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To Improve Traffic Safety, Look Outside the Car

September 18, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

From 2003 through 2012, more than 47,000 Americans were fatally injured while walking along streets or roads, about 16 times the toll of the 9/11 terrorist attacks or that from earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes over the same decade. In that span, an estimated 676,000 pedestrians suffered non-fatal harm—one about every 8 minutes.

Of course, all these senseless casualties occur across vast stretches of time and space without yielding the compelling news videos of natural disasters or jetliners flying into buildings. So the response from the public and officialdom has been modest and slow to develop. But two news items last week suggest that the important work of remaking our travel corridors with thought toward the safety of those not in motor vehicles is gaining steam.

First, a Minneapolis City Council committee approved a $9 million plan to reshape the Hennepin-Lyndale bottleneck, among the most heavily trafficked intersections in Minnesota, with more room for pedestrians and bicyclists. Joe Urban blogger Sam Newberg said he was "pretty impressed" at the move "to build a city for people, not cars."

Then, at the national level, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced his department's 18-month initiative to promote walking and biking and reduce their death tolls. "For years, the message pedestrians and bicyclists have been given is, 'You walk or bike at your own risk; be responsible for your own safety,'" Foxx said on his Fast Lane blog. "But that's not good enough [because] in many places there is no safe space for them to be. After all, we don't only [warn drivers and ship captains to be safe]. We make sure our highways are well paved and well marked, and that our sea lanes are navigable."

Foxx, who as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., once was struck by a car as he legally jogged across an intersection, said that USDOT's "Safer People, Safer Streets" program "is critical to the future of our country." It comes as deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists in crashes with motor vehicles have steadily risen since the end of the Great Recession, even as overall roadway fatalities have declined. The death toll of nonmotorized travelers now totals more than 5,000 a year.

A comprehensive report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition attributes this to streets that are "Dangerous by Design" for pedestrians. While better vehicle design and enforcement of seat-belt, drunken driving and distracted driving laws have achieved unprecedented safety for motorists, the report states, "we have invested nowhere near the same level of money and energy in providing for the safety and security of people when they are walking."

This isn't an "us vs. them" standoff, either, because walking constitutes "the first and last leg of almost every trip," Foxx notes. Every able-bodied person walks some of the time.

So, how can we go about this game-changing retreat from 20th century autocentricism? There are many approaches:

  • USDOT plans wide-ranging research from safety assessments of selected local corridors to studies of best multimodal street design practices, performance measures and nonmotorized network development. It will also work on technical advances such as vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) communications to help drivers see pedestrians, vehicle crash-avoidance systems, backup cameras and audible alerts on quiet hybrid and electric cars. 
  • One thrust of the department's design initiative is to promote "road diets," which it says can reduce overall traffic crashes by 29 percent and nearly by half in small towns. That's the focus of the Hennepin/Lyndale plan, which reverses the common former practice of increasing vehicle lanes as traffic counts mount. 

"A much safer road" results from changes such as converting a four-lane, two-way arterial street back to two lanes with a shared left-turn lane in the center, according to Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic CITYLAB. And that ain't all. "Bicycle and pedestrian traffic tends to soar at these sites, as the recaptured road space gives way to bike lanes or street parking that provides a sidewalk buffer from moving traffic or crossing islands, and as vehicle speeds decline ... Best of all, these kinds of changes don't cost much. When timed with regular road maintenance and repaving [as at the Minneapolis bottleneck], road diet policies require little more than the paint needed to restripe lanes. They're about as cheap and cost-effective as infrastructure improvements get."

  • A pricier European form of traffic calming is being considered for the reconstruction of potholed W. 29th Street in the Minneapolis Uptown area, the Star Tribune  reports. It goes by the Dutch name "woonerf," using extra curbing, planters or other obstacles to slow or discourage vehicle traffic on a non-arterial street. Unlike a basic road diet, this one, at an estimated $2 million, would cost more than twice the city's budget for the work scheduled in 2016. Alternative transportation grants might close the gap.
  • In Ogden, Utah, introduction of a lighted crosswalk, flashing signs and a lower speed limit on an arterial street near a homeless shelter ended a run of five pedestrian fatalities, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The lights especially were credited with saving lives; most pedestrian deaths happen after dark.

Focusing on the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists may be the low-hanging fruit in the quest for a less deadly surface transportation system. But there's evidence from other developed countries, most of which have lower fatality rates as well as much steeper declines in those rates since 2000, that everybody wins with that approach. 

In a StreetsblogUSA post headlined "America's Progress on Street Safety is Pathetic," Angie Schmitt wrote that "America's dismal performance does not reflect a lack of resources" but rather reliance on an old, "broken" paradigm that emphasizes making driving safer. "The European nations that have been especially successful at reducing traffic deaths have gone a lot farther, prioritizing the safety of pedestrians and cyclists over the speed and convenience of driving, especially in urban areas," she added. 

In the world's safest nations for travel, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, traffic laws are tougher and urban speed limits lower. Their fatality rates run just above a quarter of the United States'. Even Canada kills barely half as many per capita on the roads as we do. "If America had the same traffic fatality rate as the U.K.," Schmitt noted, "around 25,000 fewer people would be killed every year."

Wow! Also in the U.K., pedestrian deaths are falling faster than those among vehicle occupants, the opposite of the U.S. trend. While no one deserves to die on the roadway, the former seems like a more equitable balance since it's the motorized mode that deals the deadly energy in almost all cases. 

Still, it's clear that policies centered around foot-powered travelers benefit everyone else, too. We should keep building on our late-developing progress in that direction.

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