The Star Tribune’s framing of the death of Theodore J. Ferrara (“Man hit by vehicle while crossing Lyndale Av. has died,” Oct. 18), as with other vehicle-pedestrian or vehicle-bike crashes, is problematic and requires rethinking.
Normalizing traffic deaths is poor reporting. All traffic deaths are preventable and unnecessary.
Let’s start where the rubber meets the road: Walking is, inherently, a safe activity (unless, of course, there’s ice). People on foot are the least dangerous users of our roads, yet they are left out of most road space. While cars zoom through inner-city thoroughfares, pedestrians cling to life at the 4- to 8-foot margins left on the edge.
In a city setting, all modes should intermingle safely on our public right-of-ways (that’s right, the street is public space): people on foot, bikes or scooters, those who ride transit and neighbors who gather. That is what makes a city. On a busy, dense, urban street like Lyndale Avenue, this should be the norm.
Yet Minneapolis and Hennepin County keep designing city streets that give car drivers all the reason to believe that they are alone on the road. Multiple, wide lanes for vehicles narrow driver vision and let drivers feel “safe” at speeds that kill, or while distracted. Drivers are not given on-street cues to expect people on foot or bike.
Every year on Minneapolis streets, an average of 95 people suffer life-altering injuries or are killed in traffic crashes. And those walking and rolling are vastly overrepresented. In 2015 alone, pedestrians made up less than 10% of street users but almost 60% of fatalities (Minneapolis Pedestrian Crash Study 2017).
When Juul caused harm to a handful of teenagers around the country, it immediately saw legislation to severely restrict it. So, tell me why we still have streets that kill this many people per year? Where is the outrage? These deaths could be avoided if the street were designed correctly and the speed limit were lowered.
Until then, the Star Tribune’s must stop using language that blames the most vulnerable road users and normalizes traffic deaths. This driver-dominated culture has become so normalized that the language around pedestrian deaths frequently puts the blame on the injured.
When a story quotes police admonishing pedestrians who don’t cross in marked crosswalks at signalized intersections, it fails to attend to reality: most crashes occur in marked crosswalks at signalized intersections. And it fails to caution to drivers to behave safely; even though they are the road users who have potential to kill.
In this Lyndale tragedy, the report mentions that the driver “couldn’t stop.” If someone doesn’t have time to stop on a city street in a densely populated area, you should look further into why this is so:
1) That road was built to give drivers of personal cars the highest priority; denying everyone else on that street safety or comfortable use.
2) The speed limit has been set far too high for an urban area.
Our politicians and public works officials put up with death because they worry about the backlash to “congestion” for those privileged enough to own and operate private vehicles.
This grave misuse of public space and money means Minnesota underfunds public transit options, the city barely maintains middling bike infrastructure and drivers are prone to dangerous behaviors like speeding, running red lights and distracted driving, without fear of consequence.
In addition, roads built for cars do more than cause a direct hazard: vehicles emit deadly pollutants and their emissions warm the planet. Wide roads break apart communities, by prohibiting free movement and on-street face-to-face interactions. Cars are a lot worse than just imminently dangerous.
I hope there isn’t a next time to report on a traffic death. But if another tragedy occurs on our city streets, I ask you to investigate it with the full vigor you give the stories that grace your front page. Study and report with data from our Vision Zero plan, on the depressingly real racial and age disparities among those injured or killed, and the dire inequity built into our largest city asset, our public right-of-ways.
Abigail Johnson is chair of the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee.