Death, Victim-Blaming, Climate Chaos and Wetlands

Colin Fiske, Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities

Over the last twelve months, at least four people have been killed while walking or biking on Broadway in Eureka. Ashley Madonia was killed last December while walking. Kelsey Diffin was killed in March while pushing a stroller. Thomas Burns was killed in October while riding a bike. And a person whose name has not been reported was killed while riding a bike just a few weeks before that. There is a full-blown crisis on Broadway, and it is incumbent upon Caltrans and the City of Eureka to take immediate steps to keep more people from dying.

In order to fix the problem, we first have to identify the cause. People have been dying in high numbers on Broadway for many years, yet officials have done little in response. One reason is that in the wake of almost every incident, media and law enforcement suggest that the victim was to blame for their own demise. If this were true, and the cause of all these deaths were just irresponsible behavior on the part of the victims, then officials would be conveniently absolved of responsibility. 

So let’s be absolutely clear: the cause of the safety crisis on Broadway is not the behavior of the victims. We know this in part because, while people are hit and killed by cars throughout the region, these tragedies are disproportionately concentrated on Broadway. There are many other places in the city and the county where people walk and bike as much as, or more than, they do on Broadway. And there is no reason to believe that people suddenly start taking more unnecessary risks when they step or pedal onto Broadway.

Additionally, the deaths and injuries on Broadway are part of a nationwide trend. Pedestrian deaths have increased by 50% in the US over the last decade, and bicyclist deaths have increased by over 30%. These patterns are not correlated with increased levels of walking or biking. They are correlated with poor street design, and with increasing numbers of large, dangerous vehicles on the road. And they disproportionately impact people of color, seniors, low-income people and people with disabilities. These are simple statistical facts which cannot be explained away by individual patterns of behavior.

All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is Broadway itself, not the actions of the people who are getting killed there. Which, of course, is the same conclusion any reasonable person would draw after taking even a cursory look at the street. It is designed for cars and trucks, and not for anyone else.

Local environmentalists should care deeply about the crisis on Broadway. We should care first because it is our moral responsibility to care for our neighbors and fellow humans, just as it is our responsibility to care for other species and the planet. We should care also because we need a lot of people to start driving less, and walking and biking more, if we are going to avoid the worst of the climate chaos ahead—and few people will choose to do that when major transportation corridors like Broadway, surrounded by employers, retailers and other destinations, are so undeniably dangerous for people outside of a vehicle.

For the past year, Caltrans and the City of Eureka have been partnering with the Humboldt County Association of Governments to create a “Broadway Multimodal Corridor Plan.” Throughout this process, CRTP, EPIC, Humboldt Baykeeper and the Northcoast Environmental Center have urged immediate safety improvements to address the crisis on Broadway. Recently, the city and Caltrans seem to be stepping up to that challenge, offering to make some near-term improvements. We are continuing to work as hard as we can to ensure that those improvements are complete, effective, and happen soon. Design concepts produced during the latest planning process show that truly meaningful improvements can be made in the existing Broadway right-of-way without major demolition or new road construction.

Over the longer term, the Multimodal Corridor Plan proposes to turn much of Broadway into one-way “couplets,” much like 4th and 5th Street. The potential advantages of this plan stem from the fact that it would offer much more right-of-way to work with, so more bike, pedestrian and transit facilities could be added without decreasing the number of car lanes. But the disadvantages are also substantial, including the fact that the current plans call for road construction in coastal wetlands.

Protection of these coastal wetlands has been a decades-long battle for many local environmentalists. So it’s critically important to emphasize that, in spite of the Multimodal Corridor Plan, safety for people walking and biking does not require wholesale wetland destruction. For the sake of our community, our wetlands and our climate, environmentalists must stay united and focused on improving safety while minimizing impacts. Right now, that means immediate fixes to the worst safety problems on Broadway today. In the future, it could mean more radical long-term changes to Broadway’s existing right-of-way or finding new routes and designs for a future couplet. That’s a question that may take years to answer. 

Whatever happens, we shouldn’t forget Ashley, Kelsey, Thomas, and everyone else who’s been killed or injured on Broadway. We should remember also the growing number of victims of fires, storms and floods, both locally and around the world. It’s increasingly clear that in some ways, the safety crisis for people walking and biking is a critical component of the climate crisis. Fixing Broadway (and the rest of our dangerous streets) should be a priority for all of us.