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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

‘Dangerous by Design’ report faults systematic inattention to pedestrian safety

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 12, 2009 in Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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  no safe place to cross (by: Dan Burden via T4A)

Transportation for America's website introduces its important new report, Dangerous by Design, with an attention-grabbing statistic:

"In the last 15 years, more than 76,000 Americans have been killed while crossing or walking along a street in their community. More than 43,000 Americans - including 3,906 children under 16 - have been killed this decade alone. This is the equivalent of a jumbo jet going down roughly every month, yet it receives nothing like the kind of attention that would surely follow such a disaster."

The report's central point, a critical one, is that this tragedy is not recurring merely because of accident:  many of these deaths are preventable.  A huge portion occurs along streets and roads that have been engineered exclusively or primarily for fast, efficient car travel, with little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on a bicycle.  The roads frequently do a poor job of accommodating public transit as well; many pedestrian injuries and deaths occur near bus stops.

Transportation for America (T4America) stresses that these facts are occurring with little attention other than hand-wringing in many jurisdictions precisely at a moment in our history when walking, bicycling, and taking transit are becoming more important.  Jackson, MS (by: Dr. Scott Crawford, courtesy of T4America)The public health community now recognizes that "active transportation" helps promote fitness and reduce obesity and related disease; environmental professionals know that we must reduce automobile dependence in order to reduce global warming emissions; and economic analysts advise that we can no longer afford the infrastructure necessary to underwrite continuing automobile supremacy in the context of a growing population.

Over the last several decades, according to Dangerous by Design (co-written with the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership), ever-widening arterial highways have drawn increasing numbers of shopping centers, drive-through services, apartment complexes and office parks. But the pressure to move as many cars through these areas as quickly as possible has led transportation departments to squeeze in as many lanes as they can, often designing out sidewalks, crosswalks and crossing signals, on-street parking, and even street trees in order to remove impediments to motorized traffic:

"As a result, more than half of fatal vehicle crashes occurred on these wide, high capacity and high-speed thoroughfares. Though dangerous, these arterials are all but unavoidable because they are the trunk lines carrying most local traffic and supporting nearly all the commercial activity essential to daily life. These roads have an enormous impact on residential neighborhoods, as well: For example, a recent AARP poll of adults 50 years and older found that 40% reported inadequate sidewalks in their neighborhoods and nearly half of respondents reported that they could not safely cross the main roads close to their home."

This report, which ranks metro areas on the degree of risk presented to pedestrians, also analyzes state and regional spending of federal transportation dollars on pedestrian safety.  walking to visit family (by and courtesy of Stephen Lee Davis)It finds that many of the regions in greatest need of improvement are, unfortunately, spending the least amount on pedestrian safety projects. Nationwide, less than 1.5 percent of funds authorized under current federal transportation law have been allocated for projects to improve the safety of walking and bicycling, even though pedestrians comprise 11.8 percent of all traffic deaths and trips made on foot account for almost 9 percent of total trips.

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of ranking cities or states on their performance, because one can always quibble with methodology.  But they are immensely popular with the media and thus have become a tried-and-true staple of our business.  And they do provide a rough indication of where the greatest problems (or successes) lie.  Here are the report's top ten most dangerous metro areas for walking:

  1. Orlando-Kissimmee, FL
  2. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
  3. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL
  4. Jacksonville, FL
  5. Memphis, TN-MS-AR
  6. Raleigh-Cary, NC
  7. Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN
  8. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX
  9. Birmingham-Hoover, AL
  10. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA

All but one or two (depending on how you count Louisville and Memphis) are sprawling Sun Belt locations.  That's pretty much true for numbers eleven through twenty as well.  navigating a work zone (by and courtesy of Stephen Lee Davis)The five safest, relatively speaking?  Minneapolis, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

The researchers based the rankings on an index that corrects for the fact that cities where more people walk on a daily basis are also likely to have a greater number of pedestrian fatalities, by computing the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking residents do on average.

The report also highlights community actions that can work to lower the risk to pedestrians and cyclists, including street design, "complete streets," safe routes to school programs, and walkable neighborhoods.  All of these should be promoted in the upcoming federal transportation reauthorization, say the authors, and I agree.  Go here for the introduction and here to download the full report.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

 

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Comments

john norquistNov 12 2009 04:41 PM

Hi Kaid

As you know from our work together on LEED for Neighborhood Development, the key to pedestrian safety is changing street metrics and neighborhood patterns. Before WWII, urban street standards encouraged streets with multiple purposes, i.e. movement, market activity and social interaction. The standard US Main street template was the two rod street - two rods or 33' from the center line to the building line. Typically the street itself was 50' wide with 8' sidewalks on each side. Now the standard is the sprawl-inducing, pedestrian-killing 72' arterial with a 20' median to accommodate double Pork Chop left turn lanes at the intersection. Also 100' clear zones are typically required on each side- often with no sidewalks anywhere. Big visual clear zones help drivers get the feeling that they are driving on the Bonneville Salt Flats and should drive at least 65 mph.The purpose of today's arterials has been reduced to just one and that is movement which it really only achieves during off peak hours.

The Congress for the New Urbanism and the Institute of Transportation Engineers have been collaborating on a walkable urban thoroughfare design guide that will be available early in 2010. We recommend 35 mph as a maximum for design and posted speed limits. We provide examples of urban street types that can add value to neighborhoods instead of ruining them. Go to ite.org or cnu.org for more on the street design guide.

Merry RabbNov 13 2009 08:11 AM

Within the past month or so my area has had two serious pedestrian accidents. One was a fatality - someone crossing an intersection never meant to be crossed while trying to get to work. The other was a near fatality that happened near an almost inaccessible bus stop. In both cases better transit options might have helped.

Transportation for America is also collecting signatures on a petition to use as part of a meeting with the Secretary of Transportation. I think the petition is active through today:
http://action.smartgrowthamerica.org/t/3224/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=570

Kaid @ NRDCNov 13 2009 08:44 AM

John, thanks so much for your leadership on these issues - it's vitally important.

Merry - ugh. Thanks for the link.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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