Episode 48: Right of Way

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Angie Schmitt: Does the fact that our whole lifestyle is sort of predicated on a lot of people dying in car wrecks desensitize us to other forms of, you know, violence or mass death? Or are we just—is there something about the United States that’s just a little bit callous about that, culturally?
Sarah Goodyear: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. Angie Schmitt has long been one of the clearest and most passionate voices out there talking about the real price of automobile dependence in the United States. As the national editor for Streetsblog, Angie reported for years about how we design our communities to accommodate cars at the expense of human beings.
Sarah: Now Angie has a book out. It’s called Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. In it, she gives a compelling analysis of why more pedestrians are dying on American streets now than at any time since the 1990s. The death rate for people on foot has risen steadily in recent years, even as fatality rates for people inside vehicles have stayed flat. In 2018 alone, 6,283 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the United States. Angie’s book details a toxic mix of big vehicles, cheap gas and utter disregard for human lives, especially when those lives belong to poor people, people of color, people without housing, older people and people with disabilities. She also writes about some of the activists who are fighting to reverse the trend. I spoke with Angie at the end of August.
Sarah: Maybe you could talk a little bit about why you wrote this book? Why now? How you came to the point where, like, this needs to be a book?
Angie Schmitt: I wanted to focus on pedestrian deaths instead of just traffic deaths in general, because I think we just haven’t had a moment culturally that we’ve had sort of a breakthrough in the way we think about this. With other social issues, like they’re—like, with #MeToo as an example, you know, we might not have thought about sort of predatory men in positions of power and the way they treat women who, you know, are under them professionally that much. Or it wasn’t an issue that we thought of in, like, a branded way until this #MeToo thing came along, and Harvey Weinstein. And I think that it’s like that with a lot of social issues. So I thought writing a book and getting a round of—I was hopeful I could get a round of publicity to go with it, and that would give people a chance to step back, instead of looking at this all on a case-by-case basis, and think about it more holistically.
Sarah: You live in a part of the country where pedestrians are particularly marginalized. I mean, you’re not in New York City or San Francisco or some of the other cities that are perceived as being better for pedestrians and that where there is a lot more walking. You’re from Cleveland, right?
Angie Schmitt: Yeah. I live in Cleveland, yeah. Which actually—Cleveland’s an older city, you know? It’s sort of—the area I live in is actually not terrible for walking, but it’s sort of one of the sweet spots, yeah. I mean, you get out to the average place in Ohio, the area where I grew up in Ohio, definitely. Like, my friend told me a story, when I grew up in, like, a really sprawling suburb, like, right on the edge at the time of the sprawl in Columbus is where I’m from. And my friend told me this story—I had completely forgotten about it, but I guess when I was, like, 12 or 11, I convinced her to run across a highway because there was—like, where we lived, there was no—we couldn’t walk to anything. And there was a McDonald’s right across this Highway, I270 in Columbus. And I was a child, and I convinced my friend to run across it, apparently. And luckily, we didn’t die.
Sarah: Wow. Yeah. So there you were already pushing the boundaries of what was accepted. But let’s talk a little bit about that. So in the book, one of the things you talk about is the suburban roadscape, and the way that that is hostile to human beings. So maybe you could talk a little bit about that particular issue of suburban roadscapes and the suburbanization of poverty that’s been happening, and how those two things have collided to really create a major element of this crisis that you outline in the book.
Angie Schmitt: Yeah, so I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen this big uptick. There’s been this real demographic shift. One of the areas that I highlight in my book is the northern suburbs of Atlanta—Gwinnett and Cobb County. Those suburbs, when they were originally sort of founded or settled in a suburban way, it was white people, and they were sort of fleeing desegregation in the Atlanta public schools. And this is the height—you know, it’s the ’60s, the ’50s, it’s like sort of the height of the auto era in America. People moved out to these suburbs. You know, they took a highway and then everyone had a two-car garage, and it’s all very suburban. There really weren’t any accommodations for walking. And now those suburbs have changed dramatically. One is majority people of color, and the other is very close to it now at this point. There’s also a lot more lower-income folks, especially in the southern parts of those counties. And, you know, the road environment just has not adapted. The physical environment in those counties hasn’t adapted to the demographic changes. So people are put in very dangerous situations if they rely on the bus or something, which one of the characters in the book—she’s a real person, but one of the people whose stories …
Sarah: Raquel Nelson?
