OEDEL: Dangerous by design

November 3, 2013 

While walking home from work along Gray Highway on Sept. 24, Daniel Muhammad, 25, died after being struck by a car. One week later, Brenda Faye Johnson, 62, died after being struck by a car also while walking along Gray Highway. Donna Davis, 53, died Oct. 23 after he’d been struck by a car Oct. 18 while walking along Eisenhower Parkway. Walter Leggett, 61, died Oct. 27 after his bike collided with a car on Forsyth Road/Route 41 just beyond Bibb County’s north border. Three hours later, Luther Wright, 60, died from injuries suffered on Oct. 23 when a car struck him at 6:40 a.m. while he walked on Magnolia Drive in Fort Hill. All five are now “ped/bike” death statistics.

There’s a common thread to each of those recent accidents that helps explain why Macon ranks per capita as the most deadly place for pedestrians in Georgia. That’s saying something, because the Southeast is the most dangerous region nationally.

Each soul was struck where there were no sidewalks, bike lanes or safe crossings.

Although all five undoubtedly shared significant responsibility as adults for their own choices of walking or riding in dangerous settings, they were not alone in bearing some responsibility for the fatal outcomes.

In particular, it was our government officials’ choice to build those roads with callous indifference to pedestrian and bike-rider safety and accommodation. And it was our officials’ choice to build those roads so as to encourage speeding by drivers of motor vehicles.

Official callousness in the design of public ways may have been allowed to pass in Macon without serious objection for decades because pedestrians here are likely to be disproportionately poor, African-American and car less. The most recent local additions to the ped/bike death statistics are typical. Eighty percent were, when alive, poor and black. In death, everybody’s finally equal. In life, official transportation decisions are often anything but.

Our road building decisions have consequences not only for individuals and classes of people, but for neighborhoods. Zebulon Road neighbors were reminded of that last Monday when the Planning & Zoning Commission telegraphed that it will likely approve some form of an intensive commercial development along the massive five-lane portion of Zebulon across from Sonny Carter Elementary School. The gargantuan scale of Zebulon made commercial development there inevitable.

The time to have fought for humanistic factors and neighborhood preservation in that area was years ago, when Zebulon was proposed for super-sizing. The setting for that debate should have been Macon’s metropolitan planning organization, aka the Macon Area Transportation Study, or MATS, rather than Planning & Zoning, which often serves as just the tail on the MATS dog.

MATS calls the primary local shots on transportation decisions and its members should be expected to carefully and thoroughly hear public concerns about proposed projects. Court is usually an awkward setting for such conversation, as Lindsay Holliday learned last Monday when his lawsuit challenging MATS’ plan for an unnecessarily expansive Forest Hill Road re-do was properly dismissed by Superior Court Judge Ed Ennis.

The big problem with MATS, though, is that it’s not set up to entertain citizen and community concerns about transportation-related issues in any serious way. It should be.

With the consolidation of Macon and Bibb County, the time has come for Gov. Nathan Deal to entertain proposals for reconfiguring MATS to reflect the new local political landscape. Legally, it’s the governor’s ultimate call about how to constitute the local metropolitan planning organization, but the governor naturally will look for local input about how to do that appropriately.

Locals should insist on three things in that reconfiguration. First, every member of our new metropolitan planning organization should be an elected official so each one will have strong incentives to listen, and the public will have a way to provide electoral feedback. Second, the body should collectively represent a broad cross-section of the community. Third, the body should have court-enforceable rules requiring that it thoroughly hear and consider public comment before embarking on major projects.

MATS is unrepresentative, unresponsive and dangerous. It needs to go.

David Oedel teaches transportation law at Mercer University.

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