Is Reno getting more dangerous for pedestrians?
Sometimes, when I drive, I imagine how it must have been for Maria that morning: It’s just before 7 a.m. on April 15, 2016. Her breath is visible as she climbs into her gold 2004 Camry. She has already finished her first job of the day, scrubbing toilets and countertops in the Jacobsens’ five-bedroom in the hills of the East Bay. They were one of Maria’s very first clients, hiring her just weeks after she came from the Philippines to join her cousins in Oakland. (Maria, like other names in this story, is a psuedonym.)
Pulling down the long, steep driveway and into the neighborhood, Maria begins the mental inventory of houses she’ll clean today. The Nichols’, the DeAngelos’, the Petersons’, the Goodmans’. As she winds through the narrow neighborhood street toward town, she flicks her eyes to the radio dial and tunes in to the Catholic station. Porch lights glow orange, illuminating the well-kept lawns of homes that are just beginning to wake up. Oh, it’s Friday, she remembers. The Snyders’ place, too.
Maria coasts down the hill toward the main drag that runs through downtown, humming to the radio and occasionally reaching for her thermos of green tea, now lukewarm since being steeped at four this morning. The pink morning light filters through the trees lining the road, casting the neighborhood in pastel. She sees that the light at the bottom of the hill, across from Trader Joe’s, is green. Braking slightly as she reaches the intersection, Maria instinctively glances across the road to look for oncoming traffic and, seeing nothing, pulls through the light.
Suddenly, there’s a flash and a thump on the front bumper. Maria snaps her head back toward the intersection behind her to see a woman lying in the street, face down. Instantly, Maria’s face begins to tingle and burn. Sweat coats her palms as she swerves into the parking lot of a long-shuttered Mexican restaurant. Breath comes slow and jerking as she swings open her door and looks back toward the intersection. Police, their station just a block away, are already there, two officers lifting the woman out of the crosswalk and guiding her slowly to the curb. Her face is covered in blood, as are her bare legs. She’s alive, praise God. She’s alive. Maria grabs a towel from her trunk and rushes to them.
The officers begin talking to a witness, another driver who was at the intersection, and Maria approaches the woman, who is now sitting on the curb, her hand to her mouth in an attempt to keep blood from pouring down her front. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Maria stumbles over her words, touching the woman’s arm. She’s shaking, wearing long sleeves and running shorts, her fleece headband knocked from her head on impact. Maria offers her the towel, but the woman pushes her away, her words unintelligible through broken teeth and heaving sobs.
An officer approaches Maria and begins asking her questions. They wash over her, a blur of details about her speed, whether she saw the woman in the crosswalk. The ringing in her ears drowns out the officer as she is instructed to hand over her license and insurance information.
What will they do? Her insurance can’t cover this. Mrs. Nichols will fire me for being late. Will she be OK? I can’t afford a lawsuit. I’ll lose the house. I’ll lose everything.
An ambulance arrives, and the woman is lifted onto a gurney by a team of firefighters. The ambulance doors slam shut, the sirens wail, and it disappears up the road. The officer tells Maria that she’s free to go. They’ll be in touch. Numbly, Maria walks back to her car, which shows no sign of the impact. She nearly falls in, mechanically turning the key, and pulling out into the road. Maria feels nothing as she drives, sees nothing. Only the body lying in the street, the woman she hit.
The woman Maria hit was me.
Smart Growth America calls the rising occurrence of pedestrian death in the United States an “epidemic.” In 2016, the number of pedestrian deaths across the United States rose by 11 percent from the previous year, totaling nearly 6,000 deaths. That’s 16 people for every day of the year. An additional 70,000 non-fatal pedestrian accidents also occurred in 2016. You are reading this essay because I am accounted for in one set of statistics and not the other.
In Nevada, where I’ve lived for the past year for graduate school, the epidemic is about as bad as it gets: over 1,000 pedestrians have been killed or seriously injured in the last five years alone. As part of the ZeroFatalitiesNV campaign, a Nevada Department of Transportation initiative, decals have been affixed to sidewalks across the state to warn pedestrians of the dangers they face on the road. At the corner of Artemisia Way and North Virginia Street, where hundreds of students cross from the dorms to the central campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, a great white shark leaps from the sidewalk decal, its gaping mouth lined with rows of jagged teeth. “Crossing distracted is just as deadly,” the shark says, its empty black eyes staring straight up to the sky.
