Atwells Avenue. Image from Google StreetView
First, this goes without saying, but let’s say it because I’m about to get angry. Our thoughts (and I’m sure for those of us that do so, prayers) are with Councilman Hassett and his family and friends, and we hope for nothing but the speediest and fullest recovery for the Councilman and to see him back at work at City Hall soon.
Now’s the part of the post where I start to get angry. First I’m going to get angry at myself. Pedestrian injuries and fatalities are such a common place occurrence around here, and the section of Atwells where the Councilman was hit is among the most common, that I barely think about it anymore. It is simply part of the landscape. Like changing leaves, or students coming back to town.
The Journal reports:
The accident was the second severe mishap on that part of Atwells in five days.
A week ago, Brittany DeQuattro, whose home address the police withheld, suffered leg fractures and severe head cuts on her 22nd birthday when she got out of a parked car and was struck by the eastbound car of a hit-and-run driver in front of 422 Atwells. DeQuattro was hospitalized for a time and Zienowicz said she is expected to fully recover. The incident remains under investigation.
The scene is near the intersection of Atwells and Marcello Street, where a car driven by an off-duty policeman on a rainy night in December 2005 struck and killed a young woman pedestrian. The policeman was not criminally charged.
In October, Ericka Manzo, 25, was seriously injured near 216 Atwells when she was struck by a car driven by an allegedly drunken man as she crossed the street at about 1 a.m. The man was criminally charged in the hit-and-run accident.
People have been talking for years about the need for safety improvements along Atwells, where the speed limit is 25. After the 2005 fatality, the city did install more speed-limit signs.
That list does not include the elderly gentleman who jumped the sidewalk and slammed into the facade of Siena last Tuesday (thankfully no one on the sidewalk or in the restaurant were hurt).
Photo by Jim Beller
It also does not mention the person who was struck earlier this year prompting then Council-candidate Steven Meresi to get Traffic Engineering to install a crosswalk at the western end of Atwells, not far from where the Councilman was struck.
See what I mean? It happens all the time, one eventually gets outrage fatigue and I’m suffering from a severe case of it. I’m tired of being tired of hearing about people being run down in the streets and now I’m angry.
I’m also angry at the rest of the media. Of course the reaction to a City Councilor being struck by a car will be different than a private citizen as far as the media is concerned. More people know the Councilor, so it is a bigger story, we all know what a City Councilor is even if we don’t know the specific person. So it is a big story, OK. But look back up at that list from the Journal, someone in the newsroom could have picked up on that years ago and made a bigger deal of it.
I’m also angry with the City Council and the Mayor. The Journal goes on to write:
Lombardi said he asked Mayor David N. Cicilline’s staff to spend federal aid under the Obama economic stimulus bill on traffic-calming measures on Atwells but was told that the work was “not shovel-ready” and did not qualify. Lombardi insisted that preparation had been made and it did qualify.
“Obviously, [traffic] enforcement would be nice there, too,” he said. “People pick up speed. It’s difficult to see at night.”
It is no secret that the Mayor and Lombardi are not exactly friends. Somehow Steven Meresi, who at that point was just a regular citizen, got Traffic Engineering to install a crosswalk within days of someone else being struck, but Lombardi has not been able to get any serious action in decades in office. Was Cicilline playing politics with people’s lives? Was Lombardi not trying hard enough to rectify a deadly situation? I’ll let you dear reader be the judge.
I’m also angry with Traffic Engineering. The Councilor and the Mayor should not even have had the opportunity to bicker over this issue, Traffic Engineering should have identified the problem (or PPD should have identified it for them), and worked up a solution. If not to engineer roadways so that people are not struck down on a regular basis, then what is Traffic Engineering for? I will be asking the next Mayor to look into Traffic Engineering, determine what their function should be, and urge him to work to make them more effective.
I’m also angry at our culture. Atwells Avenue is an entertainment district, and by entertainment I mean eating and drinking. This is great, I love eating and I love drinking. But in our society the majority of people get in their cars and drive to eating and drinking establishments and Atwells is no different. I’ll bet a box of donuts that the person who hit the Councilman was drunk. And if that is the case, I blame her 100% for being drunk and reckless. This was no accident, the perpetrator made a conscious decision to get in her car and drive to Atwells to drink.
However, what choice did she really have? Our entire nation is built upon reliance on the automobile. She could have taken the bus maybe? Well yes, except the only bus serving Atwells is the green line trolley and that stops running at 8:50pm, the incident in question happened after 9pm.
She could have walked? Well yes, but I actually think, sad as it is to say, one is safer driving drunk than one is walking on Atwells. How many people have died on Atwells and what were they doing? Walking.
A combination of the structure of our physical environment, and a lack of enforcement, leads to a culture where it is OK to drive drunk. Really, we have few options.
