“Even now I see the helicopters flying overhead,” she remembered. “I see the police tape.”
Her middle child, Ty’Asia Young, 11, had been trying to cross West Boulevard after a trip to a convenience store. The boulevard has four lanes and no raised concrete “island” that studies have shown are safer for walkers.
Ty’Asia was waiting on the double yellow lines that separate the lanes, a space a little wider than a balance beam.
When she tried to cross the last two lanes of westbound traffic, a car hit her. Ty’Asia, about 100 yards from her house, died at the hospital.
The City Council last year approved a policy called “Vision Zero,” which states that “no loss of life on our roadways is acceptable.”
But in 2016, when Ty’Asia died, more pedestrians were hit by a car and injured or killed — 392 — than in any year since the city began keeping records in 2002. Last year set a record for the most pedestrian fatalities, with 27 deaths.
This year, there have been 12 people killed by vehicles while walking in Charlotte.
The police report said that Ty’Asia wasn’t in a crosswalk.
But there wasn’t a crosswalk anywhere near her home, and to cross at a traffic light would have added 15 minutes to the fifth-grader’s trip home.
Some activists said that the city has ignored pedestrian safety on West Boulevard and other low-income areas and that Ty’Asia’s death was preventable. They say the city should have made improving the boulevard a priority after cars and trucks hit and killed three other pedestrians nearby other than Ty’Asia — including two young children.
West Boulevard isn’t the only thoroughfare that has been overlooked, according to a review of city spending and a first-hand drive throughout the city. West Sugar Creek Road, Monroe Road and North Graham Street are some of the thoroughfares that have missing sidewalks and few crosswalks.
Why wasn’t West Boulevard safer for pedestrians?
One reason is that the city often builds crosswalks based on citizen requests. An Observer review of over 350 requests to the Pedestrian Crossing Committee since 2005 shows that more come from affluent areas like south Charlotte and Highland Creek.
Charlotte is often described as two cities, one that is a crescent and one that is a wedge. The crescent is mostly low-income neighborhoods east, north and west of uptown, while the wedge is an area of mostly wealthy neighborhoods south of uptown, bordered by South Boulevard and Independence Boulevard.
In 2016, 41 percent of the city’s accidents involving pedestrians and vehicles occurred in the crescent neighborhoods. The affluent wedge had 19 percent of accidents.
But citizens were more active in the affluent wedge when it came time to making requests for crosswalks and other improvements. They made 38 percent of all requests compared with the crescent, which had 29 percent of requests.
For instance, in the decade before Ty’Asia’s death, the city reviewed seven requests for pedestrian improvements — not including sidewalks — on Park Road, which runs for 8 miles in high-income south Charlotte. They included projects such as new crosswalks and pedestrian “refuge islands,” small areas of raised concrete at intersections that give people a place to stand in the middle of the street when crossing. City staff approved all of the projects.
Since 2005, in the decade before Ty’Asia’s death, there was only one request along 8 miles of West Boulevard, from 2010. West Boulevard is in the crescent.
The request was for a crosswalk at West Boulevard and Kenhill Drive, about three-quarters of a mile from where Ty’Asia died. It was denied because the city said there weren’t enough people walking in the area. The Charlotte Department of Transportation denied the request.
On its own, the city in March 2016 built what’s known as a “refuge island” for people crossing West Boulevard by the library near Clanton Road, but the actual white stripes of the crosswalk weren’t painted until last year. It is a quarter-mile from Ty’Asia’s house.
After Ty’Asia’s death, the city spent $200,000 on a study to make West Boulevard safer.
Westside activist Charlene Mack said the city should have acted before she was killed.
“On our side of town, this has to happen for the city to make changes,” said Mack, who is a member of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition. “West Boulevard has been a quote-unquote priority for a long time. But it hasn’t really been a priority.”
‘I have almost been hit’
There have been other tragedies nearby.
In 2012, two boys, ages 1 and 5, were killed by a truck on West Tyvola Road while walking to school, about a half-mile from where Ty’Asia was killed four years later.
That stretch of West Tyvola Road didn’t have a sidewalk, though it had been near the top of a city list of sidewalks the city wanted to build but didn’t have enough money to pay for them.
The deaths led to extensive media coverage, and the city scrambled to shift money from another road project to build a sidewalk.
A year later, in 2013, a 60-year-old man was killed by a car while crossing West Boulevard at Ross Avenue, about 500 feet from Ty’Asia’s house. In 2016, seven people walking were hit by cars on or within a block of West Boulevard.