Just down Virginia Street at 10th Street, a busy city street sprawls out far into the depths another sidewalk decal. Hanging on the ledge of the skyscraper are the words “crossing distracted is just as deadly.” Along Evans Avenue on the other side of campus, a swamp of alligators lurks in yet another pavement decal, their menacing snouts hanging open above the green water, telling pedestrians that “jaywalking is just as deadly.”
Other cities have employed similar tactics. Last year, actors dressed as the Grim Reaper patrolled the streets of Pittsburgh, on hire by the city, tapping walkers on the shoulder with their scythes to warn them of the dangers of crossing the street without proper caution. In Maryland and Washington D.C., city buses feature giant faces of children streaked with black tire marks, staring down walkers and warning them, “Text and you’ll be next.”
Intellectually, I understand the intention behind these public safety campaigns. The shocking juxtaposition of things we know to fear with an everyday action as simple as crossing the street is meant to grab the attention of walkers and slow them down enough to look both ways—to associate the terror of the Jaws theme music and the swish of the Grim Reaper’s cloak with their daily on-foot commutes. Still, I can’t say I feel the impact of the decals or the bus posters or even the well-intentioned Grim Reapers. Despite their intended shock value, these campaigns are asking us to do the impossible: to be afraid, if not terrified, of the mundane, taken-for-granted places we move through every day, and worse, to realize that the world we’ve built is a deadly danger to us.
In the weeks following my accident, I was immersed in all that the public safety campaigns do not, and cannot, capture. I spent hours with my eyes closed, an ice pack wrapped in an old dish towel over my face to calm the swelling of my broken, and surgically re-broken, nose. I lay in a sick stupor, high on four different painkillers I’d been prescribed by the ER doctor. In this forced, dark stillness, my memory of the accident played on endless, inescapable repeat, the way it does now any time I drive downtown or watch pedestrians at an intersection.
I didn’t see or hear the car. It came from behind me and turned into the crosswalk while I was already in it. The driver’s side of the front bumper made contact with my left hip just enough to knock my feet out from under me and spin me 90 degrees, such that I landed parallel to the lanes of traffic. But I’ve pieced this together after the fact. In my memory, there is no sound, no pain. Just the thick, numb shock of looking up from the pavement, sunlight glistening off the pool of blood beneath me on the asphalt, a woman running toward me.
“I,” as I knew it, ruptured in that moment. I went for a run one morning, and I never came back.
New “I” is a person who’s had the remaining pieces of her broken teeth pushed back into place by the dextrous hands of an oral surgeon, her body CAT-scanned and X-rayed and pumped full of Vicodin. New “I” is a person who had wires strung through her gums and wrapped around her teeth for weeks. A person who regularly visited a plastic surgeon’s office that’s painted soft lavender and decorated with displays of breast implants in ascending size and advertisements for two-for-one botox shots, a Mother’s Day special. New “I” had to learn to speak with a lisp, to stop smiling at strangers to prevent her dry, cracking lips from catching on the tangle of metal holding her mouth together.
In the narrative I’ve written for myself, I know I’m lucky. Afterward, I comforted friends and family and co-workers with this: “It could have been so much worse,” I said to them again and again, playing down the horrible blunt impact of “I was hit by a car.” And I believe it. I was and am fortunate, and that helps me to cope with countless hours in a dentist’s chair, the unfamiliar nose I see in the mirror, and the dead, discolored teeth that stand out in my smile. But what it doesn’t help is the vivid, unshakeable sense that old “I” is out there somewhere, separated from me forever but not quite gone. She finished her run that morning, went out for a beer after work that night to watch the Giants game, and visited with her family in San Luis Obispo that weekend. She haunts me still. I wonder all the time about what she’s doing, about the future ahead of her that’s hers and not mine.
