Killer Streets: Phoenix Is a Death Trap for Pedestrians Like Kacie ClarkEXPAND
New Times Illustration/Zac McDonald

Killer Streets: Phoenix Is a Death Trap for Pedestrians Like Kacie Clark

On the morning of January 17, Kacie Elizabeth Moira Clark got up as usual and went out to buy cigarettes. The morning traffic rushed by as she walked east along Indian School Road, her short brown pixie cut hidden under a flat-brim baseball hat advertising the name of one of her favorite pop-punk bands.

She passed the title loan agency, the check-cashing joint, the tire shop, and the liquor store plastered with ads for Modelo and Tecate. At the 24-hour CVS on the corner of 19th Avenue and Indian School, she picked up a box of cereal for her roommate. Then she turned around and headed home.

Around 9 a.m., a black Mercedes crossed several lanes of traffic and hopped up onto the curb. The car slammed into the slim 20-year-old, dragging her body along the sidewalk for 60 feet. Then it came to a stop.

Kacie’s father, Jay Clark, was sitting in his cubicle in a Texas office park when he got the call. He called his wife — Kacie’s stepmom — and asked her to come get him, completely unaware that he was screaming into the phone.

During one of the last conversations that he’d had with Kacie, she’d told him that she was thinking about going back to school, maybe trying to get into medical administration — the job that he and her mom had done in the Air Force before they got divorced. She wanted a career, to quit working at Taco Bell, and to save up to buy a car. For years, Kacie had struggled with depression, alternating between rage and sadness in a way that her father could never quite understand. But in recent months, it had felt like something had lifted. She was happy to be living on her own for the first time, and had started to talk optimistically about her plans for the future.

Kacie’s twin sister, Kyra, pulled him out of his daze. They had to get to Phoenix, she reminded him. He got in the car and started driving, barely stopping as the green hills around Austin turned into West Texas desert. They quickly passed through New Mexico, where signs along the interstate warned of dust storms, then crossed into Arizona, where Kacie had moved to start her adult life just a few months before.

By the time they arrived at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Kacie had already been declared brain-dead. Less than three weeks had passed since the new year, but she was already the second person to be killed while walking on Phoenix’s streets. The rest of her family took turns saying goodbye, but Jay lingered outside her hospital room, refusing to go inside.

During the 16-hour drive, he’d made up his mind. He wasn’t going to look at her bruised and mangled body. The last photos that she’d sent him were saved on his cellphone: Kacie at a concert in Las Vegas, grinning in dark-rimmed glasses and an oversize black hoodie. That was how he’d remember her.

As he waited for police to investigate how the black Mercedes had ended up on the sidewalk, Jay Clark learned that Kacie’s death was hardly a unique or isolated occurrence. By June 15, 51 people had been killed walking in Phoenix in 2018, making it one of the most dangerous cities for pedestrians in the nation. That averaged out to one fatality every three days, a stunningly high death toll for a nominally low-risk activity.

Why, he started to wonder, wasn’t anyone doing anything to fix it?

Sean Sweat, the founder of the Urban Phoenix Project, has grown frustrated by the high rate of pedestrian deaths in the city.EXPAND
Sean Sweat, the founder of the Urban Phoenix Project, has grown frustrated by the high rate of pedestrian deaths in the city.
Jim Louvau

The news coverage of Kacie Clark’s death added up to 11 sentences: five in the Arizona Republic and six on azfamily.com. Pedestrians are killed with such regularity that each fatality barely registers on the city’s conscience.

The frequency of these deaths may be one reason there’s not more outrage. Also, anyone who gets around Phoenix on foot — or on a bike or in a wheelchair — is probably poor. As a young white woman who’d grown up middle class, Kacie Clark was an exception. As someone who worked at Taco Bell and hadn’t gone to college, she wasn’t. Take a look at who walks in Phoenix, and you’ll see lots of people trying to get to their minimum wage jobs. You’ll also see teenagers, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, new immigrants and refugees — in short, all the most vulnerable members of the community.

