Monday, July 25, 2011

August 13, 1979

It’s summer in Syracuse! For some, this means sunning or swimming at the beach, for Alec Baldwin, cooling off in the Wegmans dairy case. The city broke a heat record on Thursday, with a high of 101 degrees.

In other words, the perfect time to discuss snow-covered sidewalks!

No, not because maybe with a two-season lead time, the problem of snow removal on city sidewalks in Syracuse and elsewhere might actually be solved this year. Rather, the hubbub every winter about unshoveled sidewalks buries the year-round truth of the matter: pedestrians are an afterthought in the American transportation system. At best, they are simply ignored (such as with the unshoveled sidewalks); more increasingly, they are viewed with outright contempt, such as the recent conviction of pedestrian Raquel Nelson in Atlanta, Georgia with vehicular homicide. Despite the driver being intoxicated and guilty of two previous hit-and-run accidents, Nelson was charged with “homicide by vehicle in the second degree, crossing roadway elsewhere than at crosswalk and reckless conduct” as she attempted to cross the busy highway with her three children at a designated bus stop (much like, in 2009, Professor Emeritus Joel Kidder tried to cross Erie Boulevard from Barnes and Noble to a designated bus stop). Unlike Kidder, Nelson survived, but her 4-year old son, who broke away from her grip as they waited on the median, ran into the street and was killed. For this tragedy, she faces 36 months in jail, thirty more months than the actual hit-and-run driver served.

I’ve often thought the anger directed at pedestrians is born of fear: fear that financial misfortune may cause the loss of a car; fear that age or sickness will rob the ability to drive. But how to explain the hostility long held towards one particular group of pedestrians?

For reasons best known to themselves, some people can’t stand the sight of a runner. There aren’t many of them, but when one comes along you know it. They shout abuse at you from passing cars, fling objects at you and sometimes drive so erratically that you fear for your life. (Jim Fixx, The Complete Book of Running, 1977)

Post-Standard, May 17, 1975
While buildings were being torn down in cities across 1970s America, a very different sort of urban renewal was taking shape among their residents. Inspired by books like Bill Bowerman’s Jogging and Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running, millions of people hit the streets in their jogging shorts and Nikes for fitness and fun. Syracuse fully reflected this trend: summer weekends in the seventies were filled with local races. A 50K bike race and marathon were held on the same day; the Mountain Goat Run was but one event in the “Run for Fun,” which also had 3k run and 3k walk options as well. While running grew because of the involvement  of suburbanites, the suburbs themselves weren’t necessarily designed for the sport.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 4, 1975
In July 1979, with the country facing a second oil crisis and sold out gas pumps, Jimmy Carter gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, asking citizens to reduce their use of energy. While new runners in Syracuse weren’t abandoning their autos for Adidas, there were a few who worked their commute into training runs:

George Dowley, president of Wells and Coverly, will be sponsoring several of his employees in the “Run for Fun” to benefit the Olympics.

One entrant is the assistant store manager, Tom Shafer, who is entered in the 10-mile race. Shafer, as part of his training, ran 7.3 miles from work to his home on Cold Springs Road the other day. (Post-Standard, April 22, 1979)

Yet rather than encourage runners (and walkers) in this direction, to rethink how a city of growing outdoor fitness enthusiasts could promote alternative means of transportation, the Post-Standard, in its lead August 13, 1979 editorial, chose to highlight the dangers of traveling by foot:

The State Motor Vehicle Bureau has no figures to back it up, but suspects that joggers are responsible for an increase in pedestrian deaths during 1978 as compared to 1977.

The department reports pedestrian deaths increased from 706 in 1977 to 736 in 1978.

The increase, the department noted, accompanied a growth in popularity of jogging. But, as incredible as it sounds, motor vehicle officials claim that that the police reports on which their statistics are based do not show whether a pedestrian who was killed was jogging at the time.

Incredible as it sounds, the Post-Standard didn’t appear to be concerned with pedestrian deaths, per se, but rather, what they were doing when a 2-ton car veered off the road and mowed them down:

Becuase of the reams of information that police and insurance companies and lawyers gather on a fatal motor vehicle accident, the many questions asked and the great amount of time consumed, it seems absolutely unbelievable that somewhere there is not some reference to what the pedestrian was doing at the time he or she was killed.

We just can’t understand the state officials remaining mute on the subject.

