Gone with the traffic


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:06 p.m.

As if we hadn't already antagonized the rest of the world enough, now Atlanta has caused an international incident.

It all started when Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a respected British historian, went to Atlanta this month for a meeting of the American Historians Association.

The English prof — late of Oxford, more recently posted to Boston's Tufts University — was reportedly trying to cross a busy street when an off-duty policeman told him to go to the crosswalk. Words were exchanged and the next thing he knew, Fernandez-Armesto was wrestled to the ground by a gaggle of cops and carted off to jail.

"Apparently … jaywalking is a criminal offense in the state of Georgia," he wrote in London's The Independent. Who knew?

This infamous affair was seized upon by the British press as yet another example of Yankee hubris. The jaywalking Brit likened his ordeal to "what is happening to the world in the era of George Bush. The planet is policed by violent, arbitrary, stupid and dangerous force."

I rise in defense, not of W., but Atlanta's finest. No doubt, the cops thought they were preventing a suicide.

Because let's face it, you've got to have a death wish to want to walk anywhere in auto-America, let alone jaywalk. And especially in Atlanta, home of one of history's most notorious fatal encounters.

Margaret Mitchell, author of "Gone With the Wind," was the most famous Atlantan of her time. One day, on her way to a showing of "Canterbury Tales" (British lit, if I'm not mistaken), she stepped out onto Peachtree Street to be run down by a taxi. Mitchell died and the cabbie got 40 years hard labor. But some said he got a raw deal, since Mitchell was known to be an inveterate jaywalker.

And that was in 1949, before America's auto-erotic love affair really got hot and heavy.

What? They don't teach American traffic history in England?

Everybody's aghast because more than 3,000 American have died in Iraq. In 2003 alone, 4,827 pedestrians were killed trying to cross American streets. Between 1994 and 2003, 51,989 pedestrians died, not far short of the American body count in Vietnam.

Forget Iraq. The war between motorists and pedestrians (and bicyclists) is much bloodier and of longer duration. Nor does there seem to be an "exit strategy" in sight.

Atlanta isn't even the worst city for pedestrians. According to the Mean Streets 2004 Study, "the most dangerous streets in America are clustered in Florida," with Orlando topping the list.

All of this says something rather ugly about life in auto-America. Our national obsession with driving wherever we want and as fast as we please has created a class-warfare that Joel Hirschhorn, author of the book "Sprawl Kills," has called "Automobile apartheid."

"Automobile apartheid means that anyone who wants mobility through walking, cycling or public transportation suffers discrimination in a built environment designed for automobiles," he said in a 2005 essay. "Though Americans make less than 5 percent of their trips on foot, 12 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians.

"Though we know how to make safer streets for pedestrians through traffic-calming techniques, most governments spend a paltry sum on this compared to road maintenance and expansion."

Nor is "automobile apartheid" strictly a big city tyranny. Gainesville sees pedestrian and bicycle fatalities with depressing regularity. And just this past week, a Live Oak teenager was killed and a 5-year-old boy in Waldo injured in separate hit-and-run incidents. There is no safe refuge in a society whose No. 1 priority is the facilitation of rapid automobile movement through our streets, neighborhoods and communities.

Rather than complain, Fernandez-Armesto should thank his lucky stars that it was Atlanta police, and not a distracted cabbie, who came down on him like a ton of bricks.

Otherwise, the good history prof might now be, like Margaret Mitchell, history himself. Gone with the traffic. One more unlamented victim of automobile apartheid.

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