Angie Schmitt: Yeah. That we tell in the book, was just put in this terrible position because of all of that. So Raquel Nelson was a 29-year-old single mom. She lived in Cobb County. She lives in Marietta, which is north of Atlanta, and she had three children. So one day it had been her birthday, and she took the kids out for pizza. At the time, she was relying on the bus, which the bus in Cobb County was running, like, every hour. They have a very skeleton transit system up in those northern counties as well, and that goes back to sort of the history with segregation and racism in Atlanta as well. But anyway, so they take the bus to get pizza. They go to, like, Walmart, and then on the way home, they end up missing their bus. So when they get back to their apartment building it’s dark, and they have to cross this, like—I think it’s a five-lane arterial. It looks almost like a rural road, even though these are—both the counties have about a million residents now. So these are urban places now that have sort of, you know, they have a suburban design, but these are major population centers.
Angie Schmitt: As they’re coming back across the road, her son, AJ, who was three, he got away from her, and he was hit by a driver. The driver had two previous hit-and-run convictions, and admitted to drinking earlier in the day. He didn’t stop either. It was a hit and run. So anyway, AJ was killed, and it was this really tragic thing. But that situation is actually not that unusual. That happens all the time in the United States. But this case got a lot of attention because the prosecutor in Cobb County decided to try Raquel Nelson for vehicular homicide in the death of her son because she was jaywalking was the argument, even though there wasn’t a crosswalk anywhere nearby—it was about a third of a mile away. So she would have had to walk with these three kids, like, two thirds of a mile out of her way in the dark. It’s just like a totally unreasonable thing to ask someone to do.
Angie Schmitt: But anyway, it just goes back to sort of our knee-jerk reaction to these events is to blame the victim. And this is a really appalling case. And it has to do with racism. The NAACP eventually got involved in this case. And she was convicted. She was convicted of vehicular homicide, and she was sentenced to probation. But the judge offered her an opportunity for a retrial, and she ended up fighting it for three years. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and eventually, they dropped those more severe charges and she was just charged with jaywalking and had to pay a $200 fine.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: Do you see yourself as standing up for yourself alone, Raquel, or are you standing up for other women who are single mothers? Other women who are carrying the burden of raising children using public transportation?] [ARCHIVE CLIP, Raquel Nelson: This is for everyone. This is for—on a more personal level, myself, my children, single mothers, anybody who has to take public transportation. This is for anyone who has ever had to be in a scary situation like that.] Sarah: In your book, you really make the case that this kind of tragedy happens so frequently, and it’s so invisible. Because that’s the one thing that I think people just don’t understand, that this is not just a problem that just sort of exists, but this is a problem that has been getting worse.
Angie Schmitt: Another issue is cars. And cars have gotten bigger and more dangerous. There’s been this dramatic, dramatic shift in what Americans are driving over the last few decades, and particularly over the last decade. You know, it used to be almost everyone was in a sedan. There was a few people that drove pickups and they were, you know, relatively small, and had relatively low front ends compared to now, the default vehicle now is no longer a sedan. They’re starting to almost die out, and everyone’s buying crossovers and SUVs, which have higher front ends that hit pedestrians higher on the body. So there’s very strong evidence that that’s contributing to the problem. Like, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that over the last 10 years, there’s been a 50 percent increase in pedestrian deaths, but there’s been an 80 percent increase in the number of pedestrian deaths involving SUVs. The designs, it’s sort of—it’s not about safety. In fact, a lot of the popular trends in car design now are actually very dangerous.
Sarah: Yeah. And it’s not just that they hit you higher on the body, it’s also that the driver’s ability to see especially smaller human beings is limited by the size of those vehicles, right?
Angie Schmitt: Yeah. So I wrote about this really tragic case in Broward County where a little boy, he was just under two, was run over by a woman. She was driving a Honda or Hyundai Santa Fe, I believe. And she hit this little boy and she did not stop. She claimed she just never saw him. And then a few hundred feet later, she stops at a stop sign, and the neighbors who witnessed her run over this boy start pulling her out of the car and beating her up. Like, it sort of got a little more attention again than, like, a typical pedestrian death because of what happened in the aftermath. So it’s this really traumatic thing. And the woman says, “You know, I never saw.” And the police investigate the case and say, “Well, the boy was shorter than the bumper. She couldn’t see. So, you know, sort of no foul.” And they never charged her. But that’s a case, like, it really got me interested because I was thinking, why are we designing cars that make a child who can stand and run around and play totally invisible? Like, that’s a huge design problem.
Sarah: It’s really just this car culture that we live in surrounds us with these potentials for death and for killing. And it’s just mundane. It’s just the way it is every day. And, you know, what is the psychological effect of living in that kind of environment?