In the most literal sense, the city wasn’t built to accommodate them. Most of Phoenix’s street grid was laid out after World War II, when cars started to become a standard feature of middle-class life. Planners and traffic engineers built wide, fast-moving arterial roads that cut through the city’s center, efficiently delivering drivers to their destinations in the sprawling suburbs.

By 2005, when construction on the Valley Metro Light Rail began, the culture across the country had changed. The environmental implications of all that driving had become clear, and people were realizing that it was actually kind of nice to live in a place where you could walk or bike or take public transit instead.

During his seven years as mayor, Greg Stanton, who resigned to run for Congress in late May, championed a vision of a less car-centric city. “I want to make sure that people understand that from my perspective, great public transportation, great bikeability, great walkability, is of equal value as those cars on the road,” he told The Atlantic’s CityLab in 2014.

But the pedestrian fatality rate continued to rise during his time as mayor, primarily affecting low-income communities: In 2014, Governing magazine found that pedestrians in Phoenix were being killed at a higher rate in poorer neighborhoods.

Requests to interview Stanton in the weeks leading up to his resignation were unsuccessful.

In fairness to the former mayor, Phoenix is hardly the only city that’s dealing with these problems: Nationwide, the number of pedestrian deaths is on the rise. Some researchers suspect that the ubiquity of cellphones may be to blame. Others point out that the annual number of vehicle miles traveled is up, meaning that people are driving more. The fatality rate for pedestrians tends to mirror economic trends — it hit an all-time low during the recession — because when people don’t have jobs, they spend more time at home.

Even in that national context, however, Phoenix stands out. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association recently named Arizona the deadliest state for pedestrians — a statistic based on data from the first six months of 2017. And in 2016, NHTSA found that Phoenix had the highest per-capita pedestrian fatality rate among major American cities.

Some blame the blinding sun; others blame the fact that Arizona is one of the few states that still hasn’t outlawed texting while driving. But the number-one contributing factor, just about everyone agrees, is that people do a lot of driving here. And since Phoenix is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, there are more cars on the roads than ever.

Since not many people in Phoenix walk, drivers making a left-hand turn at an intersection, for instance, don’t necessarily anticipate that anyone will be trying to cross the street at the same time. Urban planners have found that it comes down to safety in numbers: The more people are walking or biking, the more drivers will look out for them.

Not only are there are a lot of cars on the road here, but they go fast. Too fast, activists argue.

“I get so virulently angry whenever I read one of those three-sentence pedestrian death stories and the fucking cops say speed wasn’t a factor,” says Sean Sweat, the founder of the Urban Phoenix Project. “I know they mean the driver wasn’t over the speed limit, but that’s a different statement. Speed is what kills.”

If you get hit by a car, your chance of survival depends on how fast the car was traveling. At 25 miles per hour, you have an 80 percent chance of survival, according to a four-year study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. At 40 miles per hour, your chances of surviving drop down to 20 percent.

Incidentally, 40 miles per hour is the speed limit on many of Phoenix’s arterial roads, where the majority of car-pedestrian collisions take place. In densely populated parts of the city, the posted speed limits for streets like Indian School Road, Bell Road, or Seventh Avenue fall to 30 or 35 miles per hour. But as anyone who regularly drives around here can tell you, hardly anyone sticks to that.

Last December, Kacie Clark called her dad from the six-pointed intersection where Grand Avenue, 19th Avenue, and McDowell Road meet. Cars honked in the background as she looked out at the miles of concrete spread out across a barren wasteland of petroleum tanks, railroad tracks, and scrap metal. She couldn’t figure out where to cross the street.

“Dad, I’m standing at this intersection and I don’t know what to do, there’s lanes in every direction,” Jay Clark recalls her saying.

