Pedestrian safety concerns and accidents prompt city planning and infrastructure changes

Brenda Dobbs is standing at the corner of Alpine Avenue and Leonard Street with a bright green vest and a stop sign in hand. She waves at motorists with her whole heart as they drive by. Over the last eight years as a crossing guard, she’s closely observed the relationship between drivers and pedestrians. 

“We need to be more caring about children walking. We gotta stand up here and take care of our kids. A couple of times cars have come up on me when I’m with the kids,” Dobbs says as vehicles whiz by on a green light. “People are distracted. We got to look out for the kids.”

As the light changes, Dobbs gathers her sign and adjusts her sunglasses. She begins waving around the intersection.

“You gotta have kindness in your heart. That’s why I wave. I even gotta help big people like you across the street,” she says with a warm glow as she accompanies me back to the other side of the road. 

With its population and economy booming, Grand Rapids’ infrastructure is bursting at the seams. The growth has led to city planning and infrastructure changes to roads and walkways. Roads like Bridge Street and College Avenue have been split from two lanes to one to create room for a left turning lane as well as bike lane, condensing the roads with new traffic patterns. Pedestrians have an equally confusing path to navigate. 

There are more than a few busy roads, such as South Division Avenue that have few crosswalks accompanied by stoplights and high traffic volumes. Other major concerns include increased automobile speed and distracted drivers. This mixture can become dangerous. The corner of Jefferson and Fulton is another hot spot for accidents. But city officials are working to diagnose these problems and seek preventative measures to make the city’s pedestrian atmosphere safer.

“Well, I mean, I think there are concerns. I don't know that they're unique to Grand Rapids because many cities are experiencing similar things,” says Mark Miller, managing director of planning and design for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “The first thing that's happening is that more people are moving into the city. And, by the very nature of that, there are probably more people using the streets, either with cars, with busses, with micro mobility, scooters, with bicycles, and on foot.”

Photo by Autumn Johnson-Pierce, Bird + Bird Studio

“So, you have more density of people using the spaces. And we're not, I think, as a culture in the United States, we're just not used to that in most of our cities, because they had been basically cleared out in the 1950s through probably the 1990s, where there was just an exodus of people. You didn't have that density; you didn't have that kind of use,” he says.

Miller adds that modern day streets are built to accommodate fast moving automobiles. Wide lanes and few barriers operate as almost subconscious signals to the driver to go faster. 

“We are at this point in time where we still have to do retrofits on infrastructure in order to make it more accommodating and what we would think of as humanizing the infrastructure so that it's more about people and less about these cars,” he says. For him, there are changes to be made on the part of both drivers and pedestrians. 

“Not to pick on cars because there are also distracted pedestrians who would walk down the street looking at their phones, and so they're not really paying attention when they get to an intersection. So, it goes both ways. But the pedestrian isn't driving a 2,000 pound car, right? So, if you're distracted or you're driving too fast, or a combination of those things, you become a much more deadly object,” Miller says.

On the pedestrian front, Anna Griewahn has been utilizing public transit as her primary means of transportation since she was 14. While out, whether by bus, foot or bicycle, she observes firsthand the potential dangers of traveling. 

“The roads are weird sometimes. Some have bike lanes; others don't,” Griewahn says. “And the roads that don't have the bike lane, I just like to walk my bike on the grass.” 

Griewahn has witnessed multiple accidents at  a dangerous intersection near her home on Alpine Avenue Northwest. She also notes a need for more pedestrian-friendly streets.

“It's really busy. And sometimes there's been accidents. People just don't watch where they're going. There [are] accidents here and there but I think that's just because people just don't pay attention,” Griewahn says. “As a pedestrian you just have to make sure that you're in a place where you're going to be able to cross the street safely. And I mean, there could always be more crosswalks out there.” 

Photo by Kristina Bird, Bird + Bird Studio

According to a recent study by Michigan Traffic Crash Facts from a presentation authored by Lynée Wells of Aligned Planning, a traffic crash is reported every one minute and 41 seconds in Michigan. One person is injured every six minutes and 56 seconds. Additionally, one person is killed every nine hours as the result of a crash.

Pedestrians are especially vulnerable and injuries increase with speed. Chances of survival for a pedestrian hit by a vehicle at 16 miles an hour are 90%. At 45 mph, those chances are completely inverted to only a 10% chance of survival.

“Because of the way that things evolved, we created a whole bunch of standards that made the desire to have fast, efficient moving cars. So, when you don't want congestion, you want to move as efficiently as possible through intersections. So, you make the streets wider,” Miller says. 

“You get rid of sidewalks or you marginalize sidewalks. And so, all of that has happened, then the pendulum swung back. And people started moving into the cities [but] that infrastructure hasn't kept up.” 

Solutions include driver awareness campaigns, lowered speed limits and narrowing streets. South Division Avenue, between Cherry Street and Wealthy Street, is a prime example of transforming the street’s infrastructure to create a more cautious environment. Drivers are less likely to speed when their surroundings are more hazardous.

“So, you start to introduce a narrower lane. In this case, we went down to I think 11 feet. And then we added street trees. And we made a wider sidewalk. You start to change the geometries and when you start to do that, it'll slow the traffic,” says Miller. 

“Then you put the median in and it slows traffic even more because now you've got barriers on the edge that you as a driver need to worry about. You don't have so much space within your field of vision where there is nothing that you have to worry about. When you introduce more of those things, the driver tends to slow down. So, we can solve a lot of our problems by simply redesigning our streets.”

These objects are referred to by traffic engineers as fixed hazardous objects and movable hazardous objects. Fixed hazardous objects would be identified as trees, medians, even parked cars, while moveable hazardous objects would include pedestrians and cyclists. 

Danger spots noted by Miller include South Division south of Wealthy Street, where cars are traveling at “alarming speeds.” Others mentioned are the Wealthy Street overpass where short exit ramps meet crosswalks, as well as Michigan Street coming down the hill into downtown.

“Your only barrier is a five-foot sidewalk so those cars are whizzing by you,” Miller says. “So that area if you walk around the Market area, the Wealthy area, is very anti-human, and unsafe for pedestrians, primarily because of the speeds at which the cars are moving. Speed is probably the single biggest problem in terms of the safety of our streets.” 

With the number of problems around pedestrian safety, community members have options to voice their concerns. For downtown residents, the Downtown Neighborhood Network is a viable resource. Another option is the city’s 311 number, where residents can notify city officials of concerns. Beyond that, residents can contact the Traffic Safety Unit or even contact their elected official.

Voices for Transit is a nine-part series highlighting public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers, and stakeholders.

This series is underwritten by The Rapid and is editorially independent in our exploration of these themes.
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