Cities: March 2007 Archives

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."

Some time ago, David Sucher, author of the great urban design book City Comforts, rechristened his blog as "City Comforts, temporarily known as Viaduct, The Blog." His focus has narrowed from a wide variety of urban design issues to (mainly) a single crucial issue affecting his hometown of Seattle: Whether to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an earthquake-damaged double-decker freeway between downtown and Puget Sound, with a stronger viaduct, a tunnel, or something else. Sucher's blog has been so focused on the details of the issue, it's been hard to get the big picture, but USA Today provides a summary in today's edition.

Sucher's solution is "repair and prepare": "Repair the Alaskan Way Viaduct so that we can prepare to tear it down in an orderly fashion." Don't build a new viaduct, don't build a tunnel, but strengthen the current structure. Meanwhile begin to create the transit infrastructure that can replace the people-moving capacity that will be lost when the viaduct is eventually removed.

Seattle certainly doesn't need to endure what Boston suffered with the Big Dig, the 15-year, $15 billion project to convert a similar elevated expressway, separating downtown from the waterfront, to a tunnel. But many cities have simply removed waterfront freeways. Portland removed Harbor Drive in 1974. When the 1989 earthquake weakened the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, it was closed and remained closed until it was demolished, turning real estate in the shadows of an elevated expressway into sunny waterfront property. (Casper Weinberger, later U. S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and Secretary of Defense, opposed the building of the Embarcadero Freeway as a member of the California Assembly and was gratified to see it torn down at long last.)

In the '70s, Milwaukee stopped the construction of a lakefront expressway, and just a few years ago the city demolished an expressway spur that cut off downtown from the Milwaukee River and the north side.

And other cities are reconsidering waterfront highways. A citizens' group in Louisville is arguing against the widening of "Spaghetti Junction" -- where three interstate highways come together between downtown Louisville and the Ohio River -- and instead calling for the removal of a segment of I-64 between downtown and the river, realigning the route along an existing loop road.

Thanks to the work of citizen activists in the '70s and in the '90s, Tulsa has avoided having either a limited-access freeway or a high-speed six-lane parkway cutting off access between the river and the rest of the city. We don't have to remove what we never built.

We made our own mistakes, however, in the construction of the Inner Dispersal Loop, which cut downtown off from its surrounding neighborhoods, blighting land on both sides of each leg of the road. The construction of I-244 and the last section of the Broken Arrow Expressway from 15th Street into downtown also split and damaged neighborhoods.

An element of Nashville's 50 year vision is to eliminate its own inner expressway loop, making hundreds of acres of land available for new development. Perhaps Tulsa should envision a similar long-range plan to reconnect neighborhoods, downtown, and the river.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from March 2007.

Cities: February 2007 is the previous archive.

Cities: May 2007 is the next archive.

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