Olive Drive…

Posted: 7 December 2010 in Advocacy
Tags: , , , , , ,
My town exists, some would say, because of the railroad. Built to link San Francisco and the newer ports to the rest of the nation, the city grew up around it starting over a century ago. Then the interstate came (essentially paralleling it). Sandwiched in between is Olive Drive. Olive Drive has changed in recent years and is now home to over a thousand people. Students, low income laborers, homeless individuals, recently homeless individuals and disabled people (due to a low income housing unit built there several years–our city is sorely lacking in low income housing options). Olive Drive is cut off from the rest of the city in many ways but the most salient and visible is its geographical isolation. Ironic. If you have a good pitching arm you can throw a rock from Olive Drive into our commercial district, but you can’t easily follow the trajectory of the ball into downtown.
The railroad tracks…

People cross anyway–at the Amtrak station–on foot, on bike, hauling strollers, toting kids, carrying groceries. It is illegal and potentially dangerous. I say potentially because actually very few people have been hit or killed there in living memory. Of the dozen or so deaths along the tracks in town in recent years only one occurred where people typically cross. Still, it is dangerous because freights and a busy commuter line run through the station on a regular basis (you can hear the whistles from just about anywhere in town).

Union Pacific, the owner of the line had, for years, kind of turned a blind eye to the crossings, even building a concrete walkway between tracks to make it “safer” to cross. They asked the city to work on a better solution. The city sought funding. Projects went nowhere. Lawyers got nervous. So now, apparently, time has run out. The lawyers went from nervous to table pounding (I am guessing) and so UP is going to build a wall, a fence, a barrier. Three thousand eight hundred feet long, eight feet high. Impenetrable.

The folks on Olive Drive are, understandably upset. Their options for “crossing over” are very limited and not very safe. Again, ironically, UP calls it a safety fix. But all it really is is a liability fix. It pushes the safety issue off UP onto the city and the residents of Olive Drive. There is no space to get into specific problems here, but one scenario has kids crossing the tracks at the end of the proposed fence at a place where the freeway empties into town. Cars streaming off the interstate at 60 mph meeting kids crossing a street to cross the tracks. Makes me kind of anxious just thinking about it.

So we held a “protest” on Sunday at the depot (Amtrak Station). Two things–which are really the point of what I am writing–struck me during the meeting (the meeting was actually quite good–informative, respectful and kind of sad).

1. As I stood with my neighbors from Olive Drive it struck me that if this wall were being built in another part of town the city would have found a solution long ago. We have found money to build a variety of over and underpasses at dangerous crossing points in town. True, these pieces of infrastructure potentially serve more people, but they were built to provide safe access to critical parts of town. Olive Drive is a small place but a significant (and growing) population lives there. I could not help but think that too many of those who live on Olive Drive simply don’t have a voice in this city. Interestingly, most people are avoiding turning this into a class issue. It seems that everyone–even the oh-so-progressive types in our university town–are fearful of being labeled class warriors. In fact, we never really talk about class anywhere in this land do we? Well, let me stake a claim here: One reason that this problem was not solved long ago is because poor, low income and disabled people are the main people who would benefit from a safer and more convenient crossing. There, I said it and I will stand by it. Take this fence to any other small part of our city and the well off and empowered ones (I put myself in this category) would flood city council demanding a fix. And we would get it.

2. As I listened to one person describe the deaths that had occurred along the tracks in recent years I was struck by the “categories” into which they were placed. (Note: I am NOT impugning this person’s motives or sensitivity–he was merely describing things the way the newspapers and news channels had reported them). Among the deaths were several suicides. One person was drunk. People knew the names of these people and several shook their heads knowingly, offering words like “yes, I worked with him/her”. Then there were the “transients”. When the word came out of his mouth I did what I expect other people in the crowd did: I made a mental “check” in my mind. Oh yes, the transients. Who can fathom their motives? Who can understand their lives? Who even knows their names? No real solution is going to keep the transients from engaging in bad behavior. They are a thing we simply cannot plan for. They are a faceless wildcard and, since they clearly hangout where the rolling stock rolls, well, it is not surprising that they get killed by that stock from time to time. The speaker did not say any of those things but the category “transient” made them the “other” in ways that put them in a place none of us had to go. The only problem is… the “transients” were no more transient than most of the folks who live in my town. Most of us are transients. We call this place “home” in some vague way, but spend large chunks of time away from here. I did some research on the “transients” struck and/or killed by the trains in recent years and it turns out they were not transients at all. They were residents of our city. They were homeless residents of our city but they were probably more stable than most of us.

