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The road safety strategy offers hope for the redesign of the “Death Corridor” in Philadelphia

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One more step and the cart would have been on the curb.

The thought haunts Latanya Byrd for years after a driver on Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard hit and killed her 27-year-old niece, Samara Banks, and three of Banks’ young sons as they were crossing. 12-lane road. Today, many of the conditions that led to the fatal crash in 2013 still exist.

Since the accident, Byrd has become a supporter of safer streets, fighting for speed cameras located along the boulevard, where 10% to 13% of traffic deaths in the city have occurred each year before pandemic, city officials said.

And now, amid a nationwide increase in the number of traffic deaths that federal officials have called the crisis, and studies showing that black communities were hit hardest during the pandemic, plans to redesign the city’s “death corridor” could gain ground.

Roosevelt Boulevard is a maze of nearly 14 miles of chaotic traffic patterns that pass through some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and census tracts, with the highest poverty rates. Driving can be dangerous with cars crossing between the inner and outer lanes, but cycling or walking on the boulevard can be even worse with some pedestrian crossings longer than a football field and four easy cycles to cross. .

“You wouldn’t design a street or a road like this today,” said Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy for the Philadelphia Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability. “It feels like a highway, but it’s in the middle and between neighborhoods.”

Many of the city’s ideas for Roosevelt’s repairs were backed by new federal strategies. As the death toll rises, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has promoted a “safe system” approach, encouraging cities and states to take more into account than driver behavior when designing roads.

The Biden administration has also created funding to improve security, including a bipartisan infrastructure law and a $ 5 billion federal aid package for cities over the next five years. Federal officials have pledged to prioritize equity when making funding decisions, following a disproportionate 23% increase in the number of black traffic deaths in 2020.

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“We will certainly remind the federal government when we apply for grants the capital priorities that management has set,” Puchalsky said.

Kelley Yemen, director of the Complete Streets program in Philadelphia, said the city hopes federal money will begin a long-term redesign of Roosevelt, according to a 2019 study. restricted highway, either cut. speeds and convert car lanes into bicycle lanes and transit lanes. Both carry billions of dollars in price tags.

The study includes a number of smaller projects to improve safety on the high-death sections of the road by 2025, some of which have already begun, but residents are skeptical.

Eva Gbaa was eager to see changes. Her 17-year-old nephew, John “JJ” Gbaa Jr., was shot dead in November 2018 while trying to cross Roosevelt on his way home after spending time with friends. He was alone at the time and many of the circumstances of the accident were unknown.

A passer-by found JJ and called the police, but he died at the hospital. No arrests have been made, and the family is still struggling with how someone might let the big-hearted boy die.

“JJ asks me for money… but I didn’t know until his friends told me, after he died, that he would buy them food if they didn’t,” said John Gbaa Sr., JJ’s father. “He loved people. He would give his last dollar to his friends. “

JJ and his father moved to Philadelphia in 2017 to be closer to his family, and JJ was making huge strides in school. He liked to be with his cousins ​​and hung out with his aunt while she cooked traditional African rice dishes.

“He said, ‘Auntie, when I graduate, I’ll go to college and then I’ll take care of you.’ But she never had the chance, “said Eva Gbaa, stifling tears. “I hope, I hope, that they will do something to make sure that no family goes through this, so that it doesn’t happen again.”

The family started a school in honor of JJ in their home country, Liberia, John G. Gbaa Jr. Academy for kindergarten through eighth grade, hoping to give his dream of education to others. They pay the teachers and send the students food, clothes and books with the help of small donations.

Around the city of Philadelphia, aggressive driving during the pandemic led to 156 deaths in 2020, a sharp rise from 90 deaths in 2019. Preliminary data from the Philadelphia Police Department showed a decrease in 2021 to 133 deaths, still above pre-pandemic levels.