Getting around Phoenix on foot was an ongoing struggle. But Kacie had resisted buying a car, preferring to spend her money on concert tickets and trips to see her favorite bands: Fall Out Boy, Avenged Sevenfold, Pierce The Veil, Set It Off. Music, she often said, had saved her life. Throughout her teenage years, she’d struggled with depression and questioned her gender identity; the medical examiner’s report notes the presence of “innumerable parallel linear scars” on her thighs and wrists.

Growing up in suburban Phoenix, Kacie’s love of music started practically at birth — her parents remember her singing Fatboy Slim in the bathtub when she was 2 years old. At 11, she was already going to concerts. She’d always been a precocious child: By the time she was 4 years old, she was going through her older brother’s backpack and reading his books. But once she got older, she’d frequently failed to complete assignments and turned in homework late, to her parents’ frustration. Teachers often complained that she was smart but wasn’t applying herself.

After her parents split up and her dad moved to Texas, Kacie and her two siblings moved around the Phoenix suburbs with their mom. They bounced from Mesa to Glendale to Buckeye, where she enrolled at Buckeye Union High School. Unwilling to conform to anyone else’s narrow idea of “normal,” she dressed in backward baseball caps and a dog-tag necklace that promoted legalizing gay marriage, and was fiercely outspoken about LGBTQ rights.

In the middle of her junior year, her mother got a new job and moved the family to the Florida Panhandle. (Kacie’s mother spoke to Phoenix New Times for this article, but asked that her name not be used.) Not only was Kacie far away from all her friends, but her new classmates had already formed cliques. Kacie refused to put up with what she called “fakers” and “haters” and decided that she hated Florida. She unsuccessfully begged to go to online school instead.

Making friends was easier at concerts. Standing in line at Warped Tour, Kacie instantly bonded with complete strangers who shared her love of angsty, guitar-heavy music. She was fiercely loyal to her constellation of friends that spanned the country and the world, keeping in touch with people online for years after she met them.

After graduating from Bay High School in Panama City in 2015, Kacie moved in with her dad in Pflugerville, Texas, a fast-growing suburb on the outskirts of Austin. Wanting to make her own path instead of going straight to college, she got jobs at Wendy’s and Taco Bell, and spent her free time traveling to concerts in Houston and Dallas and San Antonio. She pierced her septum and began covering up her old self-inflicted cuts with tattoos that referenced her favorite bands, getting the date of the first time she ever saw Fall Out Boy inked in Roman numerals on her wrists.

“She worked to support her concert habit,” her father recalls. “Every penny that she earned was for tickets, was for bus trips, was for plane tickets. One of her favorite bands was playing over in Paris and she asked, ‘Do you think I can go?’ I’m like, ‘You’re 18, you have no real commitments except your job.’ And so she saved up and she went to Paris.”

She showed up for so many meet-and-greets that the members of her favorite bands — “my boys,” she protectively called them — knew her by name. Kace, as she was known to her friends, was so dedicated that she once rode a bus straight into a hurricane, hoping to catch a concert in Houston before Harvey decimated the city. She always made sure that she was first in line and had a spot in the front row, so that the band members would feel supported.

“When they would meet after the show and talk about their struggles, in my head I’m going, ‘You’re 20 years old from a middle-class family, a product of divorce, what struggles do you have?’” her father says. “I could never understand that. She was just bristling with finding out who she was, hating things around her, being angry, being sad, being depressed.”

Once several years had passed and it was clear that she was no longer in danger of harming herself, Jay started asking Kacie when she planned to move out and become financially responsible for herself. She was reluctant, telling him, “If I start working to support myself then I’m never gonna be able to go to concerts, and I don’t know if I can live that way.”

In November 2017, Kacie moved back to Phoenix. She’d decided that she was ready to try living independently, and wanted to reunite with the friends who she’d missed since she left for Florida. She moved in with a friend from high school who was living in an apartment complex off Indian School Road and got a job at a Taco Bell in south Phoenix, commuting for over an hour on the bus each way.