They had names, families and possessions. Needs, dreams and friends. One of the “transients” killed had battled severe mental illness for years. In the weeks leading up to his death he had come by the belief that he was invincible–that destructive things like speeding trains and cars would pass right through his body. His friends tried to protect him. Social service providers had sought those limited moments of lucidity he experienced to encourage him to get on his meds. He had family who tried to do the same. He was (as a former homeless friend of mine said), caught in a spiral. Long ago he had confronted the reality that he had no place to go but that was only the first step in the “marble rolling down the vortex” (as my friend said). On the days leading up to of his death he had (according to another homeless friend) continued to boast of his invincibility. Tired of the rant one of his friends said something like “Okay, if you are invincible then why don’t you go jump in front of the train that is coming…” He did just that. The driver of the train (apparently) told the man’s mom sometime later that at the last moment the young man wavered, started to leave the tracks and then jumped back on.

If the community of concern is poor, homeless, disabled or just plain crazy, my experience is that no one is going to do much to make their lives more secure. Does that sound bitter? Does it sound cynical? No apologies here. UP will get its wall, I predict. The lawyers will check that liability off their list and go and find the next one to check off. Olive Drive residents will face the consequences. The rest of us will wring our hands and shake our collective fist at the railroad. And we will head home–glad that we are not cut off from our jobs, our shopping and the life of our progressive little city.


Press release October 2010.

Union Pacific Corp. said Thursday its third-quarter net income rose to $778 million, or $1.56 a share, from $514 million, or $1.01 a share, in the year-ago period. Revenue increased by 20% to $4.4 billion, from $3.7 billion. The Omaha, Neb. railroad giant was expected to earn $1.46 a share on revenue of $4.35 billion, according to a survey of Wall Street analysts by FactSet Research. “Strong volume growth, pricing gains and operating efficiency combined to produce another record quarter for our company,” said Jim Young, Union Pacific chairman and chief executive officer. Automotive freight led the quarter with a rise of 36%, followed by a 25% rise in industrial products.

That’s right—revenue increased by 20% to $4.4 billion (that is a “B” not an “M”)…

  1. I don’t know whether it sounds cynical or not, but it doesn’t ring true. The prevailing scientific view is that when you make death more convenient, then there will be more of it. As I explained in an essay that I wrote early this year, the railroad tracks along Olive Drive are the most dangerous half-mile in Davis, because for various reasons it is the most tempting, most convenient place to get killed in Davis. If you didn’t believe that convenience makes a difference, then there would be no point in taking drunks home or having suicide hotlines. You could instead just give such people pills and guns. You could say, “here, this is going to happen sooner or later anyway, so you might as well get it over with.”

    It is likewise the easy way out to blame the big bad corporation. The fact is that Union Pacific and the city have a mutual interest in preventing these deaths along the tracks. For all the talk about how dangerous it is at the intersection of Olive and Richards, no one died there, not one person, in the same 15 years that 4 men died along the tracks along Olive Drive.

    Your anecdote about one of the train deaths, who I am guessing was Patrick Allison, is in keeping with both points. “I dare you to jump in front of the train” is just the sort of spur-of-the-moment thing that shows why train tracks should be fenced in populated areas. “I dare you to jump into the intersection” doesn’t work, because the cars would stop and a collision probably wouldn’t be fatal either.

    For that matter, even if most of the deaths are alcoholic and mentally ill people, they are still a warning that the next one could be a child. Any safety official would see it that way.

    No, crossing these train tracks is just not acceptable. Both sides of the tracks here should be fenced. I am all in favor of a better solution such as a tunnel under the tracks. But the fact is that a better solution is long overdue, and the city only has itself to blame for getting caught off guard. The right thing to do now is to quit complaining and cooperate with Union Pacific to get the best deal possible.

