Tragedy on Fuller Rd.
The death of Justin Tang and the future of pedestrian safety
From the December, 2016 issue
Qi-Xuan "Justin" Tang was crossing Fuller Rd. by Huron High School in the predawn darkness October 25 when he was struck by a car and killed. The Community High junior was going to catch a shuttle bus to his school downtown.
"Justin used a crosswalk that leads from the Gallup Park entrance," explains Jane Lumm, the Second Ward councilmember who lives near the Tang family in Ann Arbor Hills. "Like so many kids on the south side of the river he walks across railroad tracks to that crosswalk. For a lot of kids that's how they get to school."
"We'd been aware of traffic issues around Huron for years," says retiring school board member Andy Thomas. "The most concerning was the [crosswalk] on Huron Pkwy. where there was a significant injury from an accident several years ago. We were trying to get the city to do something for three years, and over the summer they finally did.
"For this to happen was a terrible shock. We had known this crosswalk was a problem, and you have this sinking feeling that this could have been prevented."
That's how Kathy Griswold sees it. "I'm very angry," says the longtime pedestrian safety activist. "And these people are angrier then I am."
"These people" are A2 Safe Transport, a parents' group advocating for pedestrian and bike safety. It was organized "the day Justin Tang was killed," says Stephani Preston, the group's spokesperson. "It was a preventable death. We have around fifty members now. People have had enough."
There had been some improvements before the tragedy. "The crosswalk was striped with standard markings [and] new reflective pedestrian crossing signs [were installed] this past spring," emails city administrator Howard Lazarus. Since Tang's death, "the city has placed electronic message boards along Fuller Road alerting motorists to the crosswalk and assigned a police officer to assist in pedestrian and bicycle crossing and monitor speeds on a temporary basis." He adds that the city is currently finalizing design guidelines for
crosswalk signage. Once they're done, "the city will schedule and install the new signs and markings [and] work with DTE to install improved street lighting."
Not soon enough, says Lumm. "We have to do something immediately, and I regret we didn't do it sooner." She drafted a resolution prioritizing installing streetlights at the Fuller crosswalk and evaluating other school crosswalks. It passed unanimously.
"The tragedy is that we're being reactive to everything," says Fifth Ward rep Chip Smith. "It's such a terrible thing and so heartbreaking and so preventable. This shows the failure of the infrastructure, and the failure of environment we created. We designed roads so forty miles per hour is an acceptable standard. It's not acceptable."
Linda Diane Feldt, head of the city's pedestrian safety task force, agrees. "We wanted twenty-five miles per hour at least at schools if not everywhere. And not forty miles per hour next to a school! If you get hit at forty you're dead. People survive at twenty-five."
No one in the schools' administration wanted to be interviewed. Thomas says they're feeling "a combination of shock and anger. It's been a tough fall for the schools. We've had three student deaths and all on Tuesdays: an apparent suicide [a Huron student killed in a fall from a parking structure], the shooting death [of a Pioneer student at the Pinelake Village Cooperative], and then for this to happen right outside our school!" Yet another death followed in November, when a Huron student accidentally fell from a U-M parking structure--also on a Tuesday.
Justin Tang was the seventh pedestrian a car struck and killed in Ann Arbor in the last five years. What can be done?
Administrator Lazarus emails the city's answer. "Consistent with state statutes, the City can install markings, signs, signals and lighting; adjust speed limits; and install traffic calming measures as appropriate and allowed."
The city has installed many new crosswalks in the past few years. But in Smith's view "previous councils didn't put enough money into the street lighting" that would allow drivers to see pedestrians using them. Why? "Shit costs money. We have so many competing interests, and we've lost millions in state revenue sharing. And what should we spend the money we do have on: more police for traffic enforcement or more street lighting?"
"It hasn't been a council priority until recently," agrees Chuck Warpehoski, also from the Fifth Ward and another supporter of pedestrian and bike safety. "We put money in the budget, but many [approved projects] haven't happened yet."
Retiring First Ward rep Sabra Briere says "it's easy to blame people when things go wrong, but people don't see an issue is serious until everyone is aware. As a community we've been resistant to more crosswalks because raising the priority of pedestrian safety means slowing or stopping traffic. That's a hard sell, and it takes time.
"And we've achieved so much," she continues. "Just the week before [Tang's death], we had approved the funding to install more street lighting on Nixon and Dhu Varren and, if money was left over, at this crosswalk. That was a triumph, and even at the last session some members of council weren't willing to spend more money."
Briere has long pushed for pedestrian safety spending but says, "Only in recent years, with new councilmembers, have I found support for my position." Instead, she says, "the focus has been 'fix the damn potholes.' Every time people like me talk about pedestrian or bike rider safety, the response from some of our colleagues is, 'Don't slow down the cars!'"
Incredibly, Briere says, the city had a moratorium on new street lighting for ten years--because it slipped everyone's mind. "During a budget discussion a decade ago, councilmembers were peeved [over] the long-range contract with DTE," she remembers, "and council said, 'Let's have a moratorium on street lights.' It didn't take action next year, and by the next year it fell out of everybody's memory. Then in 2014, [former councilmember] Steve Kunselman made a resolution to lift the moratorium, and it passed unanimously."
Warpehoski says council lifted the moratorium "because of Kathy Griswold bringing it up to us repeatedly and getting a bigger budget" as the economy recovered.
