Jaywalking is often really the only practical option for a pedestrian trying to navigate an environment that has been built solely for cars. This holds true for Atlanta, but I could apply it to any place built on a car-scale anywhere. If the place you need to go is directly across the street, and the only place to cross is fairly out of the way, you’re probably going to jaywalk. Yes, jaywalking is illegal. Yes, it can be dangerous. But when the infrastructure accommodates driving but not more basic human behaviors like walking, the walking instinct is going to win out over a set of laws that was essentially lobbied by the auto industry in the early 1900s. These laws undoubtedly serve one population (those in cars) at the expense of another (those not in cars). I love to walk, but I do so by choice, for I could drive or bike, too. It is often our city’s poorest residents who must walk. As J Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia in 1929, wrote:That brings us to the real purpose of these [jaywalking] laws, which is not that pedestrians should be spared injury but that motorists should be spared a little inconvenience. I drive a car from the driver’s point of view. I know how trifling is the inconvenience which is saved thus at the expense of the liberty of the poorer people in the community. Indeed, I do not believe that in the long run it is for the benefit even of the motorist. I think it is a dreadful thing to encourage in the motorist’s mind, as these laws unquestionably do, the notion that he is running on something like a railroad track cleared for his special benefit. (Thanks to Darryl Hart at Front Porch Republic for the quote. It also makes this Presbyterian urbanist pretty giddy to quote the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, where my church’s pastors studied, on urban issues.)
The infrastructure in place now encourages high auto speeds and provides little signaling to drivers that they may even need to yield to pedestrians. Of course, the result is that drivers “slaughter the usual suspects,” as my old Commercial Law professor would say. However, drivers are not usually held too responsible, because often the slaughtered folks are (1) jaywalking and (2) poor. It’s my hope that the the legal outcome hinges more on the former, where the pedestrian is technically committing an illegal act, but I’m at least a bit skeptical. It isn’t my goal here to demonize car drivers. I’m a car driver. And as a car driver, I know that the infrastructure is designed more for me to not hit other cars than for me to not hit human beings on the roads. Frankly, that should scare me a lot more than it usually does when I’m in my Toyota 4Runner. With the way the roads are set up, people are going to get hit, period. Drivers should be more responsible, but then, so should the traffic engineers who are supposed to be experts in designing the damn things.
Having set up the problems with walking, jaywalking, and the present infrastructure, I’d like to highlight two Atlanta roads that I will discuss more in later posts:
- Buford Hwy, an approximately 6 lane wide hub of immigrant communities in the northeast of the city, is our most notorious example of a poor pedestrian environment. At best, Buford Hwy has mediocre sidewalks and a terrible streetscape for pedestrians; at worst, it has narrow, rocky foot trails wedged between the curb, utility poles, and drainage ditches that are the only option for anyone not in a car. Crosswalks may be spaced out by half a mile or more.
- Howell Mil Rd., about 100 yards from my house in West Midtown, actually has some real potential as a walkable street. I ride my bike into work on Howell Mill and walk to church. It’s not great, but it’s no Buford Hwy. Howell Mill has things to walk to, decent sidewalks, and a fair number of cross walks. The Beltline Overlay, a special zoning code encouraging walkability related to Atlanta’s Beltline project, applies to Howell Mill near my house. Yet there are some real issues with making Howell Mill truly walkable:
- A few popular bus stops with no nearby crosswalks
- Lack of shade, an essential for Atlanta’s heat
- Land uses and building frontages
- Overgrown ground-level vegetation
- Excessive curb cuts and unmaintained, broken sidewalks
- Broken water meter covers leaving holes in the sidewalk