In this episode, we explore a sobering and important topic in Greenville County: the tragic deaths of 38 people who were walking or bike riding in our community in 2021 and 2022. Joined by Frank Mansbach and Dr. John McBurney from Bike Walk Greenville, we explore a project that maps the lives lost on our roads and sidewalks. But more than a somber tribute, the conversation leads us into an in-depth examination of road design, engineering, lighting, and the pressing need for change. Together, we seek answers, compassion, and solutions, leveraging data and human stories to advocate for the safety of all users on our roads. Join us to understand how you can make a difference in our community.
Katy Smith: Holden Chad Joiner, Melissa Ann Brown, Tarone LaMarcus Gordon, Christopher Hollingsworth Davis, Beatrice, Ellen Miller. These are just five of the 38 people killed in Greenville County in 2021 and 2022 when they were walking or riding a bike right here in our community. On this episode of Simple Civics Greenville County, we’ll learn about a project of Bike Walk Greenville that memorializes these individuals who were, of course, treasured by family, friends, and coworkers, and those who knew and loved them, but to whom for rest of us in the community, they may have been known only as a headline or a lead news story, or a cross, or a wreath on a roadside.
Bike Walk greenville has mapped the locations of their deaths and accompanied them with photos from weddings or church directories or family albums to remind us not just that these were precious human lives, but also that road design, engineering and lighting played a big role in their deaths.
We’re joined by Frank Mansbach, executive Director of Bike Walk Greenville, and Dr. John McBurney, Vice Chair of Bike Walk Greenville, to talk about the project, the use of data to inform better solutions and better advocacy, and the importance of compassion in this work. We’ll put links to information on Bike Walk Greenville, and to the mapping project in the episode page.
Thanks so much, Frank and John, for joining me today to talk about this really important topic and the great work that you’re doing.
Frank Mansbach: Glad to be here.
Katy Smith: So I’m sure that listeners, just like me, are really troubled when they hear a news story about a pedestrian death that might have happened on White Horse Road or a cycling accident, or they see something that reminds them that that happened like a cross on the side of the road.
These are terrible things, but they’re usually a little bit amorphous. Honestly, you don’t have a name that goes with it, or if you have a name, you don’t really know much about the person. If I’m being terribly honest, you kind of wonder about the circumstances. What was that person doing that put them in harm’s way, or what was that particular driver doing that might’ve caused that to happen?
You all have released a really important project that I think gives so much more context to all of this and helps frame it differently for me. I’d love for you to talk about the map that you created and the stories that it tells. Can you talk about the project?
Frank Mansbach: So what we did, based on what we learned from Walk Bike Nashville, uh, we figured out we needed photographs of the deceased. And we reached out to the Greenville County Coroners office and after, a good period of time, they eventually gave us the list of all the people that died on Greenville County Roads, on bikes or on foot for the years 2021 and 2022.
It gave the full names and the age of the deceased. From there it was just a matter of doing extensive online search of obituaries and news stories to find out what we could about these people. And of the 38 people that that were on the list, we found photos of 22 and news stories about some of these people.
And tribute walls on the obituaries. These are real people. And, and we found it. And so we had the idea to not only get the photographs, but to put a map together. I got some help from my friend Mike Nice, who’s an open street map expert, and he gave us a, a map that we could put the pins in. And so we have a nice map of Greenville County, shows the location of every one of these 38 deaths. And then for the website, we took screenshots of the map and put the photos that we had next to the people’s names. And it, it’s, it’s eight pretty compelling photographs. You know, you look at White Horse Road and see all, where all the people died.
You look at Wade Hampton Boulevard, you look at all the places you know are terrible, and we have these on maps.
Katy Smith: It kind of shakes you to see all of it, to see the number of deaths in such a short period of time and the humans impacted with it. And not just those victims but their families who are also victims of this.
John McBurney: So a local political leader in a Facebook post once said, “well, who could calculate the value of a loss of a life” when talking about the swamp rabbit trail crossing at State Route 253. And I replied, “actually the US Department of Transportation has thought a lot about that.” And if you go to the US DOT’s Benefit Cost Analysis Manual Table one one, you get a table that lists the dollar value for crashes of various sorts.
