The intersection of Story and King roads in East San Jose, California has a lethal reputation.
“There are a lot of hit-and-runs. A lot of people know that and seem to be scared of riding their bikes,” says Victoria Partida, president of the Tropicana-Lanai Neighborhood Association. The two roads are major arterials that separate a park from the shopping centers that residents rely on for their daily needs. For many in this working-class community of Mexican, Central American, and Vietnamese immigrants, crossing these roads is not optional—but it needn’t be a life-or-death decision.
Over the last decade, the number of pedestrians killed on U.S. streets rose 46 percent. In 2018, vehicles killed more bicyclists than any year since 1990, with 2019’s total fatalities following close behind. While every deadly collision happens under its own set of circumstances, most of them involve roadway infrastructure that favors driving over other modes of transportation. And a disproportionate number of these crashes occur in communities of color: Drivers strike and kill Black people at an 82 percent higher rate than white people. For Native Americans and Alaskans, the fatality rate skyrockets to 221 percent.
The Story-King intersection is considered a “priority safety corridor” due to its high proportion of fatalities and severe injuries—just the kind of place that San Jose wants to tackle through its citywide mobility initiatives, which include rapidly expanding a network of protected bicycle lanes. The work is part of the American Cities Climate Challenge, a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and several other organizations to reduce emissions in the buildings and transportation sectors of 25 U.S. cities.
With thoughtful integration of racial equity into city infrastructure, the kinds of improvements that benefit the environment—for instance, making neighborhoods more accessible by foot or bike—also bring economic, transit, and public health opportunities to residents who have historically been left out of large investments in their communities.
Like San Jose, cities across the United States are trying to make their streets safer and more equitable for walking, biking, scootering, skating, and however else people choose to get around. Here are a few examples.
Discrimination and Dead Ends
Travel around St. Louis, and you’ll quickly notice a lot of dead-end streets. Some are cul-de-sacs while others feature gates, fences, or more informal barricades of, say, planters or cement Jersey barriers. Many of the barriers make it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists, or they lack accessible features like curb ramps, preventing people from passing through with ease.
The physical divisions can also form psychological barriers between communities.
Installed in the 1970s and ’80s, the first barricades were often placed “on streets that historically demarcated racial groups and neighborhoods,” says Scott Ogilvie, program manager for St. Louis’s Planning and Urban Design Agency. But in more recent years, they went up in predominantly Black neighborhoods, where residents were worried about traffic safety or crime. A former city alderman, Ogilvie notes that elected officials in St. Louis—not city staff—decide which transportation projects get built and where.
The barriers were “a visible thing an elected official could do for residents and say, ‘Well, we’ve made something better,’” he says. “But we’re also creating mobility challenges at the same time.”
Officials and advocates now want to breathe life back into these dead ends, with Ogilvie seeing them as a quick, low-cost opportunity to dramatically improve the city’s pedestrian and bike network. The fact that many of the dead ends are located on quiet residential streets could also help with traffic-safety concerns. “If you’ve got a bunch of barriers…people may not recognize it as a good corridor to ride on,” Ogilvie says. “And for some people, they’re a real barrier to access if they don’t have a certain level of physical capability.”
An important first step in making streets more equitable is to change how city governments function and give local communities a seat at the table. In 2019, Atlanta created its first-ever Department of Transportation, reorganizing several city functions, such as street design and construction, that were formerly handled by separate agencies. Advocates pushed for the change after a 2018 Georgia Tech study found that the city’s most dangerous corridors—also known as Atlanta’s “High-injury Network—were concentrated in neighborhoods that were majority Black, had large numbers of low-income households, and had more car-free households.
Addressing this problem required the city to better—and more quickly—respond to the needs of those communities, which were often distrustful. “People from marginalized and oppressed populations and communities have so many justified frustrations with how the system hasn’t worked for them—and has often been used against them,” says Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, a longtime bike advocacy group that’s expanding to cover pedestrian and transit issues.
While the Climate Challenge worked with the city of Atlanta on policies that reduce pollution, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition has been helping local residents to lead their own advocacy efforts, in turn building relationships and trust with the new transportation department. Instead of speaking for those neighborhoods, Serna says the group is supporting their advocacy initiatives through its already established communications outlets and political capital. “These community members know their own neighborhoods best,” she says. “It is essential that their voices serve as the primary expertise in planning for safe streets.”
A prime example is #RespectCascade, a campaign to fund long-delayed safety improvements on Cascade Avenue, a road in a historically Black community where, in 2019, a driver killed a long-term resident who had been walking on a crosswalk. With support from the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, neighbors organized a march and temporarily halted traffic at the crosswalk while students walked home from school. The city agreed to adjust the traffic signals to give people more time to cross Cascade Avenue. And while funding for the project is in limbo, plans for more bike lanes, upgraded bus stops, and other improvements to pedestrian safety are already in the works.
Meeting People—and Politicians—Where They Are
Engaging community members in advocacy can be difficult, and there are many factors that influence a person’s level of involvement. They may not know how to ask for safer street designs because they’re not familiar with the jargon that advocates and transportation planners use. Some may not speak English at all. There are also cultural and other social barriers. It’s one thing to know how to voice your concerns to your local government but another to even feel like you can in the first place. Biking advocates, who skew white and affluent, may sometimes take their comfort level with speaking to power for granted when encouraging others to do so.
And, of course, people are busy and don’t always have time to participate. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s approach has been to pay community organizers for their expertise and time. “One result of systemic racism is that Black, brown, and immigrant communities have lower incomes and less overall wealth, so not compensating people for their work leads to inequities in who can participate,” says Serna.
In San Jose, NRDC is working with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and existing community groups like the Tropicana-Lanai Neighborhood Association to educate residents about the planning process so they can use their limited time to be efficient and effective advocates.
“It takes a long time,” Partida says. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy!” She says if the city
was more transparent about how the process works, it would alleviate confusion and people would better understand the timelines involved with projects.
Elected officials need educating, too, whether it’s about their constituents’ needs or how one actually designs safer streets. To this end, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition is organizing bike rides with newly elected council members so they can see the city’s new bike lanes firsthand. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the city is developing a street design guide with tools for calming traffic. It also worked with NRDC to organize a workshop for aldermen and city staff—to be moderated by Charles T. Brown, a “street-level” researcher—to learn about the connections between transportation, health, and equity. The goal, Ogilvie says, is to empower staff to propose projects to elected officials, instead of the other way around.
“We have a very driver-centric culture and way of thinking about transportation,” he says, but things are changing. “Over the last decade, we’ve built a lot more staff capacity to deliver more good projects. We’re limited more by funding these days than by desire or capacity to have safer streets.”
A Safer, More Close-Knit Community
Back in San Jose, neighborhood organizing is starting to bear fruit. Partida lists a number of initiatives she and her neighbors are working on, such as an open-streets program that would close some streets to vehicle through traffic and an effort to build a local park. Later this year, Story Road will get new streetlights, high-visibility crosswalks, and curb extensions that will slow drivers down and make walking and bicycling safer.
The residents of Tropicana-Lanai are learning how to give their input to the city with the added benefit of community building, which is “one of the biggest accomplishments,” Partida says. “Before, there was no association; neighbors didn’t know their neighbors. And now, I know more people, and they know more people.”
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