Hoping our next president goes by the book

death-and-life-of-cities.jpg In the Internet circles I frequent there is a great deal of concern about what how President-elect Barack Obama is planning to spend that stimulus money. Will the transportation infrastructure come in the form of projects that will help us lessen our dependence on oil, improve public health, rebuild shattered communities, combat climate change, restore a sense of place, and better equip us to live prosperous, comfortable and meaningful lives in a future of increasingly scarce energy and resources? Or will we get more of the inefficient, neighborhood-destroying, sprawl-producing type of infrastructure that mandates automobile use for all trips and spawns a quantity and variety of negative outcomes that surpass our ability to fully catalog them?

This morning in his City Talk column, Bill Dawers joined others who have found hope in the president-elect’s familiarity with Jane Jacobs’ book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Did Mr. Obama highlight the same passage in his copy that I did in mine?

“Erosion of cities by automobiles entails so familiar a series of events that these hardly need describing. The erosion proceeds as a kind of nibbling … Because of vehicular congestion, a street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one-way flow, staggered-signal systems are installed for faster movement, a bridge is double-decked… an expressway is cut through yonder, and finally whole webs of expressways. More and more land goes into parking, to accommodate the ever increasing numbers of vehicles while they are idle…”

I thought of this quote today as I took care of my lunchtime errands on foot. I walked about two and a half miles and was dismayed by the number of times I had to walk around idle cars parked on or blocking sidewalks. And this in one of the most walkable cities in North America.

That, in turn, got me thinking about something that’s been bothering me for days. A recent Savannah Morning News story described Chatham County’s first pedestrian fatality of 2009, which motivated my fellow citizens to add despicable comments. Here’s an example:

“If stupid people would stay out of the road, this wouldn’t happen. Now the driver of that van is going to probably need therapy, go through needless hassles with his insurance company, and have the mark of ‘killing someone with his car’ on him, and he didn’t do anything wrong. All because some guy is too retarded to stay out of the road.”

Admittedly, this fatality happened on an Interstate, albeit one that skirts an urban area. Few of us would choose to walk in this environment. But in some situations (if your car breaks down and your cell phone battery is dead, for example) you may find yourself with no choice. And to be honest, this type of blame the victim mentality is regularly applied to pedestrian deaths no matter the location or circumstance.

I get the message: Stay out of the road, but don’t expect us to stay off the sidewalks. The driver is always right.

Bummed? Yes, I was. But then I read this quote from Bike Portland via the Streetsblog Network and was heartened:

“All traffic fatalities are a symptom of the same disease. It’s equally sad and tragic if a person is killed while walking, biking, or driving. It also appears that the conditions that make it safer for the most vulnerable make it safer for everyone. As roads become safe enough that a child can safety walk or bike to their friend’s house, the roads also become safer for driving to that friend’s house when you have to.”

Will our next president’s transportation projects reward the kind of mindset that finds it appropriate to heap insults and blame on dead pedestrians? Or will he choose a path that protects and benefits those who walk, those who bicycle, those who ride transit and those who drive? A chorus of voices, some of them drawing inspiration from Jacobs, are urging Mr. Obama to do the right thing. I hope he hears them and acts accordingly.

One thought on “Hoping our next president goes by the book

  1. Karen Grainey

    It’s time to start doing more than just hope that our new President and Congress will do the right thing. They need to hear from people who want to see a transformation of the American infrastructure away from the car-centered and dangerous environment we’ve been building for the past fifty years into one that is safe for people.

    Just this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition I heard some pretty conventional and disheartening comments concerning Obama’s economic stimulus package from Democratic Congressman David Obey who serves as the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. After stressing the importance of funding infrastructure projects which are “ready to go” he was asked if those projects would be the “least likely to be the innovative projects that could transform America into a functioning 21st Century economic engine.” His response: “We have an emergency on our hands. We don’t have the luxury of deciding whether we are going to use some old reliable hose or find some shiny brand-new one in the hardware store.”

    Sounds like there will be no strings attached to the stimulus funds which will be allocated to states with encouragement to spend quickly on the projects they are ready to go. This means more of the same-old, same-old.

    Link to interview.

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