    • robbdavis says:

      Greg – We have exchanged views in another forum (Vanguard) and I do believe that we agree on a few things (most things?). And in saying that I must add that I stand corrected for suggesting that the fence will not improve safety. It arguably will. However, like you, I don’t feel it is a complete solution to the needs of folks on Olive Drive. A tunnel or overpass would seem to be the only way to achieve a safe AND convenient crossing (but see my question on this below). I, like many others, took a walk down Olive Drive last week (in the rain). I wanted to see how long it would take to get to downtown from Cesar Chavez Place (a low income housing complex managed by Davis Community Meals). From there to Subway it was over six tenths of a mile and took about 20 minutes (largely due to waiting at all the crosswalks). I went from Cesar Chavez because 35% of the housing there is to be reserved for handicapped individuals. I was thinking about how much easier we COULD make their lives.

      And that was really the point of my blog. I was trying to understand exactly why no action has been taken on this issue all these years (even as the city approves more housing–including low income and handicap-accessible housing on Olive Drive). I have lived and worked in 45 nations around the world and my experience over 25 years is that there ARE people with limited power and limited voices and that their needs are often not taken as seriously as others. I cannot prove it but I am suggesting that this is, in part, what has led to our current state of affairs. Even my anecdote about the mentally ill individual was intended to point out that we have neighbors like this in our community and we are not meeting their needs (indeed, we are cutting programs that could meet their needs). Had this person not been hit by a train (because a fence was in place) he may have just as easily been hit by a car. The problem was his illness–that was an underlying cause every bit as important as the lack of a fence.

      So… I want to say that I agree with you and your position on these matters has been clear and consistent. I have heard no one, however, talking about a fence on both sides of the track. And this leads to my question for you. You have opposed an “at-grade” crossing in everything I have seen. I am not sure why. I spent a week in the suburbs west of Chicago this past summer and rode the commuter line from downtown out there and back. I don’t know if you know that area but it is basically town after town (no breaks) bisected by a commuter/freight line that, I am pretty sure, carries more traffic than the one running through Davis. Despite this every town has level (at grade) crossings with gates for cars and pedestrians. I even used a couple of bike/foot paths that had gated crossings. This seems to be working fine in the Chicago area. I can’t recall seeing any fences until I was closer to large train yards nearer downtown. Why not a gated foot/bike crossing in Davis? I know UP has a policy against creating new at-grade crossings but given the price tag of other options why not consider it?

      As for blaming the big corporation… If you read my blog carefully you will see that I am actually more frustrated by our city’s lack of response. However, I know enough about the history of corporations in this country to know that there WAS a time when their concern for the common good extended beyond a narrow liability concern. The information at the bottom merely highlights that they have resources that dwarf any that the city could put together to provide a safe and convenient crossing. I AM suggesting that they put some of that money on the table–for the common good.

      Thanks for your helpful comments.

      • My answer is that I having nothing against an at-grade crossing, if you can negotiate it with the railroad. I agree that if it’s possible, then it would be cheaper than other options. All I will say in the other direction is that even a more expensive option, like a tunnel, is still economical in comparison to the lives lost.

        If you hadn’t heard anyone talking about fencing both sides, then that’s too bad and now you have heard it. It’s definitely what the railroad should do.

      • robbdavis says:

        Helpful Greg – I had not seen you go on record supporting an at-grade crossing so that is helpful. When I said I had heard nothing about a fence on each side I meant, of course, except from you.


  2. Evan "JabberWokky" Edwards says:

    Well said regarding the fact that “transient” should never be used to brush individuals into a class of “not real human beings”.

    I think that there is some confusion regarding being a person being destitute — not having personal resources — and then assuming that there can acceptably be a parallel lack of community resources and rights. Lack of personal wealth does limit options. Profound lack of personal wealth creates a profound lack of options. But it does not diminish in one iota the equal measure of humanity we all share, the dignity we deserve, nor our rights and duties in this nation of laws rather than titles.

