Death by bad urban design

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One of the four NCAA men's regionals was held last weekend at the Meadowlands (aka the Hackensack Swamp) in the midst of the industrial wasteland of northern New Jersey. (I spent the worst year of my life there one week.) The University of North Carolina team was put up for the weekend at the Hilton in Fort Lee, N. J. The hotel is on the eastbound lanes of State Highway 4, just before it joins with I-95 as the approach road to the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee to Manhattan. A few days ago, the highway was the scene of a tragic fatal accident involving a college senior.

As best as I can gather from various news reports, this is what took place: Friday afternoon at about 3:45 pm, Jason Ray, who wore the mascot costume ("Rameses") for the Tar Heels, was walking back from a nearby convenience store, where he'd gone to buy a Coke and a burrito. There is no sidewalk, so he was walking along the shoulder, with his back to the traffic. Crossing over to walk against traffic was not an option for Jason -- the shoulder of the westbound lanes of Highway 4 are separated from the shoulder of eastbound lanes by more than 20 lanes of traffic.

(My observations of the area are based on this Google satellite image, which has the Hilton at the center. If anyone who has first hand knowledge of that area can correct or enhance my understanding of it, please leave a comment.)

Even though a narrow strip of trees separates the hotel parking lot from a two lane city street (Jones Road), there is no access between that street and the hotel. The only pedestrian or vehicular access to the hotel property is via the westbound lanes of Highway 4. Even If he had made it to Jones Road, he'd have had to walk at least half a mile to find a place for a Coke and something cheap to eat. The area immediately west of the hotel is occupied by a single-use suburban residential development and a cemetery. (If the gas station on the highway had also had access to Jones Road, he wouldn't have had to walk as far.)

I would bet that the lack of vehicular access to the hotel from Jones Road was dictated by the town's zoning code or subdivision regulations, perhaps to allay residents' concerns about cut-through traffic.

An SUV hit and fatally injured Ray. The driver stopped and rendered aid, and no charges have been filed against him. The driver was not intoxicated or impaired. The weather was cloudy, but there had been some light rain earlier in the afternoon.

Why was Jason Ray walking along a busy highway? This is speculation, but I think it's reasonable: Here's a college student on a budget, and he's hungry. He came with the team on the plane, and he's stuck, without a car, at a "full service hotel" -- the kind of place you pay two bucks for a Coke or candy bar from the vending machine. He's not going to order room service or get something at the hotel's restaurant -- too pricey and probably not what he's hungry for. So he walks a couple of hundred yards along the highway to a gas station with a convenience store, the nearest place to buy something cheap and filling.

So what killed Jason Ray? No sidewalk along, but set back from, a busy highway, plus no alternate road or path for local traffic (access to the hotel and the gas station only from the highway), plus the confiscatory food and drink prices typical of a full service hotel which likely drove him to look for a convenience store in the first place.

Louisville, Kentucky, recently adopted a "complete streets" policy that requires accommodation for pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchairs, and strollers when a street is built or rebuilt.

When an area is designed with only car travel in mind, it puts the pedestrian at a severe disadvantage. Sometimes that disadvantage is fatal.

UPDATE: The Independent Weekly, serving the UNC area, notes that what happened to Jason Ray has happened closer to home:

The tragic death of Jason Ray, the UNC-Chapel Hill senior who played Tar Heel team mascot Rameses, is the latest reminder of the senseless danger of pedestrian-unfriendly roadways. Reports say that Ray was walking along New Jersey's Route 4, returning to his hotel room from a convenience store at about 4 p.m., when he was hit by an SUV. The driver wasn't drunk, according to police. It was just an accident on a road designed for cars, not for people. Sad to say, such an accident might have happened on Raleigh's Capital Boulevard, where eight people have been killed along a 10-mile stretch since 2002. Or it might have happened on U.S. 15-501 between Durham and Chapel Hill—in fact, a similar incident did happen there in 1999, when two lacrosse players from George Mason University, in town for a match with UNC-Chapel Hill, were struck by a car while trying to get from a shopping center to their hotel room. And last year, UNC Emeritus Psychology Professor David Galinsky was killed trying to cross Fordham Boulevard on his way to a Tar Heels game and Arthur McClean was killed the same day, trying to cross U.S. 15-501 near Southern Village.

Makeshift memorials are scattered across the Triangle's dangerous intersections, even as more hotels, restaurants and shopping centers are built there. Many of those intersections are under the purview of the state Department of Transportation, for which pedestrian safety continues to be among the lowest priorities. How long will traffic engineers continue to ignore these deaths?

Jon Cook has more to say about Jason Ray:

Ray was due to graduate in May with a major in business administration and a minor in religion. He already had a job waiting for him as a sales and marketing rep for a company in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The former Eagle Scout had a long history of social activism, including a church-sponsored mission trip to Honduras.

Ray's job as the Tar Heels' mascot, Ramses the ram, fused his passions for UNC basketball and making people smile and laugh. Jodi Stewart, a neighbor of the Ray family who attends the same church in Concord, N.C. described Jason as "an awesome kid" to the Raleigh News & Observer.

"I never knew a kid who was more full of life," said Stewart. "He was excited every day. He loved what he was doing, he loved God, his family, and being the school's mascot."

Stewart also noted that Jason was a bit of a "miracle" baby, being born when his parents were both in their 40s.

"They cherish this boy. You cannot put into words what this child means to them," she said. "Jason is their life. They live their life for him."

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Jon Swerens said:

The big problem is that these kinds of roads are trying to be two opposing things at once: A business district and a thoroughfare.

This could be an example of interstate-itis: Since traffic there is so heavy, pedestrians would only get in the way of the flow. So traffic engineers simply design pedestrians out of the equation, for the same reason pedestrians are barred from interstate highways.

But too many people, myself included, still believe that if you can see a building, you should be able to walk to it. Traffic engineers must realize and try to anticipate pedestrian traffic.

Russ McGuire said:

I've spent some time in the Fort Lee area. It is a real mess, even when you have a car (highways intersecting at odd angles - you need to exit and re-enter going the opposite way to get to places (like gas stations that only have entrances on the highways)). I chalk it up to an area that has grown increasingly dense over a period of centuries. Your time in the Boston area should help you appreciate the challenges... (although zoning rules for neighborhoods contribute and I doubt you think those are always bad...)

I think Jon has it right -- the road's designers tried to make it suitable for two incompatible purposes. Putting businesses right on limited access highways (with no other way of accessing them) was common in the '50s and '60s. Freeways of a later design would include service roads to allow development near the freeway, but not on it.

The true mistake was trying to run a freeway through a densely-developed area. America is the only country I know where that mistake was made. In Germany and Britain, at least, the autobahnen and motorways avoid cities and towns, for the most part.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 29, 2007 10:54 PM.

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