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The Twin Cities' Safe Streets

November 17, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Pedestrians, bicyclists and wheelchair users are no match for motor vehicles in traffic crashes, and not just because cars and trucks are so much bigger, heavier and faster.  It's also because, by design, too many of our roadways unfairly stack the deck against non-motorized travelers.

That's the guiding principle of a growing movement called Complete Streets, which seeks to turn auto-centric public rights-of-way into safe and convenient thoroughfares for motorists and pedestrians alike. It means more sidewalks, bicycle lanes and crosswalks along urban streets, traffic calming in areas of heavy pedestrian use and paved shoulders on rural roads.

As Minnesotans begin to embrace this 21st century vision of mode-balanced road design, we're already reaping the benefits. A new national study rates the Twin Cities the nation's safest major metropolitan area for non-motorized travel. Smaller cities in the state do even better.

This is not to say that Minnesota roads pose no danger to folks moving around under their own power. Last year 25 pedestrians were killed and 867 injured in 860 run-ins with vehicles in our state. These are historically low figures, about half of the toll in 1990. Still, the chance of a pedestrian dying in a Minnesota traffic crash was six times that for vehicle occupants.

The most commonly cited contributing factors to pedestrian crashes on accident reports were drivers' inattention and failure to yield the right of way, followed by obscured vision, unsafe speed and chemical impairment. In addition, nine of the pedestrians killed in 2008 were legally drunk.

State Department of Public Safety statistics don't report roadway-related causes of crashes involving pedestrians. But the new study from Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership found that 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities nationwide occurred on arterial streets with posted speed limits of at least 40 miles per hour and more than 40 percent happened in places without crosswalks. Only one in 10 pedestrian deaths occurred in crosswalks. 

Meanwhile, the report, titled "Dangerous by Design," calculated that only 1.5 percent of all federal transportation funds go to pedestrian and bicycle projects, although pedestrian traffic deaths accounted for 11.8 percent of the nationwide total over the past two years. Racial minorities and the elderly are disproportionately impacted.

Minnesota spends 2.2 percent of its federal transportation funds on pedestrian and bike projects and its non-motorized crash death toll is 6.6 percent of the total statewide, 8.1 percent in the Twin Cities. Those are some of the nation's most pedestrian-friendly figures, but local advocates aren't cheering.

"It isn't as if we are doing so well in our region," said Joan Pasiuk, program director for Bike Walk Twin Cities. "It is more that we are doing poorly across the nation."

For example, in Orlando, Fla., rated the most dangerous city in America for pedestrians, 17.4 percent of all traffic fatalities are on foot. Still, that region's proportional spending on the problem is one-third the Twin Cities'. In the New York City metro, 31 percent of those killed in traffic are pedestrians, but spending on their safety is less than one-quarter of ours.

New York actually ranks just two notches below the Twin Cities' first place on the "Dangerous by Design" scale, because so many more Big Apple commuters walk to work - in effect, yielding a lower casualty rate per trip.

This shows that, as increased bicycling and walking improves individuals' cardio-vascular health while reducing pollution, noise and vehicle congestion, care must be taken to head off a new spike in pedestrian traffic crashes. That's the goal of Minnesota's Complete Streets state initiative as well as local Complete Streets policies enacted by Hennepin County and the city of Rochester.

A Minnesota Department of Transportation draft report on this subject cites, in addition to benefits for public safety and the environment, improved mobility for the one-third of Minnesotans who don't drive, lower transportation costs, enhanced economic activity and property values as well as "social interactions related to the quality of life."

The draft notes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Complete Streets as a strategy to reduce obesity. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota also endorses the program as a way to improve public health.

The MnDOT draft, due for official release in December, notes that no rigorous cost-benefit analysis of Complete Streets has been conducted, but "several informal cost-benefit calculations have ... found the benefits to outweigh the costs." The draft also says the program "does not mean all modes on all roads," but focuses on balanced overall transportation planning across modes and "inclusion of all transportation users of all types, ages and abilities." Complete Streets is "considered feasible on state, regional and local levels," the draft concludes.

Walkers and bicyclists pay for streets and roads with their property taxes, just as motorists do, but without causing the same wear and tear. It's only fair to attend to their transportation needs and safety with efforts at least proportional to those that benefit drivers.

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