An investigating police officer certainly has to say, somewhere on his report, what the pedestrian was doing when he was killed.

If this information isn’t being forwarded to the motor vehicle department, someone down in Albany should be screaming for it.

To which one asks, why? The editorial contends that while the Motor Vehicle Bureau press release warns joggers to be more careful, “we ought to find out first if they are now being careless.”  What about the blame of the drivers? Were they being careless? The editorial makes no mention of this, but a letter published on the editorial page two weeks later criticized the Post-Standard’s auto-centric view:

The initial paragraph states that “joggers are responsible for an increase in pedestrian deaths during the 1978 year.” I wonder if this might be due to the heavy jogging suits that they wear, which increases their mass as they crash into the pedestrians that are traversing the highways.

The next interesting bit of information that is stated is “that the major thrust of the press release is to warn joggers to be more careful.” The editorial comment states that we should make an effort to find out how careless joggers really are. It may be naive from my point of view, however, I do feel that if a person in a motor vehicle strikes a pedestrian, whether he is ambulating slowly or moving at a faster rate with a slow jog, or even God forbid running, that it is the person handling the automobile that is at fault, rather than the pedestrian. If it were in God’s divine plan, we would be born with wheels rather than legs. (from letter signed Charles A. Mango, Syracuse, Post-Standard, August 30, 1979)

We are now experiencing another running boom, both nationwide and in Syracuse. The Ironman 70.3 will make its second appearance this September, followed by the inaugural Empire State Marathon. Although the Ironman Syracuse website features images of Syracuse University, Clinton Square and the Dinosaur Barbeque, participants won’t bike or run near any of these sights, as the course is now contained entirely in Jamesville. Local race director Ken Hammond stated in a March Post-Standard article that this course change was due to last year’s traffic on Erie Boulevard where spectators clamored to photograph participants. This move actually may be preferable to the triathletes (as one comment on the event’s Facebook states that he found the Erie Boulevard portion “mind-numbing”),  but how much influence did the angry drivers who complained about their own personal delays last year influence this decision?

Maybe next year, if there is a next year, the organizers can use some common sense and not tie up the busiest streets in the county on a Sunday afternoon. This race did not score many points with the hundreds of motorists who were greatly inconvenienced. Next time try running your race on isolated rural roads and at a more appropriate time.

What a mess! Tied up in traffic near E Blvd for about an hour trying to get to lunch whith [sic] our family and the family behind us. We decided to abort the eating out at Cici's because of the time sitting idle for so long and not being able to turn around on the blvd. Here's a novel idea go jog in a park not on a busy street in the city. Bottom line is I don't give a crap about a bunch of people jogging, only when they interfere with everyone else trying to get from point A to point B.

Just months after excitedly announcing a 2-loop course around Onondaga Lake, Empire State Marathon announced last March that the course would have to be altered, so as not to require closing a 690 off-ramp:

Hammond says the site for the start and finish has not been finalized, but looping the lake will not work because runners would have to cross the off ramp of the Interstate 690 on the west side of the lake. "There's no way you're going to be able to close a 690 off ramp without spending a lot of money," he says.

True, closing streets for races costs money. However, aren't the runners paying large entry fees so they can run the city's main thoroughfares, for once having priority on the streets? As a runner posted on the Fleet Feet message board, if the exit/on-ramps for I-690 at Hiawatha were closed, there’s an alternative route for drivers a half-mile away on Bear Street. And perhaps more to the point:

Providing a good course for upper end racing and the general recreational market will be a long lasting benefit. If all our politicians,chambers and tourist agency interests who tout the city and area benefits get in line maybe a city-suburb course would be workable. Instead we get negative feedback about all the inconvenient logstics [sic] problems with traffic control and expenses. Hey,take that $150,000 of squandered taxpayer funds to pay downtown greeters and put some of it towards what can be a yearly event of merit. And has real potential to grow and attract out of towners to spend some money in our market.


Syracuse has recently turned its focus to redesigning some portions of its roadways according to “Complete Street” guidelines. While the construction of designated bike lanes and safe crossings is welcome news, what does this mean for all the other streets? Will runners, cyclists and pedestrians be expected to limit themselves to Complete Streets? Will the winter sidewalks of Complete Streets be shoveled, while those of “Incomplete Streets” remain uncleared? 

Once the weather turns cold and snowy, the topic will surely again be one of the hottest in the city.