Angie Schmitt: I think that there is so much trauma. Like, since I’ve written this book, all these people approach me and are like, “Oh, yeah.” A friend of mine was like, “Yeah, my grandmother was killed this way. She was walking to bingo in Medina, Ohio, and was killed by a car.” And I think that there is a lot of trauma, even from crashes that aren’t fatal, you know? Which I barely talk about crashes that aren’t fatal in the book. But there’s a—for every fatal crash there’s eight serious—that’s for traffic crashes in general. There’s eight serious injuries for every fatality. I think that creates a lot of trauma that we haven’t really named or dealt with that still probably is a big factor in, you know, people’s well-being in the country.
Sarah: Yeah. And that kind of gets into this idea that you talk about a little bit, and you wrote a forward that addresses the pandemic. But one of the statistics that early on in the pandemic kept getting trotted out was, well, 40,000 people die in car crashes every year, you know? And that’s the cost of having our economy open and functioning the way that we have it. So who cares if 40,000 people die in a pandemic. Now, of course, at this point, it’s a lot more than 40,000, but at the beginning that sort of you should just accept this, and then using cars and and car fatalities as kind of the benchmark of, like, an amount of death that you should just shrug at, that struck me as very shocking. And just sort of the pervasiveness and the ubiquity of this trauma in our society, it feels like it kind of set us up for being like, okay, so 200,000 people are gonna die in this pandemic. That’s not a big deal.
Angie Schmitt: I don’t know. I have thought a lot about that. And it’s like, does the fact that our whole lifestyle is sort of predicated on a lot of people dying in car wrecks desensitize us to other forms of violence or mass death? Or are we just—is there something about the United States that’s just a little bit callous about that, culturally? Like, I was talking to my friend who lives in Australia, and she says it’s so bizarre, because in Australia if, like, one person was stabbed, like, in Melbourne or something, she said it would dominate headlines for, like, weeks. Whereas here they’ll be like, you know, the local news every night there’ll be a list of shootings. And I think, like, one thing that’s interesting that I talk to some other people about is that the same sort of attitude of, like, a little bit of a callousness about death and injury is present. We’ve seen it with corona, and it’s also present with the way we handle traffic deaths, because in the Western or in the wealthy world, we’re sort of an outlier.
Sarah: But then there’s also the issue, and this is, again, paralleled with coronavirus of who’s dying. And you get into that in the book in depth, the demographics of who is dying. And what did you find when you looked at that?
Angie Schmitt: Right. One of my main theories about this book or about this issue is that well-off white people are not in these situations. They’re just not finding themselves in situations like Raquel Nelson was in, where it’s dark and she’s having to cross a highway with her three kids. Otherwise, we wouldn’t stand for it, right? It’s only, like, very marginalized people. You know, in a metro area like Atlanta, mostly poorer folks, right? Mostly people of color are gonna be relying on transit, are going to be walking and biking. So Black people, Latinos, Native folks are all at increased risk, as are some other marginalized groups like older folks, older Americans, people who use wheelchairs, homeless people, there’s some evidence. And then there are people that, you know, fall into one or more of those categories that are even at heightened risk. People who live in low-income neighborhoods are at increased risk. So yeah, I think it has a lot to do with sort of privilege and institutional racism in the way we award funding, safety funding, because I think, like, if you’re—there are some wealthier white people that do walk, but I think a lot of times they’re in these sort of sweet spots. You know, they’re in Boston or they’re in Brooklyn. They’re not, you know, in the bad areas in Florida.
Sarah: I did want to talk about the Families for Safe Streets Movement, which is led by a coalition of people that includes some more privileged people, and has actually tried to get a national movement going that would be analogous to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Maybe you could talk about Families for Safe Streets and how they are trying to change attitudes at the policy level about pedestrian safety.
Angie Schmitt: So I think I’m really excited about that movement, and some of the moms in it, and sort of hearing what they went through was sort of one of my inspirations to write a book. Because just—I don’t know, as a parent, I just really empathize with what they had gone through. So I think, like, if we could get the folks that were personally impacted by this problem sort of off the sidelines and understanding that a lot of this was preventable, and that a lot of it is sort of political decisions, that a certain amount of people dying is okay, that that’s something that could really change things.
Angie Schmitt: I talk a little bit about how the movement got started in New York with this one mother, Amy Cohen. Her son who was 12 was killed in Brooklyn. And she early on teamed up with transportation alternatives and, with a group of other parents and spouses, was able to push through some pretty important changes in New York. It was still really hard, and she’s one of the more privileged people. Like, I think it’s really inspiring to just hear their stories and what they went through, and the way they’re fighting for other folks to prevent that. It’s really inspiring. Like, Amy Cohen is really a hero. So now they have expanded, and there’s chapters in a handful of other places. So I’m hopeful it’s the beginning of a movement, you know, where there’ll be some—I think political action is really needed. There hasn’t been any pushback. The Trump administration will just quash a vehicle safety regulation that could save a few thousand lives. They’ll just kill it, and they’ll hardly be any—it won’t be in the news. Hardly anyone will even notice. So I think, like, in order to get better outcomes, we do need sort of like opposition. We do need people that are mobilized and excited about safety and trying to save people’s lives.
