for the City to use for pedestrian safety and crosswalk enhancements was voted down by the mayor and the majority of councilmembers. This would have required the DDA to cover an additional $320,000 for the streetlight replacements in Kerrytown. (A reasonable request given that the DDA's TIF revenue has increased from $3.7 million in FY'13 to a capped $6.3 million in FY'17. Also, the DDA has plans for over $6 million in streetscape projects in the near future.)
In closing, we must move to the Next Step and demand adequate funding to implement the infrastructure recommendations of the Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force. We deserve safe, consistent, best-practice crosswalks throughout our city.
[Originally published in July, 2016.]
On July 29, 2016, Kevin Leeser wrote:
Jim L not only spelled my name wrong (no big deal, everyone does it), but he takes my words out of context. I am not in favor of continuing to repave all of these sidewalks all over town that have ZERO flaws in them. I have photos of construction debris being placed in repair areas prior to cement being poured, in too thin of depth to last more than 3 or 4 years. Cracks are occurring within the same year on many of these shoddy patch jobs. We need to redesign our sidewalks, using permeable aggregate, water runoff areas, and other storm sewer relief concepts. So yes, I don't believe that we should be throwing more tax money toward paving projects until we integrate actual protected bike lanes into the equation (which this millage will not address). Thank you
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