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July 22nd, 2010
Profiles from the Recession
[VIDEO] Dangerous Crossing: A new suburbia as economy changes

transdeskIn recent years a little noticed shift has been transforming suburbia: the home of the middle class has become the home of the working poor. As a result, roadways that were built for the car are now used by a growing population that can’t afford to drive. The consequences can be deadly.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Producers Fae Moore and Tom McNamara, editor David Kreger and special correspondent John Larson for Blueprint America

27-year-old Nimia Larcia lives in a suburban housing complex just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She moved here from Honduras six years ago in search of a better life.

Suburban America used to be synonymous with good living, not the least of which was because its streets were so much safer than those in the city. Not anymore.

Every morning when Nimia walks from her apartment to her minimum-wage job at a jewelry store, she has to cross one of the most dangerous roads in Georgia: Buford Highway. People in cars race back and forth, many if not most exceeding the 45 mile per hour speed limit.

For people on foot, it is seven lanes of fear.

Sometimes I am scared, but I have to do.

Nimia Larcia and suburban America represent what is more and more becoming a great American mismatch. Communities like hers were built for people with cars.

The problem is many here can’t afford cars. And so these areas by design have become lethal for far too many people.

…a five year old girl killed. Her older sister seriously injured.

Police say a man was hit at Buford highway and Dresden around 2 o’clock this morning. His body was then dragged nearly two miles to Buford and Afton lane…

The number of injuries and fatalities along Buford Highway is three times higher than any other road in the state.

Technically this person, by law, is supposed to stop, right?

Yeah, this guy’s supposed to stop. But he’s not.

Michael Orta works for PEDS, an organization that’s trying to improve pedestrian safety in and around Atlanta.

Buford Highway is just a posterchild for this issue. There are tons of roadways out there just like this.

The state acknowledges that fully eight of Buford Highway’s 30 miles are hazardous for pedestrians. And roads just like it can be found in nearly every state in the country.

According to a recent report, by two national transportation groups, about 43 thousand pedestrians were killed in the U.S. in the last decade; “the equivalent of a jumbo jet going down roughly every month.”

Nearly 30 of them died right here on Buford Highway. At least 250 more were injured.

This is a typical Buford Highway bus stop here. It’s just a pole in the dirt right next to the roadway, just a few feet away. I wouldn’t want to have my kids here. A lot of people wait up here, they’re got little rocks so they can sit up on the hill.

So that’s like the bus stop up here?

Yeah, kind of. People sit up here on the hill.

Demand for transportation is so high here that taxis, freelance car services and private buses race down these roads competing for customers with the public transit system, often using the very same stops.

People rushing to and from buses account for one in four of the accidents here.

This girl just got off at the stop like anyone else would, and she needs to get across the street. Of course, she’s going to do what most people do which is wait for a gap in traffic this way, stop in the middle suicide lane. And then wait for a gap in the other half of the road.

Plus, it’s right behind a hill.

It’s really bad visibility. I mean, drivers can really see folks here.

Orta says long stretches of the road don’t have enough crosswalks or stoplights for pedestrians. In some places they’re spaced a mile apart.

Could you say to these people, “Listen, we know the crosswalk is a long way down the road, but your life is in danger here, so walk to the crosswalk, you know, go the extra half mile. Whatever it is.”

Forget it. You can’t tell people to walk a half mile to a crosswalk. You wouldn’t do it. The police officers wouldn’t do it. Nobody does that.

Ellen Dunham-Jones is a Professor of urban design at Georgia Tech, and co-author of a book called “Retrofitting Suburbia.”

Dunham-Jones says suburban communities across the nation need a major re-think.

The stereotypes that we’ve held about who is in the cities and who is in the suburbs have started to change. And change really quite dramatically.

Immigration, the recession, and other economic realities have all contributed to a remarkable trend. For the first time in history there are more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in the cities. In Atlanta, 85 percent of low income people now live in places like this. But the suburban mismatch is not just about the poor.

Basically, the baby boomers are the generation who really built most of the suburbs. But they’ve built an environment that is not going to allow them to age in place very gracefully.

Demographers are warning that millions of older Americans living in car dependent communities could be left isolated, unable even to get to the grocery store. Dunham-Jones is hoping the country will design its way out of these problems. Even Buford Highway, she says, could be transformed with medians, trees and buildings set closer to the road. Changes that are known to slow traffic. But outside of the ivory tower, change does not come easily. Or quickly.

Last year Georgia spent more than two billion dollars on transportation, but only a tiny fraction, less than 1 percent, went specifically to pedestrian safety.

Look at this. This right here is just– this is what makes me cringe as Police Chief. “Senora, por favor tenga cuidado!”

