Every year, more than 200 people are hit crossing a street in Pittsburgh. We've spent milions on traffic lights, new sidewalks and bright crosswalks.

So why is this still happening? Scroll to find out

Writing Emma S. Brown
Madeline R. Conway
Golzar Meamar
Photo/Video Sarah Schneider
Editing/Design Andrew McGill

At 58, Salome Gutierrez survived an earthquake in Lima, Peru. To this day, her family can'‍t understand how she could have died crossing the street in Pittsburgh.

Shortly after dawn in November 2009, Ms. Gutierrez crossed East Carson Street in the South Side to catch her morning bus. She had a walk sign on 18th Street when the car struck her, breaking seven bones. The 63-year-old University of Pittsburgh teacher died three weeks later.

Sabrina Matteo holds a portrait of herself and Salome Gutierrez, her mother, at her Ingram home. Ms. Gutierrez was killed while crossing the street to her bus at 18th and East Carson streets in November 2009. (Sarah Schneider/Post-Gazette)

"She was constantly traveling, trying to save the world somehow," said her daughter, Sabrina Matteo, of Ingram. "It was devastating ... devastating that she was killed crossing the street."

Unfortunately, this scene is not unfamiliar in Pittsburgh. Despite pedestrian-focused redevelopment projects and national nods from urban planners — Pittsburgh recently ranked No. 9 on George Washington University's "Most Walkable Cities" list — this city of twisting streets still sees several hundred serious pedestrian injuries a year.

Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national advocacy group, gives Pittsburgh a passing grade, noting its pedestrian crash rate is slightly better than the average large city's. But the number of serious accidents has remained frustratingly consistent year after year, with only 2009 seeing a noticeable dip.

The problem, experts say, lies in both Pittsburgh's terrain and treasury. A topography that defies any street grid has made planning improvements difficult; a city budget still under state supervision has made maintaining them even harder.

What's more, getting the three agencies responsible for pedestrian safety — the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the city's Department of Public Works and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police — to work together hasn't always gone smoothly.

What's the most dangerous intersection in your neighborhood?

Is it the one you think it is? See pedestrian crashes across the city.


A history of accidents

Between 2006 and 2013, Pittsburgh saw nearly 2,100 pedestrian-involved collisions resulting in injuries, damage or death, according to data collected by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Forty pedestrians died in fatal crashes across the city, nearly the same number who died in fires.

Drivers were listed as the primary cause for more than half these crashes. Pedestrians pick up the blame 40 percent of the time.

While a few streets stand out —18th Street and Carson Street in the South Side, Fifth Avenue and Aiken Avenue in Shadyside — hundreds of intersections have seen at least one pedestrian-involved crash in the past nine years. The problem is pervasive.

It also isn't new. Scores of crash records from years back speckle city police reports, and the public hasn't ignored them.

In 2004, University of Pittsburgh researcher Evelyn Wei, 33, was killed crossing the street in the city's Regent Square neighborhood while walking her dog. Other pedestrians had been injured along the same stretch of South Braddock Avenue, prompting outrage from city residents.

They wrote into the Post-Gazette, demanding action. In one letter, a reader questioned claims by the city's director of engineering and construction that nothing could be done to make the intersection safer. Another demanded better safety measures.

A month later, 200 residents gathered at a meeting of more than a dozen local officials to hear what would be done about the road. Ms. Wei's high-profile case eventually came to a close after the city settled with her family for $465,000. The family later donated money to put up a flashing crosswalk sign at Braddock and Biddle.

Yet the problems on city streets continue. March 2008 saw a crash at West Carson Street near Smithfield Bridge that injured three people. Two years later, a 64-year-old man was critically injured in a hit-and-run at Wyatt and Bedford avenues.

"I've been here for 30 years," said Guy Johnson, a University of Pittsburgh police officer who has worked closely with city law enforcement in Oakland. "I just know we got a real problem."

Officials point to Pittsburgh's geography. The city's position along three rivers, atop hills and among streams makes it difficult to engineer safer roads, they say.

"We don't live in an area where we're sitting on a nice flat table," said Todd Kravits, the district traffic engineer at PennDOT. "Our terrain and the geometry of our roadways really makes it very difficult at times."

Pedestrian safety advocates agree. Jeffrey Miller, president and CEO of Alliance for Biking and Walking, suggested that Pittsburgh may soon have another problem: growth.

A pedestrian crosses the intersection of 18th and East Carson streets. (Sarah Schneider/Post-Gazette)

As new residents cram into the city proper — where depopulation was the norm for three decades — Pittsburgh's limited infrastructure will see even more use.