The data does not include the race or ethnicity of those killed, but an Associated Press analysis found that deaths in neighborhoods where more than 70 percent of residents are black has risen from about 50 percent in 2019 to more than 67 percent in 2021. Accidents that occurred in the poorest neighborhoods increased slightly.

Sonia Szczesna, active transportation director for Tristate Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transportation advocacy organization, said black and brown communities and low-income communities are often hardest hit by high-fatal roads.

“They divide these communities and often residents have to travel on these roads by bike or on foot without access to high-quality public transport. So there is inequity in this infrastructure, “Szczesna said.

Data for the first four months of 2022 showed that more pedestrians have died on the roads of Philadelphia so far this year than people in cars. And the blows and the flight were higher in the first four months of this year than in the same time frame of the previous two years, worrying the police and other city officials.

But deaths on Roosevelt remained constant during the pandemic, rather than rising, Yemen said, largely because, she believes, of pilot radars.

Byrd, who co-founded the nonprofit advocacy group Families for Safe Streets, lobbied for speed cameras, writing hundreds of personal letters to lawmakers telling her about her niece and children. The cameras went live at eight intersections in June 2020, but only after state law, a city ordinance and negotiations with the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which manages the program.

More than 224,000 warning tickets for driving over 11 mph above the speed limit were issued in the first 30 days of a 60-day warning period, but by February 2021, that number had dropped to less than 17,000. tickets, according to data from the parking authority. Overall, speed has dropped by more than 91 percent on the road, local and parking officials said.

Despite the impact, the chambers will fall in 2023, if they are not extended by the Legislature.

The Federal Highway Administration has given the states the green light this year to receive federal funding to install speed cameras, saying they can reduce the number of injuries by 50%.

Byrd’s niece, Samara Banks, was 21 years old and was pregnant with her first child in 2007, when she found a four-bedroom house a few blocks south of Roosevelt Boulevard.

Her family had reservations because she would have to cross the boulevard whenever she wanted to visit her. But Banks’ mother had just died, and she needed a bigger house to support her four younger siblings and raise her own family.

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Byrd said Banks was the kind of mother and aunt who always had something planned. “At all the family gatherings, she always put all the children in a circle and made them play and dance, or invent these little scenes to make. She always had a plan and the kids always came first, “Byrd said.

After spending a hot July day visiting and swimming and fighting water balloons with the kids, Banks decided to go home rather than call a taxi to take her through Roosevelt, as he usually did.

He pushes his 7-month-old baby, Saa’mir Williams, and his 23-month-old baby, Saa’sean Williams, in a double stroller. Her 4-year-old son, Saa’deem Griffin, was holding on to the stroller and walking beside her.

Witnesses told police that two cars were competing, intertwining with each other and speeding down the boulevard. One of the drivers lost control and crashed into his family, throwing Banks more than 200 feet and crumpling the cart. She and her three children died.

Banks’ younger sister and 5-year-old son Saa’yon Griffin went ahead and survived the crash.

Officials have since installed a traffic sign and a crosswalk at the intersection, renamed Banks Way in honor of the young mother. The two men accused of racing were eventually convicted or found guilty of the death charges. One of the men was a teenager when his own mother died on Roosevelt Boulevard.

“It was hard. I would tell Saa’yon to be strong, and I remember that was when he kicked and said no,” Byrd said. “He told me he was tired of being strong and that he only wanted his mother and siblings back. We all do. “


Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar and New York-based Race & Ethnicity Team video Winteringhamfieldsist Noreen Nasir and Los Angeles data Winteringhamfieldsist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.

Photo: A pedestrian crosses the east side of Roosevelt Boulevard on the Banks Way pedestrian crossing on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Philadelphia. Roosevelt Boulevard is a maze of nearly 14 miles of chaotic traffic patterns that pass through some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and census areas with the highest poverty rates. Driving can be dangerous with cars crossing between the inner and outer lanes, but cycling or walking on the boulevard can be even worse with some pedestrian crossings longer than a football field and four easy cycles to cross. . (AP Photo / Julio Cortez)

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