And one more, I’m angry at the Providence Police. Enforcement of drunk driving in Providence is nil. Actions against establishments on the Hill for over-serving are nil (if your clientele is largely black or Hispanic, then you might get some enforcement, white and suburban, not so much). The entire coddamn police force responded when Councilman Hassett was hit, too little too late guys!
Now let us move from the part of the post in which I am angry into the part of the post where I try to outline what I think are some solutions (warning, I’m likely to still be angry).
So how do we address a problem like pedestrians being struck down by motor vehicles. The solutions I’m hearing from officials and from places like comments on Facebook and ProJo are well intentioned, but will not be helpful.
Speed limit signs. The speed limit on Atwells is 25mph. Councilman Lombardi already got speed limit signs put up after a prior fatality some years ago, they obviously did not work. Here’s the thing, do we think drunks are reading speed limit signs as the weave and speed down the Avenue? No, we don’t.
Better Lighting. This suggestion would be helpful and is needed, but will not do a whole lot to slow down drunk speeders. It will help the hapless pedestrian better see what is coming down the road at them, and may alert some drivers of people moving along and across the road. But the random drunk is not going to be deterred by more light alone.
Those signs by the side of the road that tell you how fast you are going. One is up now near where the Councilman was hit. Do you know what those do? Encourage inebriated assholes to see how high they can get the reader to go.
Speed Bumps. Now we’re starting to get somewhere. What is needed is something to physically slow cars down. Regardless of what the speed limit is, or how many signs you put up reminding people of that limit, if a road is built for high speed, people will drive fast on it.
The western end of Atwells is wide and smooth, with no stop signs or traffic lights (see the image at the top of the post). It feels like, and in a way it is true that, the entertainment district on Atwells ends round about the Walgreens, just east of where the Coucilman, and so many other people, were struck. There’s less people on the sidewalks from that point on, there are fewer people trying to cross the street, there’s not a valet stand every 10 yards anymore, traffic gets lighter, it is dark. Every indication to the driver is, “you can start driving faster now.”
But you can’t, the speed limit is still 25 and there are still people out and about, and it is still a city street. So we need to give drivers visual cues (not just signs) that they need to slow down, and physical means to ensure they do.
A speed bump is probably wrong, but raised crosswalks would be a good investment. Think of Smith Street behind the State House, but not as severe (that raised crosswalk there is really built all wrong, and makes everyone in the state now hate the concept). At every street that intersects with Atwells, there should be a standard crosswalk painted on the road at least, preferably zebra striped ones for greater visibility. At intersections that have higher pedestrian traffic, rather evenly spaced along the Avenue, there should be raised crosswalks. These force cars to slow to mount them, and give pedestrians greater visibility.
Another thing we need is curb extensions. There are a number of things the extensions achieve. First, they reduce the width of the street making drivers feel like they need to move slower. Second, they reduce the amount of space a pedestrian has to cross, they are not crossing from curb to curb, they are now crossing from extended curb to extended curb, a much smaller gap. Third, they give more visibility for the pedestrian and of the pedestrian. A pedestrian does not have to look from the far edge of the street beyond parked cars to try to make out what is happening in the street before they cross, the extension puts them right on the edge of the travel lane so they can see what is happening and if it is safe. Also, the driver can see the pedestrian standing on the extension and not have them be a surprise coming out from behind a parked car, or from the far edge of the street.
What we need is a Complete Streets redesign of Atwells Avenue and many of our other streets. To make our streets safe and efficient not just for automobiles, but also for pedestrians and cyclists.
We need enforcement. The police know there is lots of drinking and lots of nefarious activity on the Hill. They should be visibly active on the street, especially on weekends. On foot, on bikes, on horseback, in patrol cars (hell throw some helicopters in the sky), just be out there. People behave in the presence of law enforcement. They don’t need to make a hundred arrests, they just need to be there.
Some arrests would be helpful though. People now feel like they can speed into Providence from the suburbs to make last call. Why is this an acceptable practice? The Warwick and Johnston drunks should stay in Warwick and Johnston. Some arrests will let these people know that we do not accept them coming into our city late at night drunk.
We need political leadership. We have a new mayor getting elected tomorrow and a largely new City Council. Let’s start these people off on the right foot by letting them know that we are tired of people being hit by cars. We want them to be leaders and to do something about it. The physical interventions will cost money, go out and get us some damn money. The new Mayor is in charge of the police force. Esserman can stay or go, but the new Mayor needs to make it clear that enforcement in this area is a top priority.
Lastly, we all need to get over our outrage fatigue. We can’t wait until there is a notable injury or death to express our outrage, we need to hold those who are accountable accountable and continue to hold them accountable.
Later this week I will share my thoughts on how the rebuilding of Dean Street has been a failure from a Complete Streets perspective and discuss why I think Dean and Atwells may be the next hot spot for severe pedestrian injuries and fatalities.