The United States continues to struggle with a legacy of unsafe street designs that fail to safely accommodate people walking. Dangerous by Design 2014 (PDF), released by the National Complete Streets Coalition (a program of Smart Growth America), documents the extent of this epidemic of unsafe streets. From 2003 to 2012, more than 47,000 people were killed while walking—roughly equivalent to one Boeing 747 crashing every month. The report argues that these deaths are largely preventable with safer street designs.
The report ranks the most dangerous regions for walking across the country. Unsurprisingly, the most dangerous regions are located in heavily automobile-oriented Sun Belt regions that have ubiquitous arterials that are extra wide and fast. The most dangerous regions according to the pedestrian danger index, a metric that takes into account walk-to-work rates, are Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami, Memphis, Birmingham, Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte. Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco are the least dangerous cities according to this index. But for metropolitan regions ranked only by percentage of traffic deaths that were pedestrians, the top of the list features New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Miami, and San Diego. This is no surprise given the ongoing pedestrian safety issues of cities like San Francisco and Berkeley.
The report provides further evidence that street safety is fundamentally an equity issue: pedestrian fatalities disproportionately affect seniors, minorities, and children. People over age 65 make up 21 percent of pedestrian fatalities nationwide despite constituting just 12.6 percent of the population. California has the second highest pedestrian fatality rate for seniors. African Americans suffer a pedestrian fatality rate 60 percent higher than whites, while Hispanics of any race experience a rate 43 percent higher. Pedestrian fatalities are the third leading cause of death for children age 15 or younger; 4,394 have been killed over this ten-year period. It is worth noting that this data only counts fatalities: for every fatality, there are many more collisions that injure these populations, and even more near-collisions that pose a constant threat.
The shocking aspect of this report is that these deaths are a direct result of unsafe street designs and are largely preventable with safer engineering. More than half of pedestrian fatalities occur on arterials, and over 60 percent occur on roads with speed limits of over 40 mph. Speeding is responsible for one-third of traffic fatalities for all users—10,000 lives each year. For pedestrians, speeding is especially hazardous: the risk of death increases exponentially with vehicle speed (as shown below).
There are many parties responsible for our unsafe streets. Distracted, reckless, or drunk driving (or walking) are often the direct cause, and behavior-focused campaigns are a good place to start in order to improve safety. The risks of these actions are compounded by automobile-centric design standards by AASHTO and state departments of transportation that do not take a complete streets approach to street design and consequently create an unsafe environment for walking (and biking). Automobile-centric zoning codes, traffic projections, and performance metrics also shoulder responsibility for unsafe street design.
Sadly, the Federal Government provides little leadership on the issue of pedestrian safety. Two-thirds of pedestrian deaths occurred on roads that were eligible for federal funds and built under federal guidance, but the federal government has not held states accountable for reducing the number and severity of traffic crashes. In fact, the federal government arguably perpetuates these issues by funding automobile-centric roadway expansion projects and providing little or no funds for pedestrian safety. The recent House appropriations bill for 2015, for example, proposes to eliminate all “non-essential” transportation spending including funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. The level of discourse that views pedestrian safety as “non-essential” demonstrates how isolated from reality policymakers remain. If a Boeing 747 crashed every month, there would by widespread uproar, but the same amount of pedestrians dying every month provokes little response.
The ability to safely walk on our streets has wide reaching consequences. Creating walkable communities benefits public health, economic development, quality of life, and sustainability. But in many cases, it is not safe to walk to school, to work, to the store, or to the bus. It’s no surprise that many of the metropolitan areas that have the most unsafe streets that actively discourage walking also have some of the highest rates of obesity. We must do better to create safe streets that serve everyone and do not place the most vulnerable users (pedestrians and bicyclists) at greater risk due to dangerous designs.