Listen to an audio version of this story here.
Three years ago, Sharon Rodriguez was walking to her job as a bartender at a hockey bar in downtown Newark, near where the Devils play. She says the light turned green, and she stepped out into the intersection.
"And then a car came towards, me, turning. It just hit me from the front. And I slid across the hood." She wound up under the car - at which point, she said, the driver backed up and drove away.
Sharon Rodriguez (photo by Kate Hinds)
Rodriguez says her head hit the hood with such force her fillings popped out of her teeth. She needed stitches in her chin, and her jaw had to be reconstructed. She was taken to the emergency room at The University Hospital in Newark. Dr. David Livingston, its chief trauma surgeon, says he sees 300 pedestrian injuries a year.
Dr. David Livington, head of the trauma center at UMDNJ-University Hospital in Newark (photo by Kate Hinds)
"And not surprisingly," he says, "they tend to be a lot of the times quite severe, because there’s a car, going at a moderate-to-high rate of speed, and a person!"
In all of Newark, roughly five hundred pedestrians are struck by cars each year. It’s one of just two dozen cities across the country singled out by the federal government as a pedestrian safety focus city.
Another thing about Newark: its average household income is about half the state’s median.
While a grad student at Rutgers, Daniel Kravetz starting sifting through data for several counties in Northern New Jersey. "And I started to notice that all the roads that were most likely to have a lot of intersections with high crash counts, were in communities where the population was either highly African American or highly Latino," he says.
Dan Kravetz (photo by Kate Hinds)
So he dug a little deeper. And found what he calls "a statistically significant relationship" between low income neighborhoods and high pedestrian crash totals.
That correlation shows up everywhere. "The higher the income level, the lower the likelihood for crashes to occur in an area," Kravetz says. "And that was found in almost any study that analyzed that relationship."
Researchers are trying to hone in on why this is. One obvious reason: car ownership is out of reach for many low income people – so they’re walking more, literally increasing their exposure to cars. But poorer neighborhoods often lack even the most basic pedestrian infrastructure. And advocates are turning their attention to trying to improve intersections, one corner at a time.
The intersection of Park Avenue and 4th Street in Newark (photo by Kate Hinds)
Alle Ries is director of community and economic development at Newark nonprofit La Casa de Don Pedro, where she runs the group's Caminos Seguros program. Ries takes me to one city hotspot – the intersection of Park Avenue and 4th Street. Ries said the group chose this intersection because "there were three serious pedestrian accidents in about an 18-month period, and a lot of car crashes. So that is pretty high. If you have one pedestrian accident in a two year period, that’s considered very significant."
The intersection is also home to a city light rail stop and a busy NJ Transit bus stop. Two schools are also nearby.
Last year the group partnered with the Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT) and performed a road safety audit of the intersection to determine exactly what its deficiencies are.
Members of Caminos Seguros observing road conditions, 2011 (image courtesy of La Casa de Don Pedro)
And there are many. "Well, let's start with crosswalks," Ries says. As in there aren't any painted across Park Avenue.
Also: there’s no pedestrian light telling you that it’s safe to cross, the sidewalk is in bad shape, and there’s a streetlight located on the edge of the sidewalk that keeps getting knocked over by cars.
"There’s nothing safe about that," Ries says. At one corner she points out a driveway doubling as a wheelchair ramp. "You can see that no attention has been paid whatsoever to that issue."
Another view of Park and 4th in Newark (photo by Kate Hinds)
Newark officials say they’re working on this. This year alone, they’ll spend $27 million dollars across the city on pedestrian and bicyclist safety improvements. Jack Nata, the city's traffic manager, says that's more money than the city has ever spent on this issue. He's working on a number of fronts to reduce the number of pedestrian crashes --- not only through infrastructure improvements, but by educational outreach programs and increasingly using red light traffic cameras to calm traffic. But Newark, like many other municipalities in New Jersey, doesn’t always have final say over its own roads.
"Unfortunately there are certain streets in the city – Park Avenue, Bloomfield, South Orange, Springfield, Lyons – these are all county roads and the city has no jurisdiction over it," he says. Meaning: the city can't even paint a crosswalk on those roads -- they belong to Essex County.
Essex County has applied for a $350,000 grant from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority to overhaul the intersection of Park and 4th. If the grant is approved, work could be completed by this fall.
The New Jersey State Department of Transportation is also trying to convince cities and counties to adopt the state's "complete streets" policy. Under this approach, roads are designed for all users -- bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders -- not just cars.
But changes to Park and Fourth can’t come soon enough for one local resident. "This intersection: if you are not careful, you are definitely going to get hit by something," says Edward Vargas, a 20-year old who has lived in the neighborhood his whole life. He's just exited the light rail station and now he's heading home on Park Avenue. "You gotta know how to cross the street – that’s just Newark in general. You gotta know how to cross the street...I don’t know why it is, it’s just how it’s been, since I’ve been growing up here."
But advocates and city officials hope if they can break the link between low-income neighborhoods and pedestrian crashes, it won't always be that way.
An intersection in downtown Newark, complete with paved crosswalk and a pedestrian crossing signal (photo by Kate Hinds)