While leaving the so-called live music capital of the world might not seem like an obvious move for someone so passionate about concerts, the pop-punk bands that Kacie liked often skipped Austin in favor of larger cities. From Phoenix, though, she could catch a cheap flight or take a bus to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. On January 16, she went to a Set It Off concert in Las Vegas, texting her dad the photos that he still has saved on his phone, the ones that he’s decided to remember her by.

She flew home. The next morning, she was hit by the black Mercedes.

Six months later, the Phoenix Police Department is still figuring out what caused the fatal crash. The department declined to provide any details from the investigation and it’s not clear yet what kind of charges the black Mercedes’ driver, whose name has not yet been released, might face.

Jay Clark says that he’s not big on punishment for the sake of punishment. He doesn’t necessarily want the driver who killed his daughter to go to jail. What he does want is to see something change in Phoenix, so that people don’t keep getting run down in the streets. That way, he can make sense of her life ending when it seemed like it was just beginning, just days after she’d told him that she wanted to start taking college classes and to start living up to the potential that so many of her teachers had seen.

If she’d lived longer, her mother believes, Kacie would have gotten involved in suicide prevention and tried to stop other teenagers from hurting themselves in the same ways that she had. Toward the end of her life, she’d spoken openly on social media about her past struggles with self-harm, posing for pictures with her favorite bands while holding a handmade sign that said “THREE YEARS OF RECOVERY — I WON’T BE AFRAID.”

“She had jumped this huge hurdle in her mind about who she was, and what life was about, and whether she wanted to end it or not,” her father says. “That’s what I would want people to know. She had struggles, she had issues, she had problems, and she found something to latch onto to give her hope and make her happy.”

“I’ve been vetoed,” says Governor’s Highway Safety Office director Alberto Gutier of his concept for a new crosswalk sign.EXPAND
“I’ve been vetoed,” says Governor’s Highway Safety Office director Alberto Gutier of his concept for a new crosswalk sign.
Antonia Noori Farzan

“I’ve been vetoed,” says Alberto Gutier, brandishing a piece of printer paper. “They don’t like this.”

He hands over his concept for a new crosswalk sign. The standard pedestrian crossing symbol — a stick figure crossing the road — now comes with a warning.

“USE X-WALKS STUPID,” it blares in bold red letters.

Gutier, the director of the Arizona Governor’s Office for Highway Safety, is sitting at his desk, underneath a portrait of Barry Goldwater. Outside of his day job, where he controls federal grant money aimed at improving pedestrian safety, he’s also the sergeant-at-arms for the Arizona GOP. His office at the Capitol is crammed with right-wing ephemera — an NYPD hat that Rudy Giuliani gave him, a Maricopa County Deputy Sheriff jacket with his name embroidered on the breast, and multiple framed photographs of Ronald Reagan.

Like his political beliefs, Gutier’s views about how to lower the pedestrian fatality rate tend to be conservative. People shouldn’t be wearing dark clothing when they’re out walking at night, he says. And they definitely shouldn’t be talking on the phones when they’re crossing the street at two o’clock in the morning.

Isn’t that victim-blaming? Gutier shrugs. “I believe in personal responsibility,” he says.

You can almost see the ghost of Barry Goldwater smiling.

Plenty of elected officials share Gutier’s attitude, and so do many of their constituents. Just read the comments on any news story about the fatality rate: Again and again, drivers blame pedestrians for their own deaths, complaining that people “just dart out” into the road.

“You know, people don’t like to walk very far anymore, unfortunately,” says Thelda Williams, who’s currently serving as interim mayor of Phoenix and leads the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee. “They think about the easy route instead of the safest route.”

Try getting around without a car for a week and you’ll understand why. When it’s over 100 degrees outside, you’re carrying several bags of groceries, and getting to the nearest crosswalk means walking a half-mile out of your way, then baking in the sun and breathing in exhaust fumes as you wait for the light to change … well, taking a chance when you see a break in traffic doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea.

