A half-mile stretch of Bakersfield’s Q Street has been repaved and dolled up with retro streetlights and faux cobblestone crosswalks. The previously neglected street now looks like something out of San Diego’s Gaslamp district, minus the nightlife. But drive exactly one mile north of that revitalized section and you’ll behold a vastly different Q Street.
You’d best stay in your car because, innocuous as it might seem, this is no man’s land for pedestrians. Missing sections of sidewalk. No discernable shoulder in places. And, after nightfall, dangerously poor lighting. It was here, at 1:27 a.m. the morning of Aug. 27, that Yvonne Shelley Cupis, a woman of 59, was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Although she was not homeless herself, Cupis was well known at a local nonprofit agency that serves the poor, the homeless and the chronically alcoholic.
In isolation, Cupis’ death is a somber glimpse of a little-seen world. But sort through the whole stack of cases and it’s clear Bakersfield’s poor, especially housing-challenged, are disproportionately vulnerable. In vehicle vs. pedestrian accidents, the second party always gets the worst end of the deal. Cupis’ family paid for her final arrangements but in many cases, especially when the pedestrian is indigent, the rest of us pay.
Local law enforcement agencies, including the Kern County Coroner’s Office, can’t say what percentage of pedestrian fatalities and injuries involve indigent victims. Overall, though, the California Highway Patrol has investigated 11 Kern County pedestrian fatalities thus far in 2013, on track to double the agency’s total from last year. Countywide, according to the coroner’s office, 25 pedestrians have been killed by vehicles this year, including an astounding seven in August alone.
Homeless advocacy programs, meanwhile, say they’re seeing their clients’ names turn up in accident reports at rates they’ve never experienced before.
“They feel like it’s almost like drivers are trying to hit them,” says Kim Albers of Garden Pathways, a Bakersfield ministry that teaches self-sufficiency. She mentioned several, including Tom Sprankle, known for carving elaborate walking sticks from branches, who was hit Aug. 24 as he walked across Bernard Street and remains in intensive care at KMC.
Lack of sidewalks, lack of adequate streetlighting and sparsely or poorly placed bus stops all contribute to the problem.
“We’ve got areas where if you’re pushing a stroller or you’re in a wheelchair, you’re out in the roadway,” Albers said. “In impoverished areas we don’t realize how many people are on foot.”
Some streets heavily traveled by walkers might have sidewalk for two or three blocks then no sidewalk for two or three blocks. Often it’s a jurisdictional issue, with county-maintained pockets breaking up city-governed areas. But in some places Bakersfield has simply failed to get around to bringing streets up to city standards with lighting, crosswalks and sidewalks.
Louis Gill, CEO of the Bakersfield Homeless Center, says Golden Empire Transit did his clients no favors when, in the process of redrawing its routes a few months ago, moved a bus stop from the front of the homeless center to another location a half-mile away. For much of the walking route to that bus stop, there’s no sidewalk.
“For our clients, it’s like, ‘What’s the difference?’ They feel like they don’t have much importance in the world,” said Gill, who has had two clients struck by cars and killed in front of the homeless center during his tenure. “We feel like it’s going to take a fatality again to get them to move it back.”
Simply owing to their more frequent presence on the streets, the housing-challenged will probably always be more vulnerable to danger from traffic. But public officials ought to look out for their needs in constructing, retrofitting and maintaining roads — and not just because taxpayers often foot their medical bills and cremation costs. It’s a matter of respect and compassion.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The updated version clarifies the status of Yvonne Cupis.