The death in November of Kaylie Corbella, a 14-year-old girl who crosses the street, made me question my smug acceptance of pedestrian deaths in Bakersfield as a common fact of life. When I was considering writing this opinion piece, another Bakersfield pedestrian was beaten and killed on December 20th. This may not be normal or acceptable.
The reality is that everyone makes mistakes when assessing risks in their daily life. Who hasn’t been distracted while driving, or who hasn’t run and cut it a little too close to comfort it? These types of mistakes shouldn’t be fatal – for pedestrians or drivers, but too often in Bakersfield. Bakersfield is the seventh most dangerous city in the country for pedestrians per capita and the most dangerous in California. In the Dangerous by Design report, Smart Growth America argues that the deadliest places for pedestrians were designed this way, which means our street design makes these tragedies far more likely.
I don’t blame our city guides and officials for our street design standards – I am grateful that we have a dedicated group of city workers who do their best with very limited resources. Bakersfield’s road parameters such as road widths and speed limits were not developed in isolation. Rather, they were based on state and federal “best practices” for road planning and safety.
These standards are supposed to be about security, but they are also very much about optimizing speed, which is a big part of the problem. At higher speeds, an error is much more likely to lead to a serious accident. Other things also play a role here, such as the lack of zebra crossings in key areas (which are also a matter of optimizing traffic speed) and inadequate street lighting.
Our city tour is already trying to tackle these things. About a year and a half ago, the city conducted a survey on the bicycle and pedestrian safety plan, and an analysis of the survey on downtown lighting is underway. The Bakersfield Police Department is working hard to increase security and raise awareness during Pedestrian Safety Month. Despite these efforts, we have not yet seen any significant change in the death rate.
A major step Bakersfield could take is to follow other cities around the world that have joined the Vision Zero Network. Vision Zero is a commitment to creating cities where the inevitable traffic accident will not lead to death. Vision Zero is not about eliminating accidents, it is about designing roads that ensure conditions that will not result in death or serious injury in an accident.
One area in Bakersfield where a major accident seems inevitable if nothing is changed is on 18th and O. Streets – one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the city center. For almost two years, companies in this region and affected members of our community in the city have been campaigning to set up a zebra crossing at this intersection to ensure the safety of pedestrians. However, there is no zebra crossing and currently no plans to build one. Why? Allegedly because 35 mph is too fast for a vehicle to stop quickly and not hit a person, the zebra crossing would give the illusion of safety without actually making pedestrians safer.
Then lower the speed. 40 km / h zones are being introduced in the country’s city centers as this is the speed at which accidents are much less likely to result in serious injury or death. Drivers and pedestrians have more time to react, and when a collision occurs, the force is significantly less. If 18th Street is considered too wide for a 40 km / h speed limit because people naturally go fast when they have plenty of space, some fundamental changes (e.g. lamp failures) can narrow the street and the Convince drivers that it is time to slow down and barely pay attention to their surroundings.
To see what I mean, compare what it feels like to drive downtown 18th Street to 19th Street. A narrow 19th street makes drivers drive slower and take a closer look, which is in contrast to a wide street that encourages fast and inattentive driving – a recipe for disaster.
Becoming a safe city for pedestrians and cyclists will not happen overnight, but we must wake up and act decisively before more loved ones are injured or killed.
Jonathan Yates chairs the Hub of Bakersfields Thinktank, a group that works for better politics in our urban core.