And for the loss of life it’s $10 million. So for those 38 lives, it’s $38 million. But for each crash, there are other costs other than just to, for the loss of that person’s life because other people are affected as well. And there are other frictional costs from litigation, et cetera.
So recently a car full of teenagers, like last week, hit and killed a 64 year old, 11:30 at night. On Wade Hampton Road, Uh, near, uh, Harris Teeter and, um, you know, it’s terrible for the person that was killed. You’re a parent. How do you think you would be feeling if your kid was in that car?
How much therapy are they gonna need? What are the un-imponderables with regard to college applications? You know, there’s so many ramifications. There’s so many costs. When you talk about 38 deaths, you’re really talking about the tip of an iceberg in terms of the human toll that this takes on our community and will only increase as population increases if we don’t address the fact that our roads have not been designed to accommodate the safety of all users.
Katy Smith: So let’s talk about that, because when you look at a victim and you think about the driver that might’ve been involved, you know, you’ve got this handful of people, but these issues go beyond those people. They have to do with design and the way our roads are built. So can you all talk a little bit about how the map really highlights that too?
It lifts it beyond these individual situations to systems.
Frank Mansbach: Nationwide, uh, advocates know that our roads do not accommodate the people living along the roads, the people that need to cross the road. We have multiple locations in Greenville County on fast moving roads like White Horse Road, Wade Hampton Boulevard, where the crosswalks with a signal are eight tenths to a mile apart.
And nobody, nobody will do that. Nobody will, will walk four tenths a mile to the nearest crosswalk if they were in the middle. It’s just not human nature. So they’ll try to cross in the middle and bad things happen. But there’s solutions. There’s all sorts of solutions. There’s center refuges, there’s, uh, signals that are on demand called a hawk signal where a person can, can stop traffic.
But society is not allowing this because what is the percentage? 3% of the people don’t drive cars now. You can’t sort of live in our community if you don’t have a car. So we don’t have the consensus that we need this safety. There’s many solutions. There’s no money for the solutions. Another issue we’ve brought up with local DoT engineers is the lack of street lighting. This has been written up for years about White Horse Road. There was a Greenville News story front page in 2017 about the lack of lighting on White Horse Road. It’s now 2023. There’s no money available. Why is that? We don’t prioritize this as an important thing.
John McBurney: By the way, one of the data-driven aspects of this analysis that we’ve done is that we’ve not detected any deaths that did not occur in the dark. That really points up the central role that lighting has, and that’s something that could easily be modified along these arterial roadways is to improve lighting. Uh, so that, you know, you may not be able to build crossing everywhere, but at least you could make it so that the drivers could more easily see people if they happen to be crossing between official crosswalks. And people also do get hit in crosswalks where there’s a very, very poor lighting, such as the intersection of 253 and White Horse Road.
Katy Smith: So we know that we’re losing life. We know that there’s a cost associated with that loss, not just for the person and their families, but for the other families involved, for us as a society for our own pain. But it’s not a priority right now to change road design and to put in the lighting that we need.
What do you think can change that and make it a priority and make those changes?
John McBurney: I think when people talk to candidates for elected office that this needs to be one of the things that they ask potential representatives, especially at a state level. Most of the roads in South Carolina are controlled by South Carolina Department of Transportation has the highest percentage of miles of state controlled roads of any state in the United States.
So ultimately the opportunity for improvement risks with SC DoT and it ultimately comes down to how they prioritize spending the money derived from the federal government through the formula funds administered by the US Department of Transportation. That needs to be something that we really bring to our elected officials that we as a community are concerned and what are you gonna do about it? Because ultimately, SC DoT will make changes that they feel are required from elected officials, and often what they really need is the cover to make changes, to spend money in one way and not another.
Katy Smith: What I think is really impressive about the work that Bike Walk Greenville has done. There are so many things that are impressive, but you all are using data in a really innovative way. Both to highlight what kind of projects are needed, but just for your advocacy. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of data in supporting your advocacy and how other advocates can think about that in their own work for what whatever the topic might be.