“I have almost been hit,” said Talencia Walker, who lives in an apartment complex near the airport. “When you get off the bus and have to cross the street, there are no crosswalks. I see no signs for pedestrians. People aren’t slowing down.”
Mack said the three deaths should have prompted the city to also look at West Boulevard.
“She should be more than just a (statistic),” she said.
Spreading out money
The city said it works to ensure money is spent equitably throughout the city.
“That’s something that we are very conscious of,” said Scott Curry, the city’s pedestrian program manager. “We have looked at spending throughout the pedestrian program, and we wanted to get a good geographic distribution. They are really all over the city.”
Curry said the city doesn’t just wait for resident requests.
The city has other programs that make roads safer for pedestrians, and many of those target low-income areas, he said. Sometimes the city rebuilds roads and, in doing so, adds improvements for pedestrians such as crosswalks, better lighting and countdown signals that tell people walking how much time they have to cross.
And this decade, the city has used bond money in six neighborhoods for improvements, which include crosswalks and other enhancements for pedestrians. Three of those areas are mostly low-income: Central/Albemarle/Shamrock; West Trade/Rozelles Ferry; and Sunset/Beatties Ford.
The city’s sidewalk program — which is different from its citizen request program — appears to be spread evenly throughout the city, based on a review of recent expenditures and a map of recent projects. In the last three years, the city has finished 12 sidewalk projects.
One was near Ty’Asia’s house, on Remount Road between West Boulevard and a bridge over railroad tracks south of Wilkinson Boulevard. That cost $1.05 million.
Another project on Markland Drive — costing $650,000 — was finished in 2015. The other project — a sidewalk on South Tryon Street, from Nations Ford Road to Queen Anne Drive — cost $2.2 million.
Those three westside projects comprised 35 percent of the money spent on sidewalks from 2015-17.
But there are other thoroughfares that are dangerous for pedestrians and where there have been few citizen-nominated projects or city-driven improvements.
West Sugar Creek Road, for instance, had eight pedestrian accidents in 2016, including one death and one “disabling” injury. But the section of road from North Tryon Street to Mallard Creek Church Road had two requests for pedestrian improvements since 2005. One was denied. The other hasn’t been built.
Shannon Binns is the executive director of Sustain Charlotte, which lobbies the city for more spending on sidewalks and bike lanes. He said it’s good that CDOT will respond directly to people asking for crosswalks and that his organization has taken advantage of that by mobilizing residents so they are heard.
“But the process also needs to be data-driven,” he said. “Neighborhoods shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Though the city said it tries to be equitable, some thoroughfares and neighborhoods are missed. The city’s pedestrian program receives $7.5 million a year, which has been unchanged for at least a decade, even as the city has grown by 150,000 people.
In its Charlotte Walks program, which aims to make the city safer for people walking, the city acknowledges it has large hurdles, with hundreds of miles of thoroughfares missing sidewalks, not enough crosswalks and poor lighting. Most of the city was built for cars and with few accommodations for pedestrians.
That could change in the next fiscal year, which begins in July. The City Council has approved a budget that doubles the amount spent on sidewalks over the next two years, from $7.5 million to $15 million.
Binns praised the city’s plan to spend more money on pedestrians, calling it a “game-changer.”
After Ty’Asia’s death, the city launched a $200,000 study of West Boulevard, which found many of the sidewalks were “trip hazards” or “impassable” and that more than 20 percent of the streetlights weren’t working. It also found there weren’t enough safe ways for people to cross the street.
The West Boulevard study was one of five pedestrian studies the city started on major roads. The city pledged to make a significant investment in the boulevard by installing two new traffic lights and five new “pedestrian-hybrid” beacons, which allow walkers to press a button that will turn a signal red, allowing them to cross. Two of the proposed beacons are within 500 feet of where Ty’Asia was killed.
As it approaches the center city, West Boulevard becomes East Boulevard. Eight years ago, the city put East Boulevard on a “road diet,” removing a lane of traffic and building concrete medians with landscaping. The idea of a road diet is that it slows traffic, making the road safer for cars and walkers.
Mack and Fryar would like the city and N.C. Department of Transportation to do the same with West Boulevard. The city said the boulevard carries too much traffic for such a significant change.
Fryar said she thought about moving to a new house.
But she first wants to see a new crosswalk built in front of her house, which was a recommendation of the city’s West Boulevard study.
“I hate this street,” she said. “I know it’s not a person, but I hate it. I want them to fix it.”
This story first ran at CharlotteObserver.com