Editor's note: This story was originally published in August 2015 as a project of the Center for Collaborative Journalism.
Macon-Bibb County has a lot of the two things that are most strongly correlated with pedestrian deaths nationwide: vehicle-centric infrastructure and poverty.
A 2014 research report by the state and local government trade publication GOVERNING comparing federal traffic accident data from 2008-2012 with census data about income found that “within metro areas, low-income tracts recorded pedestrian fatality rates approximately twice that of more affluent neighborhoods.”
Likewise, a 2009 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that, nationwide, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure is much more prevalent in higher-income neighborhoods.
In high-income areas, 89 percent of streets have sidewalks on one or both sides of the streets, compared to 59 percent of streets in middle-income areas and 49 percent in low-income areas, according to the report.
The result is that people who are less able to afford cars live in places where there is less infrastructure for safe walking.
In part, this is because of the recent spread of poverty from inner cities to suburban areas that were never meant to be traveled solely on foot, said Benjamin Ross, a transit advocate and author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.
“They built these suburbs with the idea that you’d basically get around with cars, that the main roads were for cars only,” Ross said. “The main roads were built totally not for walking, and now we’ve evolved to the place where lots of people are walking there, and so you have a built up system that’s designed to favor the driver.”
While poverty has historically been associated with urban and rural areas, national census data show that the number of poor people living in suburban areas overtook the number living in urban areas shortly after the turn of the millennium and is growing much more rapidly.
THE PROBLEM WITH SUBURBS
To illustrate the difference between suburban poverty and urban poverty, Ross tells a story about baseball legend Willie Mays.
“After the game was over, he would go out in the streets of Harlem and join in stickball games that they played in the street,” Ross said. “For a long time, poor people lived in the center city and played there.”
But few people today would consider playing in the fast-moving suburban roadways that crisscross many low-income suburbs.
Jim Thomas, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission, has led an effort to map pedestrian and bike-related accidents that have occurred since 2000.
“If you look at the map, you’ll see a concentration of incidents in downtown, but that’s where our best sidewalks . . . and crosswalks (are),” Thomas said, alluding to the fact that incidents in the downtown area are rarely fatal, likely because frequent stops cause people to drive slower.
A 2011 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found a clear link between vehicle speed and whether a pedestrian strike results in death.
“The average risk of death for a pedestrian reaches 10 percent at an impact speed of 23 mph, 25 percent at 32 mph, 50 percent at 42 mph, 75 percent at 50 mph, and 90 percent at 58 mph,” study author Brian Tefft wrote.
Those figures are borne out in Macon-Bibb, where deadly accidents tend to happen in the immediate or outlying suburbs, on such roads as Gray Highway and Pio Nono Avenue, where vehicles typically reach and sustain higher speeds than they can in the more tightly packed street grid of the historic downtown.
Amanda Clark is a 30-year-old mother of two who lives in an apartment complex near Gray Highway, where long stretches of the road are without a crosswalk. The major thoroughfare that cuts through the area isolates residential neighborhoods on either side of it. Getting around without a car, “I’ve had a few close calls” Clark said. “I gotta walk to the store just to get food, and it’s not fast. It’s not easy to cross the busy roads.”
Ross said the shortcuts that people in Clark’s situation often take, such as crossing where it’s convenient instead of taking a lengthy detour to a crosswalk, are behaviors built into the infrastructure.
“People who cross the street, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally, are just doing what people are naturally going to do when there’s stoplights a mile apart,” Ross said. “They’re doing the same kind of thing a driver does when, for example, when they get to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, where they can clearly see there’s no cars coming, and they roll through it.”
THE PROBLEM WITH ROADS
The trend toward infrastructure that favors cars over people is not unique to Macon; it happened nationwide starting in the mid-20th century. However, Macon-Bibb officials have in more recent decades approved several major road expansion projects in residential areas, despite warnings from some transportation experts that such infrastructure is inherently dangerous to walkers and cyclists.
For example, in 1994, voters passed a local sales tax to fund the Road Improvement Plan. The project was designed to widen such roads as Forest Hill Road, Northside Drive and Log Cabin Drive to funnel traffic efficiently to and from the then-bustling Macon Mall. Once the local tax was established, state funding was secured for lane expansions.
A group of local residents protested the plan, arguing that wider, faster roads weren’t entirely necessary and would make the surrounding neighborhoods less safe and desirable. Moreland-Altobelli, the engineering and program management firm in charge of carrying out the Road Improvement Plan, contracted with veteran Florida-based traffic engineer Walter Kulash and his colleague, Wade Walker, to look at the plan and see if it could be altered to address residents’ concerns.
“I remember it being fairly tumultuous, to say the least,” Kulash said. “It was something that we saw a lot of then, which was a major road program -- state-funded I believe, as most road programs are -- with no intention of doing anything other than simply widening roads.
“This was at the beginning of this era that we’re well into now, where there’s a lot of understanding that we can’t just keep paving our way out of problems, and that there are a lot of other ways to improve roads other than simply widening them. This was big news. This was an early instance of trying to do something about the existing paradigm, and there were very involved citizens.”
At first, Kulash said, he and Walker seemed to have success convincing Tom Moreland, the chairman and CEO of Moreland-Altobelli, that wider was not necessarily better.
“This was, of course, after we and the citizens leaned on them, saying, ‘We don’t need five lanes here. We do need, for example, a nice rebuilt road with sidewalks, street trees, things like that.’ I can remember (Moreland) taking on his own staff who simply didn’t understand why you wouldn’t build the most lanes when you have the money for it,” Kulash said.
But differences in vision and disputes with county officials ultimately led to Kulash leaving Macon without having done much to alter plans. He said he’s not surprised to hear of Macon-Bibb’s high pedestrian death rate, considering the nature of the roads that existed when he worked in Macon and those that have been built since.
The vehicle-heavy, multi-lane roadway is one of the worst environments for pedestrians, Kulash said. “And then the type of commerce that it attracts . . . is the most auto-dependent of all. The combination of hostile atmosphere and type of destination that is not really meant for anything other than automobile is a mix that’s going to lead to . . . fatalities.”
The Bibb County District Attorney’s Office is tasked with prosecuting many of the drivers accused of criminal offenses that lead to pedestrian deaths, giving District Attorney David Cooke a firsthand look at the incidents.
Cooke views the correlation between poverty and pedestrian deaths as an unfortunate but largely inescapable reality.
“There may be strategies that would make it easier for (pedestrians) -- even if they were intoxicated -- or to make it easier for people to comply with the law, or be safer that is, (with) more sidewalks and other, more pedestrian-friendly areas,” Cooke said.
But in most accidents, individual behavior such as jaywalking or walking while drunk “seems to be the cause, not whether or not someone is poor,” he said. “I think the lack of money may be why they are a pedestrian instead of a driver.”
Ross said he believes the dangerous juxtaposition of poor people who lack transportation and big, fast roads is an example of “institutional injustice.”
Prevailing road designs outside of urban cores are predicated on the assumption that everyone living in those areas will be well-off enough to own cars, he said.
“And then when circumstances change and everybody isn’t well-off, you have a whole system that’s rigged against anybody who walks.”
Clark, the 30-year-old mother who lives on Gray Highway, said, “It’s hard living here.”
“It’s not easy having to walk everywhere, but I gotta do what I gotta do.”