In the last year and a half, I’ve attended innumerable appointments with dentists, endodontists, orthodontists, oral surgeons, plastic surgeons and lawyers. I’ve endured reconstructive surgery, ingested countless prescriptions, and worn braces. I’ve moved to a new state, started grad school, fallen in love, taught dozens of first-year students, and run five half marathons. With time and distance, the surreal, horrible and wonderful have begun to blend, blurring the edges of old and new “I.” Sometimes, I go a day or more without acknowledging this split that lives deep in my core. I sense that I’m beginning to recognize a coherent, unified version of myself again. But I’m never going to escape the knowledge that my sense of self, or Maria’s or anyone else’s, is just that: a sense, an illusion that can be snatched away in a second.
My story is all I have. For all the data and public safety campaigns about the pedestrian death “epidemic,” there’s strikingly little to find in the record about actual people, about the lives taken or changed forever, even Maria’s. I never saw her again after that morning in the street. Police officers collected her information at the scene, which I then fought to obtain so that lawyers could shuttle details between us and facilitate insurance payments. Her real personhood, and our shared human trauma, is inaccessible.
The fact that actual people are missing from conversations about pedestrians seems to be an outgrowth of the way American roadways have been designed since the advent of cars themselves. At the dawn of the 20th century, American roadways were widely accepted as multiple-use public spaces, with horses, carriages, streetcars and walkers all swirling within and between them. As automobiles increasingly became the preferred mode of travel for those who could afford it, working class walkers were literally pushed out of the streets. The pejorative term “jaywalking” was coined in the early 1910s to paint walkers as uneducated, careless, country bumpkins who didn’t belong on city streets. A parallel term, “jay driver,” was used to describe the irresponsible automobile operators who were causing an increasingly alarming number of pedestrian fatalities. By the 1920s, however, car lobbies launched massive anti-jaywalking campaigns to shift the blame for accidents from drivers to walkers, campaigns that would look familiar to those of us living in the age of the pedestrian fatality epidemic: informational cards, posters and advocacy messages about the dangers of the road, the role of the responsible walker, and the need to cross only in a marked crosswalk, which was an entirely new cultural space in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, jaywalkers were firmly lodged in our cultural consciousness as criminals. Pedestrians were from then on factored into roadway planning only as impediments to the steady flow of traffic. The right for human bodies to exist in the roadway disappeared.
In the current fever pitch of concern for pedestrian safety, we’re now scrambling to face the choices that have been made about how we use roadways, and nowhere is this more clear than at the corner of Plumb Lane and Krupp Circle, where a 15-year-old girl named Allie was killed last summer in the most recent of several pedestrian accidents that have occurred on this stretch of road. Laminated photos of Allie hugging her bulldog, playing volleyball, posing in front of a mountain vista are all tied to a street sign on the corner. A massive pile of fake flowers, crosses and mementos lies at the base of the fence that lines the sidewalk. Left-behind candle wax is stuck in pink and purple swirls on the gray cement. A reflective sign at the center of the memorial reads, “Be Safe for Allie. Be Bright. Be Seen.”
Like any middle-class suburban street, the pavement at this corner is cracked with wear, homes line the road behind two-foot retaining walls and neatly-trimmed shrubs and lawns. Walkways up to front doors are bordered by vibrant potted flowers. The sidewalk is wide and walkable, and dips in the curb at each street corner suggest that the roadway was designed with pedestrians in mind. The lowered curb indicates that walkers or those using a wheelchair could cross over Krupp Circle, the residential dead-end street, or over Plumb Lane, the four-lane thoroughfare that runs across Reno from east to west, but it’s hard to tell. While the curb at this corner suggests that roadway was originally intended for use by people on foot, the actual place for human bodies is missing. No white stripes to enclose a protected space for walkers or runners or wheelchairs or strollers. No row of white rectangles to claim a place for pedestrians to be.
News clips about Allie’s death report that she was crossing mid-block when a truck hit her just before midnight on June 9. She should have known better, some say. She shouldn’t have crossed in a poorly lit area, or she should have gone down the block to a crosswalk. In fact, just about every pedestrian safety campaign does say this. But its also true to say that the road where Allie was killed made no place for her. What if, seeing that there were no safe places to cross in sight, Allie had looked both ways and run across the road as fast as she could when she didn’t see a car coming? What if she made the best judgment call possible? And what about the driver? Was he preoccupied by his phone or by problems at work? Was he driving too fast to slow down when he saw Allie in the road? Does any of this matter?