Sarah: In the mainstream media, I think these issues are just really, really under-covered. And a lot of the time there is this attitude that like, oh, this is just incredibly boring policy stuff, and no one’s gonna care, and it’s just the way it is. And that’s—you know, I think unfortunately, it does take tragedies and activism inspired by tragedies to get some change happening at the policy level.
Angie Schmitt: One of my big takeaways from writing this is just that a lot of the pieces pedestrians need to be safe are just missing from the infrastructure. Like, if you go out on a suburban street in any town, USA, where people are walking, where there might be a bus route, and chances are that all the things that pedestrians need to be safe, aren’t there. They need a sidewalk. They need curb ramps. Probably need some kind of infrastructure at the bus stops other than just a pole in the ground, like a bench, some shelter, crosswalks at regular intervals, and walk signals that are timed correctly so they have enough time to cross. A lot of those pieces are missing. So we need to go back to all these streets and just repair them and sort of retrofit them so that they are safe for pedestrians. There’s a lot that could be done for a relatively small amount of money.
Sarah: And you talk in the book about the way that engineers see roads, and this idea of throughput and we just have to move the cars through. And that’s the metric, that’s the shining star for them. It’s not about a mom who has three kids of different ages, and it would be nice if she could stay home with her toddler while her 10 year old walked to school, but that’s not possible.
Angie Schmitt: Yeah, I think in planning and engineering, we’ve fallen into this trap where it’s like, we’re designing for the typical person, you know, whatever that is. And we’re not considering, like, how diverse people are and their needs are you know? We’re not designing for wheelchair users usually, you know, with them in mind or homeless people, right? Like, how are they navigating? They’re, like, edge cases. We don’t even need to worry about them. It’s the guy that commutes to downtown. And it’s a little bit sexist and racist, you know? And the engineers are almost all white guys, you know? So I think they’re operating from their own biases. And planning, you know, is too white, too, and similar. So that causes problems.
Sarah: Do you think you’re gonna change the world with this book?
Angie Schmitt: You know what? I really don’t know. I really don’t know what’s gonna happen with this book. I hope. Like, I hope people read it, and that it influences people. But I have no idea. I have no idea.
Sarah: It’s coming out—it’s coming out at such an interesting time, because I feel like sure, in some ways it’s not a great time because of, you know, “everything,” quote unquote. But at the same time, this is a time when a lot of people are examining really fundamental assumptions that they have had about our country and how it works. And maybe that’s a good time to introduce some ideas that I think of as being sensible and obvious, but that are actually pretty radical in the context of American society.
Angie Schmitt: You know, I think it takes, like, a lot to make change. The fact that people aren’t writing books about this is part of the problem. It takes, like, a lot. Like, if you think about, like, the pop culture or stuff we’re consuming, it’s all, like, car chase movies on TV, and it’s all car chase movies where everyone walks away and, like, the good guy wins. When really, like, the reality of car chases is like a lot of innocent bystanders getting hurt. So anyway, I just think, like, it’s gonna take a lot of efforts. And I just thought, you know, writing a book could just be a contribution.
Sarah: Well, I think it’s a really great contribution, and you did an amazing job. It’s just the thoroughness of it. There are so many things in the book that we haven’t even covered in this interview. You talk about autonomous vehicles. You talk about a lot of stuff. And I hope a lot of people read this, because I guarantee if you can give this book to somebody who maybe doesn’t understand just the struggles that the pedestrians are up against, and also that it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. And I think this book really makes that point very clearly that, as you say, with relatively low-cost changes, with just some changes in attitude among policymakers, we could dramatically improve people’s lives, and we could save a lot of lives.
Angie Schmitt: You’re making me blush. I am really happy that you invited me to come on. This is a great audience for it.
Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. There’s so much more in Angie’s book that we weren’t able to get to. I think it’s essential reading for anyone who listens to this podcast, because it contains so much information that you can share with other people in your life who might not understand why this is such an important issue.
Sarah: Big thanks to Angie for coming on the show. If you’re interested in buying Right of Way, you’ll find a link in the show notes to Bookshop.org. It’s a great way to buy books from independent booksellers, and we have our own page on there with titles from all of the authors who’ve appeared on the show. Check it out at Bookshop.org/shop/thewaroncars.
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Sarah: This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Design. I’m Sarah Goodyear, thanking you again on behalf of my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon. Until next time, this is The War on Cars.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, crosswalk announcement: Wait. Wait. Smith Street walk sign is on to cross Smith Street.]