Inadvisable? Sure. Worthy of the death penalty? Not so much.

If you ask activists — both locally and around the country — they’ll tell you that, yes, personal responsibility needs to be part of the conversation about lowering the pedestrian death rate. But from their point of view, it’s drivers who need to be more responsible. After all, they’re the ones behind the wheel of what can easily turn into a battering ram. Distracted pedestrians are only endangering themselves; distracted drivers are endangering, well, everybody.

From a legal standpoint, though, it can be hard to hold those drivers accountable when someone gets hit. Unless they’re intoxicated — which was only the case for 2 percent of the car-pedestrian collisions that took place in Phoenix in 2016 — drivers who kill pedestrians rarely face criminal charges. (That’s not unusual: In Minnesota, the Star Tribune found that the majority of drivers who killed pedestrians over a four-year period were never charged with a crime.)

In Arizona, like in other states, failing to yield for pedestrians is a civil violation, not a felony or a misdemeanor. Unless you’ve violated some other law, like running a red light, you’ll likely walk away with only a ticket. If the person you hit wasn’t in a crosswalk, you can even get away with speeding — up to a point.

“The way the county attorney looks at it is if you are doing what they call criminal speed,” explains Sergeant Alan Pfohl of the Phoenix Police Department. “Criminal speed is considered 21 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. If you’re doing 10 miles an hour over the speed limit and you hit a pedestrian that ran out in front of you, they’re probably still going to put the fault on the pedestrian.”

But, for obvious reasons, police aren’t in the habit of ticketing people who’ve been killed or seriously injured, even if they’re legally considered to be at fault.

A "complete street" in Bellingham, Washington
A "complete street" in Bellingham, Washington
Smart Growth America

Increasingly, people in Phoenix are starting to question whether the city could have done more to prevent these accidents happening in the first place.

Over the past year, city hall has paid more than $4 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of people who have been seriously injured while crossing the street. Rather than going after drivers, attorneys are starting to zero in on poorly lit crosswalks and places where there’s nowhere to safely cross the street when you get off the bus. And they’re building a case that the city has failed to protect its most vulnerable residents.

Advocates for pedestrian and bicyclist safety have been beating a similar drum for years now.

“Pedestrians are not kept safe by our street design,” says Connor Descheemaker, who spent nearly four years on the city’s Complete Streets Advisory Board.

Originally tasked by the city council to come up with a plan to make Phoenix safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, the board developed a set of design standards for city streets back in 2015, modeled off National Association of City Transportation Officials’ guidelines. But city officials dragged out the process of approving those design standards, and, in May, all but two members of the board resigned out of frustration.

One major point of contention was speed. Before most of its members got fed up and quit, the Complete Streets Advisory Board had a fairly modest suggestion for Phoenix’s street transportation department: Streets should be designed in a way that encourages people to drive at the posted speed limit.

Subconsciously, wide lanes encourage you to go faster. In other parts of the country, high-volume urban streets have 10-foot-wide lanes. But in Phoenix, travel lanes on arterial streets are typically at least 12 feet wide, which also happens to be the standard lane width for interstate highways. If Seventh Avenue feels like a freeway sometimes, that’s because it was designed like one.

The solution is what’s known as a “road diet,” which tricks drivers into slowing down by narrowing the lanes. It’s cheap — you only have to repaint the white lines on the road — and it frees up space for bikes and turn lanes. If you want to take it even further, you can also bump out sidewalks to shorten the crossing distances for pedestrians, or let cars parallel park on the side of the road. In Santa Monica, California, putting a three-lane boulevard on a road diet resulted in a 65 percent reduction in the number of collisions.

“That’s something that was taken directly from New York City’s Complete Streets policy and design guidelines,” says Descheemaker, who was one of seven board members to quit. “And Streets simply told us that that was a nonstarter.”