Griswold, a former school board member, is all but unrelenting in her criticism of council. "Jane Lumm's resolution addresses one crosswalk, and I commend her for it," she says. "But we're never going to have safe crosswalks if we just react. We have to identify all our crosswalks, and we have to do it immediately, because right now many of our crosswalks don't meet minimum standards--and no one gives a shit."
"Council should suspend deer cull for a year and put money into crosswalks," suggests former Second Ward councilmember (and cull opponent) Sally Petersen. Chip Smith, another opponent, seconds that: "If we cancel the deer cull, we'd save $250,000 [over four years], and I'm for that."
"It's not a relevant argument," Briere retorts. "Putting in the infrastructure for street lighting and setting the priorities for that takes a significant amount of time. The deer cull is cheap. It is about forty to fifty thousand [a year]. There is no street lighting project we could install in the next year that would be that inexpensive."
"I wouldn't cancel the cull," Warpehoski says. "Besides, we are spending twice as much money on nonlethal methods [this year] than to do the actual cull."
Briere, who will leave council this month, is pinning her hopes on the new city administrator. "I'm really grateful for Howard Lazarus. He's the first city administrator to realize pedestrian and bike infrastructure is doable and affordable."
"Lazarus has a better understanding of the issue [because he] comes with professional engineer experience," says Warpehoski. "He has the perspective of 'yes, we can do it.'"
State law allows cities to set 25-mph speed limits near schools when students are coming and going. But while the city knew the law stipulates a school zone can be implemented only "at the request of the school superintendent," the schools didn't--until representatives of the city and the schools met two weeks after Tang's death.
In an email after the meeting, Andy Thomas noted that last January he suggested to city officials that a school zone was needed near Huron. No formal letter was sent, however, because no one told him that one was needed--a failure to communicate that "perpetuated unsafe conditions around our schools." After the meeting, he adds, "I think we are well on our way to overcoming some of these communication gaps."
Community High parent Colleen Seifert has another suggestion: move the schools' start times back. "I'm really distraught about this. We could have made sure no student was commuting at 7:20 in the morning."
One of three leaders of the local chapter of the national group Start School Later, Seifert says they've already got 700 signatures on a petition to make the change. "Andy Thomas said they've been looking at it, but I don't think he has a good grasp of it."
"The Board is very much aware of the mounting evidence that a later start time would be beneficial to adolescents," Thomas responds in another email. "We are actively considering a change in start time for our high and middle schools.
"Not all students and parents are supportive of such a change, due to the potential effect on after-school activities," he adds. "Many members of our community consider such activities to be an essential part of the educational experience. We have asked our administrative team to examine how a later start time might be implemented, what the cost implications might be, and how this would affect after-school activities. We anticipate that we will receive their full report, along with recommendations, sometime this winter."
Ann Arbor's high schools start at 7:45, followed over the next hour by middle and elementary schools. In a phone interview, Thomas explains that "the reason we have the staggered start times is so that the drivers can finish the rounds [delivering one age group], then start another." Moving the high school start time back would require "twice as many buses and twice as many drivers. The big challenge now on transportation is that we can't get enough bus drivers."
Seifert offers three alternatives: "move the whole schedule back, or flip the schedule, or have mixed-ages buses."
"The schools bear a responsibility," Chip Smith says. "Busing has gone away for a lot of people, and more people are walking to school."
Thomas explains how that happened. "It goes back to 2011, the second year of severe [state] funding cuts, and we were looking to cut costs. So we increased the walk zone. Previously, if you're within a mile you won't get bus service. We increased it to one and a half miles. That affected a fair number of students, but the unintended consequence was not to increase the number of walkers but to increase the number of students being driven to schools by their parents"--adding to the traffic congestion that endangers walkers.
Thomas says the city has the ultimate responsibility for the safety of its streets.
"They need to make pedestrian safety their top priority and not get hung up on 'it's going to cost money to put up lights, it's going to slow down traffic.' I don't think it's lack of good intention on the city's part. But the crosswalk on Huron Pkwy. [took] three years, and it took five years for the crosswalk on Washtenaw leading to Tappan. We worked with the city on improvements on Stadium by Pioneer, and the city couldn't afford to do the project this year, so it was put on hold.
"Ann Arbor is not a pedestrian-friendly city, particularly around our schools," Thomas concludes. "People don't understand pedestrian crosswalks. You can't depend on voluntary compliance."
Stephani Preston couldn't agree more. "In the past 25 years I have lived in Atlanta, three cities in California, two locations in Iowa City, IA and two homes in Ann Arbor," she emails. "I always walked and biked to work and school and for recreation in all of those places."
But when she tried to commute by bike after moving to Ann Arbor in 2005, she had to give it up after three months "because it was just too unsafe. There is no awareness of pedestrians and bikes in A2, combined with poor lighting and crosswalks that no one stops at ... I specifically moved to A2 because it seemed like a town with a high quality of life where I could enjoy a healthy, active life. That has not been a reality and it is getting worse every year as the traffic increases, the number of commuters increase, the speeds increase, and the infrastructure degrades from an already poor condition."
A2 Safe Transport, she says, is "going to make sure the city knows that it is a priority, and that pedestrian safety should be the number one budget priority. The mayor ran on a platform of a livable, walkable downtown, and now he has the chance to put the money where his mouth is. If he won't do that, we'll find someone who will."
This article has been edited since it was published in the December 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. The school of the student who died in an apparent suicide has been corrected.
[Originally published in December, 2016.]
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