Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009
The Nashville Tennesseean reports stark numbers on auto crashes involving pedestrians:
Pedestrian accidents are on the rise in Metro Nashville, where hundreds are hit, hurt or killed by vehicles each year. The number of pedestrian accidents has gone up nearly every year since 2004 — a grim statistic in a city already known as one of the least-pedestrian-friendly places in the country. Seventy-three people died trying to cross or walk along Nashville streets from January 2004 to August 2009, according to Metro police records. More than 1,600 pedestrians have been hit.
I previously said that Nashville is potentially the next boomtown of the New South. It has been growing its population at a clip not even the best performing Midwest peer metro can match. Its music industry is booming. Corporate headquarters such as Nissan USA are coming. A brand new symphony hall downtown houses an orchestra working its way up the league tables. Nashville is setting a new aspiration level for itself.
A lot of what is driving growth in Nashville is the same as what is driving growth elsewhere in the South. Tennessee is an aggressively pro-business, right to work state with low costs and low taxes (and cheap electricity thanks to the TVA). Tennessee does not have an income tax and the city of Nashville can’t raise property taxes without a vote.
Yet a lot of this low cost environment has been purchased with bare bones public infrastructure. Nashville is the least pedestrian friendly major city I’ve visited – worse than any Midwest city. I keep coming back to this picture I took in my buddy’s subdivision there. (This location is just inside the Nashville city limits abutting Williamson County).
How is it that a brand new subdivision with all brick homes doesn’t have sidewalks on both sides of the street? The cheapest vinyl village in the Indianapolis area is required to have that these days. This says something extremely powerful about the values of Nashville, the values that created the stats above. It’s not just that there aren’t safe pedestrian facilities. This type of infrastructure inculcates a mindset about pedestrians in the psyche of the people. You see this plain as day, for example, when, among the “causes” of pedestrian accidents, the paper lists “walking in dark clothes on a dark night”. That was not, last I checked, a valid reason to run someone over. While it can certainly contribute to a lack of visibility, this type of rationale comes straight from the mode of thinking that suggests women who wear slutty outfits are asking to be raped. It’s “blame the victim first”.
In a real sense, Nashville has decided to shift costs from development and taxes to its citizens via another route. Rather than pay to create a safer pedestrian environment, it has decided to expose its citizens to increased risk of injury or death, resulting in the very real costs – personal and financial – coming from all those crashes.
On the other hand, we have more or less unlimited risks that we are exposed to every day. Many of us willingly take a chance by, for example, dashing across the street mid-block in front of a cab just save a couple of seconds. It isn’t feasible to eliminate all risk and many of us would not want to live in a society that did so as it might be excessively stifling.
Also, should Nashville retrofit all of its streets and change the culture, it might find that its economic growth declines as companies and people seek out cheaper locations elsewhere. This would cut off the supply of taxes, making further investment prohibitive. We see this in the Midwest where many cities that once had great infrastructures are seeing them crumble into dust as they can’t afford to maintain them. I believe it is critical to sustain the economic growth engines of our communities. That expansion of jobs, residents, and tax base is what provides the resources to make more investments. The richer we get, the more we can afford. You can’t kill the golden goose, so there’s a tricky balance to maintain.
There are choices and tradeoffs to be made. And a lot of it comes down to values. But from what I’ve seen as we go through time, things that were viewed as ordinary and acceptable risks years ago are no longer considered so today as we’ve gotten more prosperous and thus more demanding as a society. Once workers dying on a job site was routine. Eleven people died building the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930’s. That was probably considered quite safe for its day. If even one person dies on a job site today, it’s treated as a major incident. It used to be that horribly polluted air and water were simply the price of progress. No longer – at least not in America. This has been recognized and supported even by free market advocates like Friedrich Hayek, who said, “There is no reason why the volume of these pure [government] service activities should not increase with the general growth of wealth.”
It strikes me that the “Nashville Way” is on the wrong side of history. Efficient low cost government and taxes are likely to be permanent advantages. Purchasing those low costs by exposing pedestrians to above average risk of injury or death rather than through genuine efficiency does not seem like a long term winning strategy, however.