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Walk Hard: Baltimore is unsafe for and unsympathetic to pedestrians

Walk Hard: Baltimore is unsafe for and unsympathetic to pedestrians
A pedestrian runs across the street at St. Paul and 33rd. (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Heather Strassberger did nothing wrong when she got run over in Harbor East. She was in a crosswalk.

"I pushed the button and waited for the signal, walked, and someone turned left and just drove into me," Strassberger says, still seething at the memory. "I got knocked down and did a back flip and ended up on my hands and knees."

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The driver didn't even get a ticket.

"The officer says, 'if you hit someone would you want to get a ticket?' I said if I hit someone with my car the last thing I'd be worried about is a $150 ticket!"

Besides being in pain, Strassberger, a transportation planner who used to work for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, was frustrated. She says that if the same thing happens again she would hesitate to call the police. "The police officer was clearly sympathetic" to the driver, she says. "The attitude is, everybody drives, everybody makes mistakes, and it could have been me. It's easy for the police officer to identify for the driver and not that person that got hit."

Baltimore City falls in the middle among the 50 most dangerous big cities for pedestrians. Newer, more sprawling cities like Orlando, Florida are statistically more dangerous to walk, mainly because most of the roads there were built after cars became common. The wide roads with gentle curves promote high vehicle speeds, while lack of sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities make them even less hospitable to those on foot. Baltimore, with its narrow streets and 25-mph speed limit, should be much safer than it is.

An average of 874 pedestrians were struck by cars each year in Baltimore from 2009-2013, according to the latest available statistics compiled by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Most of those pedestrians were hurt in the encounters, and an average of 15 per year died.

The fatalities were trending down, from 16 in 2009 to 7 in 2012. But Baltimore City accounted for nearly a third of the state's pedestrian accidents and injuries, even though it has only 11 percent of the state's population. And the reported accident rate is probably an undercount.

"We know that people of color are more likely to be struck by vehicles," Strassberger says. "People in those communities are probably grossly underreporting it if they're able to get up and hobble away like I was."

As a planner, Strassberger talks about concepts like "smart growth," "transit-oriented development" and "complete streets"—current buzzwords in the planning community. Complete Streets—a design ethic that is supposed to take account of all of a road's users, not just vehicles—has been Baltimore policy for several years. But, Strassberger says, even planners who are sympathetic to these concepts fail to implement them.

"In most places now they say they have Complete Streets," she says, "but they made the car-flow the first thing, then they say they're going to apply the Complete Streets model—but they already made it a six-lane highway." She is part of a movement of bike and pedestrian advocates who are trying to change the dominant culture.

One current battleground is the U.S. Department of Transportation website, which is making new rules for how local governments are to assess and report traffic congestion. The reports will help guide policy on air pollution and budgeting for roads and other transportation infrastructure nation-wide. The public comment period runs through August, and there were already more than 4,700 comments as of June 7, many of them from bicyclists and pedestrian advocates saying, in effect, what about us?

"The rule proposes that congestion mitigation be measured by delay for drivers," a commenter named Jennifer Fugatt wrote. "It fails to measure people not adding to that congestion because they are biking, walking or taking transit." Bradley Gregory, John Clary, Sam Khanija, Nicholas Fanaras, and many others wrote the exact same thing.

This spammy style of political activism reveals a couple of things. One, The League of American Bicyclists, which originated the campaign, has some organizational muscle; two, people on foot and bike are outsiders, trying to make traffic and transportation engineers see them amid the cars, somewhat the way pedestrians are literally warned to wear reflective orange triangles and carry flashlights when they venture onto public thoroughfares.

"There are problems of law, and then culture and tradition, which are bigger than the law itself," Strassberger says. "It's this kind of windshield perspective that people tend to have—now in Baltimore City, 30 percent of the population live in households without access to a car."

The law is actually on the pedestrian's side. Every intersection is a legal crosswalk whether it is painted there or not, but some police officers are not even be aware of that law. Most pedestrian/car accidents are chalked-up to "pedestrian error," without taking into account short "walk" signals, drivers turning (legally or not) on red, and design errors that make death and injury more likely, then fade into the background.

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Most people don't even bother suing.

Maryland is one of only five states (including the District of Columbia) in which a finding of any negligence on the part of an accident victim means they can't recover any money from the defendant.

"They might say that 'well, the driver was speeding and drunk, and you were in a crosswalk. But you had on dark clothes,'" Strassberger says.

So pedestrians are warned to beware.

Two years ago, Johns Hopkins researchers launched an awareness campaign to try to reduce pedestrian injuries in Baltimore. The East Baltimore safety campaign urged pedestrians to "Stop, wait, go slow," and to "Be alert and don't get hurt." It spread the message with radio announcements, public signage, social media tips, and advertisements on the sides of buses.

At least two people were killed so far this year by vehicles on Baltimore streets. One of them was killed by a hit-and-run driver, the other by a tow truck. On January 28, another person was injured when struck by an MTA bus.

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