Most popular discussions of the “epidemic” attribute the rise in pedestrian deaths to “a perfect storm” of factors. An economy in upswing and low gas prices have put more cars are on the road, and virtually everyone, drivers and pedestrians both, is plugged in to smartphones and earbuds. These factors compound the dangers of speeding and alcohol use, making roads increasingly more deadly for pedestrians. All of this is in play in each story—in Allie’s, in mine.
Irresponsible behavior, a lack of caution where caution is desperately due, a failure to appreciate the consequences of our actions—but is that all? Are we to accept the world as it is given to us? To agree that it’s only our tiny sphere of individual responsibility and agency that guides and protects us? A study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies reports that a pedestrian’s risk of injury inside crosswalks is just as high as it is outside of them. In high-volume traffic areas and roadways with multiple lanes like Plumb Lane, the study finds, the crosswalk is even more dangerous than other areas of the street, and signalized crosswalks with flashing lights are not necessarily safer than their un-signalized counterparts. Other studies show that even the stories we tell about pedestrian accidents are framed selectively to feature the stock narrative of distraction and irresponsibility, a narrative far easier to write and to read than one about the human lives of pedestrians and drivers shaken to their core, or ripped from the world entirely, by a place as familiar and taken-for-granted as the road.
I was crossing the street in a crosswalk. I had the legal right of way. It was daylight. The woman who hit me was driving the speed limit. She had a green light. But somehow, “Old I” and “New I” were still torn from each other that day. For me, for Maria, and maybe even for those who witnessed it. If, as always, we attribute pedestrian injury and death to a perfect storm of misbehavior and bad decision making, what can we say when all of the conditions of our roadways are working as they’re supposed to and a body still ends up bloody in the street?
In April 2017, a new crosswalk was installed on Plumb Lane, about a block west of the intersection with Krupp Circle where Allie was killed less than two months later. An oddly placed, shiny yellow traffic sign warns drivers to slow down, near where Allie’s memorial now stands, and the fresh white stripes of the crosswalk stand out against the dark pavement. No dips in the curb allow pedestrians smooth transition from sidewalk to street. Just a coat of red paint warns drivers from stopping in the clearly out-of-place addition to the road. This crosswalk, and several others along Plumb Lane, are pieces of Reno’s $400,000 effort to protect the lives of pedestrians in the last year alone. While it is too early to prove whether new crosswalks or sidewalk decals in Nevada have been effective, this particular crosswalk provides a striking case study. In Nevada, there were 99 pedestrian deaths in 2017, up from 80 in 2016.
At this point, I can’t help but believe that we are failing in our efforts to improve pedestrian safety because we have failed to fundamentally question the structure of the public places that make such an epidemic possible. Instead, we’re choosing to shabbily retrofit a world that wasn’t built for human bodies in the first place.
On the road
My alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. I groggily hit snooze, and then again at 5:35. Finally, on the third ring, I shut it off and kiss my boyfriend’s hair, the only part of him peeking out from the blankets, before crawling out of bed. In the dark, I fumble through the dresser and hastily pull on my running clothes. I have to get in a couple of miles before class—I’m meeting up with friends after work, and, tomorrow, I have an early 12-miler before my boyfriend and I go to Truckee.
Before stepping into the chill of the high desert morning, I slip my house key into my armband. Locking the door behind me, I press go on my workout app and begin jogging toward Wells Avenue. Just around Virginia Lake and back, I think, that’s all I’ll have time for.
The cold aches in my tight knees and hips. As I breathe in heavily, the air feels sharp in my lungs, pinching the insides of my ribs. On autopilot, I run west, passing the still-dark windows of Magpie and the old DeLuxe. I reach the corner of Virginia and Holcomb where I have to cross to get to the lake. I push the button for the crossing signal and wait impatiently for the light to change, feeling my muscles immediately begin to tighten in the cold. Hands resting on my hips to keep my lungs open and full, I shake out my ankles and stretch my calves. I look up at the light, and the walk symbol changes from a red hand to a man illuminated in white.
I breathe in and step into the street.