Drivers, Cyclists, and the Law: Best #Cityreads of the Week

A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

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A "ghost bike" memorial marks the spot where a cyclist was killed in 2007 in an accident with a truck in Portland, Oregon. (Reuters/Richard Clement)

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"You Can Kill Anyone With Your Car, as Long as You Don't Really Mean it," M. Sophia Newman, VICE

On May 29 of last year, Bobby Cann left the Groupon offices in Chicago, where he worked as an editorial-tools specialist. Traveling north on his bicycle, he rode up wide, sunny Larrabee Street. As he entered the intersection at Clybourn Avenue, a Mercedes SUV traveling more than 50 miles per hour slammed into him from behind. The impact threw Cann into the air. He landed unconscious, blood streaming out of his mouth and his left leg severed. Bystanders, including a registered nurse, rushed to help. Shortly after transport to a nearby hospital, he died.

What makes Cann’s story notable among the 700 or so bicyclists who are hit and killed in America each year is that San Hamel faces charges in Cann’s death. According to a recent report by the League of American Bicyclists, barely one in five drivers who end bicyclists’ lives are charged with a crime. The low prosecution rate isn’t a secret and has inspired many to wonder whether plowing into a cyclist with a car is a low-risk way to commit homicide.

The Cann case is an exception that proves the rule. “The criminal case is sort of about the outrageous nature of what happened,” Todd Smith, a civil attorney for Cann’s family, concedes. “[San Hamel was] driving under the influence on the city streets where things are congested, and [there was] the complete lack of braking of any sort, the enormous impact of a car of thousands of pounds going in excess of 50 miles per hour, hitting just the human body.” San Hamel’s blood alcohol level was 0.127 at the time of the crash.

"The Gory New York City Riot That Shaped American Medicine," Bess Lovejoy, Smithsonian Magazine

For most Americans, being a physician is a respectable profession, held in high esteem and relatively untarnished by the constant health care debates. But that wasn’t always the case, and one of the first major riots in the post-revolution United States was caused by popular anger against doctors. The so-called “Doctors’ Riot,” which began on April 16, 1788, and killed as many as 20 people, influenced both the perception of American medicine and the way it was carried out for decades to come, even though it has been mostly forgotten today.

In the closing years of the 18th century, New York was home to only one medical school: Columbia College. At the time, those looking to practice medicine didn’t have to graduate from a professional school, and this led to some students attending private, not-for-credit classes at New York Hospital, taught by Richard Bayley, a Connecticut-born doctor who had studied in London with the famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter. Anatomical dissections were a central component of these classes, and medical training in general, but they were offensive, even seen as sacrilegious, to early New Yorkers. In the winter of 1788, the city was abuzz with newspaper stories about medical students robbing graves to get bodies for dissection, mostly from the potter’s field and the cemetery reserved for the city’s blacks, known as the Negroes Burial Ground. While some of those reports may have been based on rumor, they pointed to an underlying truth: with no regulated source of bodies for dissection, the medical students had taken matters into their hands and begun plundering the local graveyards.

A drawing from the late 1700s of what was called the "Negros Burial Ground" in Manhattan. This is one of the locations medical students were rumored to have robbed in order to obtain bodies for dissection. (Wikimedia Commons)

"Did This City Bring Down Its Murder Rate by Paying People Not to Kill?" Tim Murphy, Mother Jones

It was a crazy idea, but Richmond, California, wouldn't have signed off on DeVone Boggan's plan if it had been suffering from an abundance of sanity. For years, the Bay Area city had been battling one of the nation's worst homicide rates and spending millions of dollars on anti-crime programs to no avail. A state senator compared the city to Iraq, and the City Council debated declaring a state of emergency. In September 2006, a man was shot in the face at a funeral for a teenager who had been gunned down two weeks earlier, spurring local clergy to urge city hall to try something new—now. "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten," says Andre Shumake Sr., a 56-year-old Baptist minister whose son was shot six times while riding his bicycle. "It was time to do something different."

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren't the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who'd been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

Boggan submitted his proposal. He didn't expect the city to come back and ask him to make it happen. "They asked me for a three-year commitment and told me to put on my seatbelt," he recalls.

"The Hidden Genius and Influence of the Traffic Light," Dan Saffer, WIRED

See it sway: three-eyed blind bat hanging from a wire. Or perhaps there: perched atop a pole, lights moving from top to bottom–green yellow red green yellow red–in its unvarying sequence. Two hundred years ago, it would have been a wonder, something on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, gawked at by Victorians. Today it’s seen but unconsidered, passed under a dozen times a day by most of us, influencing how we move, shaping our cities, warping how we travel, and occasionally, inadvertently, helping to kill us. Consider the traffic light.

Is there anything lonelier than a solitary traffic light blinking to an empty road? It’s an establishing shot that screams: desolation. It plays on our fear that the mechanical world doesn’t care about us, and will exist long after we’re gone. The traffic light doesn’t need people.

"Earthquake Early Warning Systems Save Lives. So Why Don't We Have One?" Alissa Walker, Gizmodo

Here's something you might not know about the 6.4 earthquake epicentered near the Pacific Coast of Mexico on May 8: By the time it hit Mexico City, 170 miles away, people there already knew it was coming. They were ready—thanks to their advanced warning system. So why doesn't the U.S. have one?

After a devastating 8.1 earthquake in 1985 which may have killed upwards of 10,000 people, Mexico's government was determined to find a way to prevent that kind of loss of life again. Mexico City residents knew that this 6.4 earthquake was rippling towards their homes because, in 1992, they launched an effective system that's able to tell millions of people that an earthquake is on the way. It's simple, and it works.

In fact, Mexico is one a handful of seismically active countries that have a early warning systems. Taiwan, Turkey, and Romania each have one, too. After the 1995 Kobe quake killed 6,500 people, Japan employed its own early warning system, eventually becoming the first to take advantage of nascent cellphone technology. Following the Tohoku earthquake in 2010, over one million people downloaded a new app which helped prepare them—both physically and mentally—for the dozens of aftershocks that rocked the country.

A similar system, properly implemented, could give cities the time to stop trains and freeze elevators. It would give doctors time to halt surgical procedures in hospitals. It would allow police and firefighters to strategize in the case of a power or communications failure. Just a few seconds of warning could prevent millions in financial losses or even an environmental disaster like Fukushima—and it could potentially save thousands of lives.

Workers evacuate a government building after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Mexico City on May 8, 2014. (REUTERS/Edgard Garrido)

 

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