When walking home becomes a crime

Take note pedestrians, in Austell, GA jaywalking is a more serious crime than driving drunk.

In what amounts to a declaration of war on pedestrians, a small town near Atlanta, Georgia has convicted the mother of a child killed while she and others were trying to cross a busy street from their bus stop to their apartment building of vehicular homicide, while allowing the drunk driver who ran over the child and then fled the scene off with a six month slap on the wrist.

According to the local paper:

Nelson was attempting to cross at the intersection of Austell Road and Austell Circle with her three children when her son was struck by a car, said Savoy. The child later died from his injuries.

If you’ll check out the photo above, you will see the bus stop and the apartment complex the Nelson family called home. You will also see that there is no crosswalk. In fact, to cross at the nearest legal crossing requires adding a half mile walk to their trip. To some people, that half mile walk seemed reasonable. More specifically, to the Cobb County prosecutor and the 6 “peers” who made up the jury who convicted her. Yet none of those peers (and I’m willing to bet the prosecutor) had ever so much as taken the bus in their city. Not even once. To quote from the Transportation for America blog

They had never taken two buses to go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart with three kids in tow. They had never missed a transfer on the way home that caused them to wait a full hour-and-a-half with tired and hungry kids for the next bus. They had never been let off at a bus stop on a five-lane speedway, with their apartment in sight across the road, and been asked to drag those three little ones an additional half-mile-plus down the road to the nearest traffic signal and back in order to get home at last.

PBS did a story on this same issue on another street in the same Metro area, which is a real eye-opener.
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As more people across the country try to use their cars less, or are simply unable to afford the luxury of one, situations which pit pedestrians and bicyclists against cars are becoming more and common. Some drivers just cannot comprehend that roads were built for everyone and even resort to using their cars as weapons to assert their imagined dominance. Urban planners will spend millions building crossings for wildlife, while in contrast, funding for pedestrian projects is often hard to come by. Prosecuting pedestrians and cyclists for the “crime” of being hit by a car is one tactic used by governments across the country to unfairly stack the deck even more against the poor and those who are simply trying to live a simpler lifestyle. Some cities (like my own) even refuse to take responsibility for sidewalk repairs, and then criminalize joggers and pedestrians for not using the broken, dangerous paths.

In contrast, cities like New York and Paris have seen dramatic differences by closing some of their main roads to cars for extended stretches of time, turning once smoggy streets into beaches and parks.

There have been plenty of studies showing the amazing benefits of including bicycles and pedestrians in urban planning equations. Walkscore lists just a few here:

Environment: Cars are a leading cause of climate change. Your feet are zero-pollution transportation machines.
Health: The average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs 6-10 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.
Finances: One point of Walk Score is worth up to $3,000 of value for your property.
Communities: Studies show that for every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10%.

So what can you do to help make your city more walkable? One of the first steps is here – a petition to ask the federal government not to cut dedicated pedestrian and cyclist funding from the latest transportation bill (something they are trying to do). Get involved with your neighborhood association and find out about projects that will affect where you live. So often bills get passed and funding gets granted without the people living in the neighborhood even knowing what was at stake. When we become more aware neighbors, we can drastically affect the future of our communities.
Last but not least, if you drive a car, look around you. Take note of bus stops and crosswalks and bike lanes. Be more courteous in your own day, a little compassion goes a long way.

(this post was originally written for the EcoEtsy team blog. Keeping a copy here for posterity)

EDIT: On Tuesday, the judge gave Ms Nelson the option to accept the conviction and take probation or to have a new trial. Ms Nelson chose not to have the conviction on her record and to opt for that retrial. No word yet on whether the prosecutor will pursue the case a second time.

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