    And yet there must be something very seductive about simple titles that shuffle people off into easy, faceless categories, either to praise or ignore. It seems to be a rather universal human act, along with some other unsavory acts we tend to repeat throughout history. Thank you for not tolerating it in this discussion of a local issue.

  3. Alan C. Miller says:

    Rob Davis, thank you for the thoughtful and accurate blog entry. I appreciate your not taking my words about those killed out of context or intention as others have done in an attempt to make hay of their own incorrect assumptions. I know those people will show up and post and then post after themselves in yet another attempt to overwhelm the issue with their egos, but as many have pointed out, they only make themselves look stupid. Yawn.

    I found the head of one of the victims a few years back and guarded it until the police came to protect the scene and to keep people away as it traumatized some that saw it. The suicidee was on the same side of the tracks as he was living and on the branch line so he most likely didn’t cross the fence line. He had been staying in a halfway house for the mentally ill and decided to lay his head on the rail between train cars.

    My point in listing the ‘categories’ of those killed, where, and how, was not to dehumanize or be insensitive, but to show that the persons involved where not the everyday majority of people who are simply going to the other side of the tracks. All the ‘everyday crossers’ will be stopped by the fence, yet as you pointed out, that’s not who is being killed or where they have been killed. However, due to the direction of travel (the homeless often travel along the tracks from homeless encampments beyond the limits of the fence), circumstances and state of mind of the individuals killed over the last few decades, most of the deaths would have occurred anyway, and therefore with the fence the number of deaths will change little despite the expenditure of public funds for ‘safety’, and therefore listing the deaths as a reason for the fence as ‘safety’ is a red herring.

    Since you can’t stop the deaths, why not instead give the general public a safe and legal way across the tracks by using that money as part of the pot for a crossing? There is safety in having these tens of thousands of yearly crossings where there are no cars or trains rather than having everyone cross Richards/Olive & 1st & E — or worse crossing the tracks to the east wherever the fence ends.

    Another thing that has been misstated is that the protesters gathered are against fencing. I never heard that stated, except maybe as a protest sign, which meant the fence proposal as such. Fencing is absolutely a necessary feature to funnel people away from phantom crossings and encourage use of legal crossings. The problem with the 3800′ fence proposal is that, as a lone proposal, it only funnels people to a marginally safe and very circuitous legal crossing or a very unsafe illegal crossing. The fence ALONE is not a solution.

    Well stated comments on the person killed, very thoughtful.

    • robbdavis says:

      Alan – I am thankful that you understood my intent in what I said about “categories”. I greatly appreciated what you had to say that day and I in NO WAY wanted to question your integrity on this issue. The categories we create (homeless, transient, street urchin…) distance us from the humanity of people. I am guilty of it and play along and, as I hope you saw in my blog, even did the mental check when you used that term. I work with homeless folks in downtown and, you may not be aware of it but, over the past year plus there have been many “dehumanizing” comments made about them in the paper and even at city council meetings (some by council members themselves). This is not about some narrow political correctness but about engaging in a process of humanization of “the other”.

      Just last weekend the “Enterprise” had an article about the body found out along 113. After giving the person’s name (a good thing), it said she had been in Davis for several years and was a “transient”. That made no sense to me. If she was HERE, how could she be transient? Clearly it was an attempt to summarize how someone could die alone, along a deserted path. But it was no explanation at all.

  4. Evan – I totally agree that we should not dehumanize people just because they happen to be homeless, or mentally ill, or they have drug dependencies. Respecting the human dignity of these people requires at least these two things: (1) Naming them. (2) Not saying that they would have died anyway.

    My guess is that Rob’s story is about Patrick Allison. I don’t know whether Alan is referring to Samuel Carrasco or Fred Nightbear Iyotte. Regardless, he deserves a serious thank you for waiting until the police showed up. But saying now that no one could have stopped their deaths is not the best thing to say.

    I do think that it would be better to fence both sides of the tracks, and to extend the fence to the spot where Patrick Allison died, than to just fence the south side. Also, as I said, I totally agree that there should be a safe and legal way to cross the tracks.

  5. Alan C. Miller says:

    They would have died anyway.

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