A few downtown streets have been put on a road diet. And Phoenix has been putting in “refuge islands” that allow pedestrians to cross two-way streets one direction at a time, high-visibility crosswalks, improved street lighting, speed humps in residential neighborhoods, and signals that give pedestrians a three- to seven-second head start before cars start turning. But if you ask activists, these projects are too few and far between.

City officials frequently tout the introduction of HAWKs, high-intensity activated crosswalks, which are being placed on blocks where drivers may not expect to see pedestrians. When a button is pushed, overhead flashing lights let drivers know that someone is crossing the street. Phoenix has installed 40 HAWKs so far and plans to add 11 more by the end of the year. By contrast, Tucson already has 121.

Meanwhile, cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have taken a more aggressive approach by dropping citywide speed limits to 25 miles per hour — the rate of speed where someone who gets hit by a car still has an 80 percent chance of survival. According to Curbed.com, cities that set a 25 miles-per-hour maximum speed limit and redesigned their streets to make sure that drivers actually stick to those limits have been seeing the largest drop in traffic deaths.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen here, though.

“It would be so much easier if it was a cookie-cutter approach to, you know, make all the streets 25 miles per hour, narrow them,” says Maria Hyatt, the director of the city’s street transportation department. "I wish that was a solution, but it’s not."

Phoenix was built for and around cars.
Phoenix was built for and around cars.

What Hyatt isn’t saying is that slowing down traffic would be an effective way to commit political suicide. This isn’t New York or Boston or Washington, D.C. Phoenix is a sprawling, car-addicted Western city.

But the biggest obstacle to lowering the pedestrian fatality rate in Phoenix isn’t the existing street grid. It’s Arizona’s libertarian politics. People here resent being told what to do. Even — or especially — when it’s for the greater good.

Several hours into an April meeting of the Citizens Transportation Commission, Roy Miller, an appointed member of the committee, said what no one in city government seems willing to admit.

“We could eliminate all of the accidents with a 5-mile-an-hour speed limit,” he pointed out. “That sounds absurd, but we could. Well, why don’t we do that? Because there are other priorities than saving lives, there really are. There are other priorities than well-marked bikeways. There are other priorities than fast buses. The main priority should be getting people where they want to go.”

The framing was striking: It set up getting people where they want to go as antithetical to the idea of well-marked bikeways and fast buses, both of which, it should be noted, help people get to where they want to go.

But Miller was right about one thing: If Phoenix was truly serious about preventing pedestrian deaths, the city could simply lower the speed limit and redesign the streets to slow down traffic. That this hasn’t happened yet is an implicit admission that some people’s right to a quick commute has been deemed more valuable than other people’s lives.

In the long run, this only makes Phoenix worse for everyone. Who wants to live in a city where you have to get in your car to make a half-mile trip to pick one thing at the grocery store, where you don’t feel safe walking or biking to work when the weather is nice?

In the short run, people who can’t afford to make those kinds of calculations still need to get around somehow. So they’ll continue to walk. And they’ll continue to die.

In April, a few days before what would have been Kacie’s 21st birthday, Jay Clark sat down and wrote a letter to the Phoenix City Council.

Every couple of days, one of the Google alerts that he set up after she died pops up on his phone: another pedestrian hit by a car somewhere in Phoenix. The frequency of the crashes convinced him that Kacie’s death wasn’t a freak accident, that the problem was bigger than just the one driver who had killed his daughter.

“What I am asking for is something to point to in order to prevent this type of thing from happening,” he wrote. “I want something to say ‘Kacie died unnecessarily, but at least X is being done about it.’ I can’t help but think about the furor over school shootings, and the reaction to that. People died unnecessarily and everyone wants to immediately do something about it.”

“Well,” he went on, “my daughter wasn’t killed by a gun. She was killed doing something we all do every day, walking. Something should be done about it.”

Email antonia.farzan@newtimes.com.

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