New Jersey pedestrians must cross forbidding highways
Running across a highway with traffic moving at up to 70 m.p.h. would be considered suicidal by most people. But 27-year-old Pedro Mendez does it as a matter of routine, walking from his home in Camden to his job as a janitor at a Pennsauken supermarket. He checks the westbound traffic, waits for a lull, then sprints to the concrete divider, which he straddles while waiting for a break in the eastbound traffic.
Running across a highway with traffic moving at up to 70 m.p.h. would be considered suicidal by most people.
But 27-year-old Pedro Mendez does it as a matter of routine, walking from his home in Camden to his job as a janitor at a Pennsauken supermarket. He checks the westbound traffic, waits for a lull, then sprints to the concrete divider, which he straddles while waiting for a break in the eastbound traffic.
"It's not dangerous," he said. "You just have to wait until there are no cars. And then you cross."
Bus drivers keep a close eye out for them; gas station attendants watch in disbelief. But for people living in New Jersey without a car, getting around can mean racing across highways where pedestrian crossings are few and far between.
And while most of those who cross make it back safely with their groceries or paychecks, some pay with their lives for mistiming their sprints.
Of the 157 pedestrian deaths in New Jersey in 2009, roughly 60 percent came on the sort of heavily trafficked arterials that are half-freeway, half-Main Street, said Michelle Ernst, an analyst with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which aims to reduce dependency on cars.
"They're designed to accommodate cars at very high speed, but they're often lined with shops and restaurants and grocery stores," she said.
In Pennsauken, the Police Department is trying to reduce that number.
Officers in the township, which has sections of Routes 38 and 130, are engaged in a long-standing campaign to try to get people to use designated crosswalks and pedestrian overpasses.
Sgt. Chris Sulzbach, the head of the department's traffic safety unit, said his officers hand out about 1,000 pedestrian-related tickets a year - some to people who have been struck by cars. And the department has been lobbying lawmakers and the New Jersey Department of Transportation to install more fencing atop the barriers dividing the highways.
But state transportation officials are moving away from fencing, which they consider to be easily bypassed and ineffective in the greater objective of making roadways more pedestrian-friendly and getting people to use designated crosswalks and pedestrian walkways.
"Sometimes it gets damaged. Sometimes people cut holes in it. And then there's an opening and you're right back to the same types of behavior," said Joseph Dee, a spokesman with the Transportation Department. "We do it sometimes. But we try to stress, let's improve the safe locations where people can cross."
At Labor Ready, a day labor company in Pennsauken on busy Route 130, workers start showing up at 5 a.m. to try to improve their odds for getting a job that day.
They come by bike and bus and on foot. Police on the early shift often see them running across Route 130, sometimes even lifting bicycles up and over the concrete barricade.
"I wouldn't do it, never," manager David Solomin said. "It makes you wonder. There's probably all sorts of reasons people do it, maybe dares, maybe to save time."
After 19 years on the force, Sulzbach acknowledges that no matter how many safeguards are put in place, some people will inevitably walk out onto the highways.
But the aftermaths of those crossings that don't end with the person getting to the other side stay with him.
As he cruised down Route 130 in his patrol car last week, he recounted an accident on the road late one night in the spring in which a teenage girl tried to cross against the traffic signal with her bike.
She was in the crosswalk when she was struck by a pickup truck, the driver of which didn't see her until the last moments, Sulzbach said. She died on the way to the hospital.
"It was estimated the truck was going between 40 and 50 m.p.h. He wasn't speeding," Sulzbach said. "I work a lot of accident scenes, but pedestrian crashes are the worst. It's horrific."
For pedestrian advocates like Ernst, the underlying problem is that for most of the 20th century, roads were laid out with little regard to those walking.
Crosswalks and pedestrian overpasses are sparse on roads like Route 130, a function of their expense and impediment to traffic flow.
And the businesses and services that residents frequent tend to lie along the most heavily trafficked roads.
"A lot of the people crossing mid-road are doing it because the nearest crossing is a quarter of a mile away," she said.
Standing on the side of Route 38 one morning last week, Mendez smiled when asked whether he was afraid when he crossed the road.
A native of Puebla, in central Mexico, Mendez has been living in the United States for six years, working factory and cleaning jobs to send money home to his wife and two children.
When he feels like treating himself, he gets a coffee at a Wawa on Route 38. The convenience store is on the other side of the highway from his route to work, but that's not a problem. Just a quick dash across six lanes of traffic and he's there.
"They have very good cappuccino," he said.