Monthly Archives: June 2009

Police use car vs. pedestrian crash to counter critics, warn walkers

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I really didn’t want to write about this again, but it looks like the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department is casting a June 19 car vs. pedestrian crash as vindication of its unpopular crackdown on jaywalking, which was launched last month. With a headline that’s unusually snarky for a police department communication, “Still Think We’re Being too Strict?”, the press release reports the injury of a pedestrian who “was not in a crosswalk at the time of the incident” and promises, “once released from the hospital, the pedestrian will be cited for jaywalking.

I have no problem with traffic crashes being used as cautionary tales to educate the public. However, I’ve heard from some folks who think the police are using this as a “gotcha moment” to challenge criticism of the jaywalking crackdown.

And couldn’t this latest car vs. pedestrian crash just as easily be worked the opposite way? Instead of proving the need for a crackdown, couldn’t it just as easily be spun as evidence that the crackdown hasn’t worked? After all, the police department’s well-publicized and enthusiastically executed crackdown on pedestrians didn’t prevent this incident. In fact, the latest crash would seem offer evidence that citing pedestrians for even the slightest infraction does not generally improve public safety (which is the conclusion of every item of research on the topic I’ve been able to find). Does it also explain why law enforcement agencies that undertake similar enforcement campaigns eventually abandon them?

Please understand that I do not wish to vilify the police nor do I disagree with the enforcement of city ordinances. I imagine the police felt compelled to do something after a foreign dignitary was killed in a downtown crosswalk, generating international attention. Unfortunately, the response has burned through police staff hours, pedestrians’ wallets and public goodwill for the department.

Meanwhile, the opposition to the jaywalking crackdown has turned out to be a pretty big tent, attracting not only those who question the effectiveness of the practice and the potential damage done to the city’s reputation as a walkable destination, but also those who have used it as a base from which to attack parking enforcement, which is beneficial to pedestrians (and something we need more of, not less). Others see the crackdown as a conspiracy to boost city government revenues. Some even view it as a test case for advancing libertarian political ideologies.

Now into the fray, I’m afraid, comes a third group comprised of motorists, who think the pedestrian’s sole role is to stay out of the way — even in environments that were designed for pedestrians.  You might call it a “a gradual shifting in the balance of responsibility for safety onto the pedestrian” kicked into overdrive and it’s something Bill Dawers predicted some time ago:

“I fear that this recent high-profile campaign targeting pedestrians only reinforced many drivers’ misplaced sense of entitlement on downtown streets.”

When enforcement efforts are aimed almost exclusively at people on foot, it conveys the idea that pedestrians belong at the bottom of the urban mobility food chain. I detect many people are responding to this as references to “idiot pedestrians” and similarly derogatory terms seem to be on the uptick in both online and in-person conversations locally.

All this has distracted attention from the questions we really ought to be asking as a community: What are the best practice models for reducing injuries and deaths and how can we implement them here? Here’s hoping we can take a deep breath, develop sensible strategies for addressing the problem and support the police and other agencies as they work to make Savannah’s streets safer.

Illustration from “Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street,” by Peter Norton.

Bike and bus beat car in Dump the Pump commuting challenge

We have a winner! Savannah Bicycle Campaign board member Frank McIntosh reached City Hall a couple minutes before Sean Brandon, Savannah’s director of parking and mobility, who traveled via Chatham Area Transit bus. Jordan Griffin of the City’s film and tourism office arrived last by car. McIntosh is an experienced cyclist, having logged tens of thousands of miles on his trusty Novara mountain bike. It is decades old and has even been stolen and recovered at least once. McIntosh proved you don’t need an expensive ride to get to work on time.

At a finish line press conference, Alderman Tony Thomas underscored what many Savannahians already know. “There are other means of getting downtown and around this community than just driving your car,” he said. Brandon linked commuting choices to the city’s future, telling WJCL, “If we are going to continue to grow as a coummunity from here on out, it has to be by other means of transportation.” The complete WJCL piece is here. Mary Landers’ coverage in the Savannah Morning News is here.

Before bike and bus fans become too excited by the victory, a comment posted here reminds us the circumstances of the race were artificial. To be truly representative of real commutes, the time Brandon spent waiting on the bus should have been factored in. Plus, how many downtown workplaces provide showers and locker rooms for commuters who arrive at work via a spirited bike ride on a muggy June morning?

Still, the race helps erode the notion that single occupant motor vehicles are the only real choice for commuting and demonstrates that public transit and bicycle commuting are viable options that could become even more attractive with additional investment. After all, we’ve spent almost a century and mountains of money making car commuting cheaper, faster and easier. It’s long past time to devote similar attention to improving other modes.