"There is only so much space to move people about," Mr. Miller said.

And as they strive to keep city streets safe for pedestrians, traffic engineers must make do with what they have.

Fixing a problem intersection

The corner of Fifth and Aiken avenues in Shadyside offers a glimpse into the city's recent efforts to improve pedestrian safety at what was once a problem intersection.

A major gateway connecting the Walnut Street business district to a busy Fifth Avenue, the three-way intersection had been the target of public complaints for years. With 12 recorded crashes involving pedestrian injury between 2006 and 2013, it ranked second in the Post-Gazette's analysis of the city's most dangerous intersections.

Jonathan Plesset, who owns the nearby Shadyside Inn, has sat with his back to the intersection for years.

"I'd hear screeching of tires, and the first thing in my mind was, oh my God, I hope someone doesn't get hit. And the second thing was, I hope one of our customers doesn't get hit," Mr. Plesset said. "And over the years, we've seen it happen."

Last summer, city officials promised improvement. They repainted a crosswalk, enlisted the help of a traffic engineer, and decided to add countdown signals to the corner and relocate a crosswalk to improve visibility.

A pedestrian waits to cross the intersection of Fifth and South Aiken streets in Shadyside. (Sarah Schneider/Post-Gazette)

Even so, it took roughly a year for several improvements to be implemented. Until mid-July, the promised countdown signals hung bagged and unused beside a ripped road sign.

Officials had hoped to have the new signals running sooner, said Amanda Purcell, a municipal traffic engineer with the city Department of Public Works. But with only a small team available to work on the city's many roads, the project stretched on through the summer.

While PennDOT often installs traffic improvements at problem intersections, it's generally up to municipalities to maintain that infrastructure. In Pittsburgh, where few roads are owned by the state, most are the city government's responsibility.

With this divided responsibility, experts say money is a major factor in determining a municipality's ability to keep up.

"That's a real challenge," said Mark Magalotti, a lecturer on transportation engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and a former Mt. Lebanon traffic engineer. "Ultimately, it is the local government's responsibility to maintain [the infrastructure], and many of them have very limited funds available to do that."

"A lot of it just comes down to the money," he added.

And money is in short supply in Pittsburgh. Both Ms. Purcell and Pittsburgh Public Works director Mike Gable cited their limited budget and small staff in charge of maintaining signals and crosswalks — usually 20 to 25 people — as challenges they face when trying to keep up with improvements throughout the city.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Gilman said the city must prioritize immediate safety hazards, like a missing stop sign, when choosing which projects to tackle first. The result is fewer resources available for projects elsewhere.

Police also cite a limited workforce. Since responding to 911 calls is officers' top priority, the bureau can't constantly police every intersection, according to Scott E. Schubert, commander of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police's special deployment division in Zone 6.

Even if he had twice his staff, it wouldn't solve the problem.

"It's a manpower issue," Mr. Schubert said. "You only have so many officers."

Then there is the red tape. The city must coordinate with PennDOT and local police to promote pedestrian safety throughout Pittsburgh, and each of those three players defer at some point to the others.

PennDOT is responsible for traffic engineering — but so is the city government. Police, meanwhile, are tasked with enforcing traffic laws. They are also responsible for educating walkers and drivers about those laws; so is PennDOT.

For Mr. Schubert, this sometimes leads to inconvenience. Police write up crash reports and send them to PennDOT, but Mr. Schubert can't access the aggregate data on his own computer. He has to email a PennDOT representative first.

And indeed, even how best to tackle the problem is still up for debate.

Both PennDOT and city officials say that issues surrounding crashes are often behavioral — blaming mistakes made by drivers and pedestrians, rather than poorly planned intersections.

But Eric Boerer, advocacy director for the group Bike Pittsburgh, said the design of a road does "dictate behavior."

"Engineering is always the best education," Mr. Boerer said.

Improvements planned

But there are successes. PennDOT has planned extensive upgrades to East Carson Street over the next two years, budgeting $4 million to upgrade signals, repaint crosswalks, re-surface the road and create pedestrian-friendly curbs.

Officials have similar plans in the works for East Ohio Street on the North Side and Forbes Avenue in Oakland, allocating $900,000 and $90,000 respectively.

All very good, said Lisa Carhuaslla, Ms. Gutierrez's sister-in-law. But for her family — which has taken the city to task many times in the years following the professor's death — two years is still too long.

"I am shocked that this hasn't happened yet ... it is not soon enough," she said. "How many more people will we lose by then?"

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