21.11.16

Safe Streets Still a Social Justice Issue in Saint Paul

Lost in the election noise was the death of Ker Par. Three weeks ago, Par was killed by a car driver who didn't see him. Par,  a 78-year-old man, was trying to walk across Arlington Street in Saint Paul's North End, my old neighborhood, and once again, the details are horrible. The Pioneer Press has a heartbreaking story on the incident:
Soon after Ker Par moved to St. Paul, he told his family about a dream he’d had. In it, an old man came to him and said he would have the opportunity to live in America for only two years, his grandson recalled Thursday.
Ker Par was one of Saint Paul's Karen refugees, the most recent group of people fleeing violence and persecution to seek refuge in Saint Paul. The driver of the car that killed him was named Choua Tong Yang, a Hmong-American and part of an earlier wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. Here's their description of the incident:
“I was driving along, I got close to the high school (Washington Technology Magnet), and then all of a sudden we heard a noise and realized we hit someone,” said Choua Tong Yang, 68, of St. Paul. “… I’m thinking he didn’t see me, and I didn’t see him.”

Yang doesn’t know why the crash happened. He says he was traveling 25 to 30 mph, has good vision and wasn’t distracted, adding that his cellphone was not with him at the time.

“I just feel bad that, all of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, this happened to this gentleman,” said Yang, who also lives near the crash site.

It was a tragedy all around.

[Police responding to Par's death.]
But while the Pioneer Press, quoting the Saint Paul Police spokesman, mentions that there were no streetlights at the corner -- a weird detail considering the crash occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon -- for some reason the issue of street design does not come up.

The oversight points to the vacuum at the center of our public conversations around our streets. And there's a lot we could be thinking about. For one thing, Arlington, like many of the arterial streets in Saint Paul's working class, immigrant rich neighborhoods, is too wide. (Why?) Another factor: the corner where this happened has a very generous turning radius, unnecessary and dangerous on a streetcorner directly next to a high school. This corner, which is a magnet for pedestrians young and old, is absolutely a corner that should have a permanent or temporary bumpout.

It would be nice if we could take care of these problems before tragedy strikes. But each time a tragedy like this happens, we owe it to the dead to turn our attention to street design. We have to make Saint Paul's streets and sidewalks safer for both 78-year-old men like Par and 68-year-old drivers like Yang, so that our citizens don't have to kill each other. Anything less is derelict.
 
[A wide turning radius, half-assed curb cut on Arlington Avenue, where Par was killed.]


The Bathroom Metaphor

Forgive me for this one, but here's a crude metaphor. American cities approach safe streets in the same way I approach cleaning my bachelor pad bathroom. Basically, when there's an obvious accident (I blame the cat), of course you clean up the mess. But in general, you spend as little time and energy as possible. Maybe if someone is coming to visit, you make sure the most visible parts are shiny.

But that's about it. The process is superficial. Shit still stinks, and you don't want to look in the corners. That's the recipe for safe streets, too. Cities are extremely cursory and it's not a priority.

One difference between our streets and my bathroom is the complexity. To continue the bad metaphor, it's often difficult to know who's responsible for any given situation. In a way, it's like living with bad roommates. Saint Paul is an insecure OCD neat freak, worried about the problem, but they're living with two or three oblivious frat-boys who feel entitled to leave their messes everywhere because they're chippin in on rent.

In other words, at the governance level, Saint Paul has been saying the right things, and has even talked about funding a position in Public Works focused pedestrian safety. But the other parts of the puzzle -- Mn-DOT and Ramsey County -- are another story.

(That's as far as the metaphor goes... Again, my apologies.)

As I pointed out after another older immigrant walking across the street in Saint Paul was killed by a driver, there's a straightforward trade-off between speed and safety. Saint Paul's engineers have barely begun making the necessary changes that will save lives, but safe streets begin with lowering speed, and halting the prioritization of traffic over people's lives.

This is easier said than done. Another huge problem with urban street conversations is that our local political culture skews in favor of cars. As a public, we are far too easily distracted by petty problems of automobility, while life-and-death design faults remain ignored. All you have to do is glance every two weeks at the Highland Villager editorials and letters to the editor to see how far Saint Paul has to go. When the #1 complaint that people seem to have is traffic and parking, it's easy to understand why local business leaders, elected officials, or neighborhood gadflies continue to ignore incidents like Per's death -- or the four other people killed this year, and hundreds more injured --  and focus instead on the trivialities of urban driving.

Safe Streets are a Social Justice Issue

The dominance of the windshield perspective masks deep issues of justice and privilege because Saint Paul's deadly streets reflect unequal access to power. It's no coincidence that all five of the the people who have been killed in Saint Paul crossing the street since October 2015 have been women and people of color.

[Clockwise from top left: Dunham, Kokesh, Kek, and Wangmo.]
While cars offer largely democratic refuge from social inequality -- provided you can afford one -- walking is another story. Our most vulnerable, least enfranchised people are the ones crossing the street. Shelby Kokesh was walking her elderly mother across Kellogg Boulevard. Elizabeth Dunham was helping her 13 and 9-year-old kids cross Maryland Avenue to reach the school bus. Channy Kek was a Cambodian-speaking interpreter trying to cross Cayuga Street after her shift at the health care clinic. And Kunlek Wangmo was an immigrant from Bhutan who walked with her husband every morning around her West 7th Street neighborhood.

Today's local political landscape -- the community meetings, business task forces, city surveys, media outlets, and public engagement strategies -- largely ignores vulnerable people. In the whole, our local structures amplify the voices of privileged drivers, and marginalize people like Wangmo, Par, Dunham, and thousands of others who use our streets in ways that put their lives at risk. And this public playing field, tilted heavily in favor of the car, combines with a half-century of traffic quasi-science that has transformed congestion into the dominant problem facing the city, and over a half century, has devoted billions of dollars worth of resources at the expense of those on the sidewalk.

We need to change the dynamic and it has to start at the bottom, with people in neighborhoods. Our urban communities need to begin standing up for safe streets and stop catering to those who would keep our cities overflowing with deadly speeding cars. For some of us facing the frustration of driving every day, this will involve small sacrifices. But learning to relax, slow down, and allow our long-dormant urban places to thrive, is critical for the future of our cities   
and our planet.

While national politics matters, let's not lose sight of what's in front of us. While we talk about defending the rights of immigrants, women, and others who may be targeted by a reactionary government, let's not ignore the issues that are closest to our doorstep. Let's not forget people like Ker Par, who survived decades of oppression in Myanmar only to be killed after two years of living and walking in Saint Paul.

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