Bike, car and bus to square off in June 18 commuting challenge

dump_pump_2009It’s not often that an official communication from the City of Savannah begins by asking readers to predict the outcome of a race. Still, that’s the lede from a June 12 press release:

A bicyclist, a bus rider, and the driver of a car each leave midtown Savannah at the same time headed for City Hall. Who gets there first?

The event, scheduled to coincide with the American Public Transit Association‘s National Dump the Pump day is meant to underscore the transportation options available to Savannahians. The event is sponsored by the City of Savannah, the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, Coastal Commuters, Chatham Area Transit, and the Pedestrian Advocates of the Coastal Empire. Here’s how it will work:

The contestants will leave the Twelve Oaks Shopping Center on Abercorn Street at roughly 8:30 a.m., when the 14 Abercorn bus arrive at the stop located there. The contestants will follow all traffic laws and speed limits, and the bus will run a regular route, picking up and dropping off passengers as normal. The bus riding contestant must get off at a CAT bus stop, the bicyclist must rack his bike at a bike rack, and the driver must park his car in a parking garage. City leaders will award winner the contestant who first walks across the finish line, which will be located on the west side of City Hall, next to the Hyatt.

At first glance, it would appear that the car has the advantage, due to a higher top speed than the bicycle and the the fact that the driver won’t have to stop for passengers along the way. However, parking will be the great equalizer. And that’s an important point: Folks who dismiss bicycle and transit commuting as too time consuming often overlook minutes lost cruising for a parking space. Unfortunately, the solution they often suggest — more and cheaper parking — comes with a host of negative externalities, not the least of which is encouraging people to be even more automobile dependent and further increasing demand for parking. The good news is many cities are beginning to rethink parking policies.

For Savannah Residents, who have never “caught a CAT,” free fares on June 18 provide another reason to take a bus for a spin. More information is available here.

BLUE Ocean Film Festival in full swing

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While movie buzz has surrounded the shooting of Disney picture featuring the star of the Hannah Indiana franchise (Sorry, I’m unfamiliar with her work), another arm of the Disney empire was making news in Savannah, according to the Creative Coast:

Disneynature has acquired the North American and Mexican distribution rights to the exciting new underwater film “OceanWorld 3D,” the first feature-length nature documentary ever filmed and released in 3D, it was announced at the Blue Ocean Film Festival by Jean-Francois Camilleri, executive vice president and general manager for Disneynature, and Francois Mantello, chairman of 3D Entertainment.

The festival’s goal is “to honor, promote and share films that inspire people to protect our oceans and the life within.” A schedule of screenings, which includes films with local focus, can be found on the BLUE Ocean Film Festival Web site. The festival concludes on Sunday.

Rancor over jaywalking fines grows, but key question still unanswered

picture-6Since the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department began issuing stiff fines for jaywalking, there’s been plenty of media coverage and even the formation of a facebook group for people opposed to the fines. And more recently, city officials have signaled they are interested in reducing fines.

Unfortunately, I see a critical question that’s not been answered: Is jaywalking enforcement the best way to reduce pedestrian injuries and deaths?

In yesterday’s Savannah Morning News, Alderman Tony Thomas said while the fines are too high, “We have to change the culture of pedestrians and bike riders. Those safety issues have got to be altered.” Meanwhile, WTOC-TV reports, “Chief Berkow isn’t pulling any punches as he stands by what he calls strictly ‘a safety measure.’”

In reviewing pedestrian safety literature published by state, federal and municipal agencies, many references to enforcement can be found. In the vast majority of reports, studies and guidelines that I’ve seen, motorists are the recommended focus of enforcement efforts. If the goal of the “jaywalking crackdown” is public safety, why are we pursuing a course of action that appears at odds with best practice models? Are we blaming the victim, as Connect Savannah’s Jim Morekis suggests?

Downtown business owner and one of the founders of the facebook group, Ruel Joyner, told WTOC, “It’s not the jaywalking ticket itself. It’s the sentiment under it. That’s not the signal we should be sending when we are the number one walking city in the nation.” And, “We need to be as inviting as we can and look out for the good of downtown.”

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I think Joyner’s on the right track here and I hope he and others can look beyond the current controversy and become true advocates for pedestrian safety. After all, getting more people out of their cars and on their feet in downtown Savannah will lessen demand for parking and ease traffic congestion, two trends downtown merchants would welcome. Plus, walkability is good for business.

I urge Joyner and his colleagues to work with Cheif Berkow and other city officials toward environmental improvements, education campaigns and enforcement actions (so long as they are directed where they can do the most good). Such an effort, if sustained and reasoned, will save his customers from paying high fines and save lives.