John McBurney: This era of big data offers enormous opportunity for advocacy organizations. For relatively, not absolutely, but relatively small amounts of money, we can outperform very large organizations. We can quickly turn around an answer to a question like in a day, uh, that would take using traditional methods months or maybe never at all.
If we want to know how many people walk or bike or perhaps drive a car anywhere along an open street maps line segment. I can measure that. Most types of scientific endeavor, you’re only as good as your testable hypotheses. If you really have no expertise in a subject area, you just ask poorly focused questions.
Then you get back poor answers. You don’t really become any wiser. But if you combine sort of boots on the ground manning the street, or person in the street knowledge about a problem, like people who have walked down the sidewalk on White Horse Road to realize just what a horrible and dangerous environment that is.
Or tried to cross one of these roads, even in a crosswalk. And you combine that with the ability to make some measurements about what are we dealing with here? Like it seems like the cars are really coming fast. What’s the speed profile on the cars and how many cars a day are turning left in this lane?
That then becomes extremely powerful. It becomes undeniable, uh, that you have this information. So, you know, it, it involves a little bit of money. It involves some determination and time spent doing the, the training to learn to use streetlight data insights. But it has really paid off for us.
Uh, but as I’ve said before, I think that is the first step in a more complicated process. The second is the so what. So what that there are 39,000 cars a day on White Horse Road in front of the Walmart, and a percentage of those are going faster than 80 miles an hour. So what is looking at the lives that are lost and saying, “what, are we obligated as a, as a society to do about this?”
I’ve been drawn to bike advocacy from a number of directions. I felt strongly that our advocacy would be more powerful if we had data, but I realized as I got more and more into the weeds with developing numbers, that we also had to connect with people’s hearts because ultimately what we’re talking about needing to happen is a cultural shift. I recently spent a couple of months in Costa Rica and due to a, an injury that my wife had, we wound up having to go down the Pan-American Highway an in… an international highway, not just an interstate, but an international highway. And in the rural areas about once every two miles, there was a a grade level crossing where meaning in this divided four lane limited access road, very, very similar to a interstate in the United States.
There would be speed bumps that would alert drivers if they were about to cross an official way for people to cross that highway. And we wound up going to the hospital in Liberia, Costa Rica, which is a city almost identical to Greenville. It’s 72,000 population, international airports. Every mile or two there was a pedestrian bridge over the, over the highway. So at a recent meeting to go over the traffic improvement plan for Wade Hampton Boulevard, one of the SC DoT engineers afterwards was just standing and nobody was talking to him. So I went up to him and I started talking to him about what I observed in Costa Rica.
Now, Costa Rica, you know, it was a very, very interesting place. It has a higher literacy rate than the United States, but the bottom line is, the per capita GDP in Costa Rica is $11,000 a year. The per capita GDP in the United States is $70,000 a year, and yet we can’t afford those things we’re told.
So I’m, I’m bringing this up to him. He said, “yeah, it’s just a difference in the culture.” So ultimately, the greatest test for advocacy is not just to interact with government, with facts and figures, although that’s important. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. We also have to connect to the heart of the public.
And, you know, I believe Greenville has a great heart. You know, I was, I was inspired to get involved with advocacy by a great Greenvillian who I saw, unfortunately only in a recorded interview, Max Heller. Who said, you know, “you, you can never bet against Greenville. In the end, Greenville will always come through.” And and he also in that interview talked about how every city has to have a great heart.
And I think Greenville does have a great heart. And when, when we look at the pictures of those victims of crashes that resulted in deaths, it’s really hard to just other that. It’s really hard to essentially dehumanize that, you know, dehumanization is an ego defense mechanism. It’s an extreme ego defense mechanism.
When we dehumanize another, it’s at great risk to our own humanity. Who hasn’t had a situation where if circumstances had been a little bit different, the outcome might have been tragic for them or a family member.
So I think that we need to open our hearts and realize that these are human beings and no less of any other human being worthy of compassion.
What is compassion? Compassion is the drive to identify the causes of suffering and to relieve them, and, and that ultimately, I believe is the work of Bike Walk Greenville. We want to make Greenville a better place for everybody. To leave the audience with a question, which is, what kind of community are we? Do we want to value human life, or are we just all about convenience? What is it?
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.
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