Doraville Police Chief John King has spent nearly a decade asking the state highway department for help.

We’ve been at this for years now. Every chief of police almost in this country is a type-A personality. We see a problem, we want to fix a problem.

King and his allies got some action back in 2007, when the state installed four sets of crosswalks and pedestrian-activated lights on a one-mile stretch of Buford Highway.

The problem was they didn’t always work.

We tested the cross walks… Pushed button after button after button —

Recently new lights were installed to replace the broken ones. But as of today, they still haven’t been turned on.

While we were in town part of Buford Highway buckled in a heat wave.

Driver after driver was forced to turn around after a 42-foot section of Buford Highway bubbled up two feet.

That’s nuts!

State crews fixed that problem over night. But there are no overnight fixes for pedestrians, says Kathy Zahul, Traffic Engineer for Georgia’s Transportation Department. Reconfiguring an infrastructure built for cars, she says, means untangling decades of bureaucracy. So much so, that even a simple question turns out not to be.

Why don’t you just lower the speed on Buford Highway?

Nationally, it’s accepted that the appropriate speed limit for any route is around 80– where 85 percent of the population is comfortable driving.

So basically it says the people driving the cars set the speed limit. I mean I know that’s not exactly right, but that’s what you’re saying?

Well, they set the operating speed.

In this type of situation where the issues really have become pedestrian oriented, couldn’t that be rethought?

Well, by law, um, Georgia Department of Transportation is required to set the speed limit on all routes in the state at the maximum reasonable and safe speed.

It’s a catch-22 that drives pedestrian advocates nuts.

It’s horrible. It’s horrible. They can’t just lower the speed limit. They have to go out and make design changes to the road that would force people to drive slower and then be able to justify that they’re lowering the speed limit because these design changes made people drive slower.

Zahul showed us plans for some design changes that are in the works. But the transportation department says construction won’t start until 2012.

So, according to the plans on the books at least, eventually the rest of Buford Highway will have sidewalks?


And eventually there’ll be more crossing, safe crossing areas?


And the only question really is, is how long is eventually?


  • Pingback: Dangerous by Design — Greater City: Providence

  • Peter Jacobsen

    “People rushing to and from buses account for one in four of the accidents here.”

    Victim blaming is a subtle process, cloaked in kindness and concern.

  • Ann Thomas Moore

    Is the Atlanta city government sitting on its hands? For starters, it seems to me they need to do at least two things:

    1. Draft laws that prohibit the ordinary, daily, elective use of a private vehicle to drive into the city–except with special permit or transport agreement that would impose limitations, such as access fees and the requirement of at least four passengers per car.

    2. Provide such convenient, frequent, and inexpensive public transportation that the choice for commuters to leave their cars at home is an easy one.

    As an elderly resident of New York City (midtown Manhattan), I can tell you that one of the reasons that I can afford to live in this incomparable city is that I have NONE of the costs associated with a private car–purchase, insurance, taxes, gasoline, maintenance, garage, etc., etc. Public transportation is THAT excellent and accessible. The bus stops in front of my building, and Grand Central Station, with its web of subways beneath the trains, is a couple of blocks away. I can get anywhere in this big, crowded city in a very short time with little effort, for maybe $1.50. (I forget: the fare is a moving target, but with my transportation pass, which I refill periodically, the cost is not burdensome.) Cabs are everywhere, cash OR credit. Atlanta is NO New York!!

  • Atlantan

    @Ann almost no US city has the density of Manhattan. To try to create a public transport network with the density and frequency of Manhattan is a ridiculous proposition – have you ever BEEN off your island? Only San Francisco or Boston or Chicago even vaguely resemble it. Also, to prohibit private car use as you propose is draconian and wouldn’t even be accepted in Europe let alone the USA.
    However, there are a lot of things that metro Atlanta can do (Buford Highway is outside the city limits, by the way, in DeKalb County). For pedestrians in these formerly suburban areas, adding sidewalks, reducing the number of traffic lanes (Buford Hwy doesn’t need 3 lanes each way), adding a planted median, etc. This is of course in addition to expanding the bus, subway (MARTA) and, in the future, light rail and commuter rail network in and around Atlanta. Contrary to popular belief, many key areas of development in metro Atlanta ARE connected by high quality rail transit – tha airport, and our three “downtowns”: downtown, midtown, and Buckhead, and newly developed nodes with condos and shopping such as Lindbergh and Brookhaven. It’s important that we continue to connect other nodes in and around the city with rail, and there are plans for this. The sprawl driven by cars continues ever outward from Atlanta, and this will not stop. However, in the central part of the metro area, densification is occuring, providing a density and landscape that is conducive to the use of public transportation.

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