Save Lives: Treat City Streets Like City Streets

dangerous_by_designby James A. Bacon

In the decade between 2003 and 2012, more than 42,000 pedestrians died on American streets and roads. That’s more than 16 times the number that died in earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. While natural disasters attract national attention, pedestrian fatalities are buried in the back pages, if they’re noted at all, even as the incidence of pedestrian deaths has spiked in recent years.

Pedestrian accidents are far from inevitable, however. Thousands of fatalities along with untold injuries can be mitigated by street design adapted less to the needs of automobiles and more to the needs of people, contends the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, in a publication released Monday, “Dangerous by Design 2014.”

Vehicle speed was a major factor in the pedestrian fatalities. “Where the posted speed limit was recorded, 61.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities were on roads with a speed limit of 40 mph or higher,” states the study. “This figure compares to just 9 percent of fatalities that occurred on roads with speed limits less than 30 mph.”

Sunbelt communities top the list of the most dangerous places to walk in the country. “These places grew in the post-war period, mostly through rapid spread of low-density neighborhoods that rely on wider streets with higher speeds to connect homes, shops and schools — roads that tend to be more dangerous for people walking.”

Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale — all Florida metros — nail down the top four spots in the study’s ranking, which compares the number of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population and adjusts by the percentage of people who walk to work. Among the 51 largest metro regions in the country, Richmond scored the 19th highest Pedestrian Danger Index, with 1.32 annual pedestrian deaths per 100,000 in 2003-2012. Washington ranked 35th and Hampton Roads 36th.

“We can build and design our communities to protect us while walking,” said Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition in a conference call releasing the report yesterday. “Treat city streets like city streets, not like highways. … Auto-oriented streetscapes are not only uninviting and uninspiring but downright dangerous.”

richmond_fatalitiesLocal government officials need to distinguish between streets, which function as public spaces accommodating people, cars and bicycles alike, and roads, which function mainly for the movement of cars at higher speeds. The greatest threat to pedestrian safety occurs in street-road hybrids (stroads), typically commercial strips where people intermix with cars traveling at fairly high speeds. The map of the Richmond region at left shows the concentration of pedestrian fatalities in the region’s major stroad corridors: Broad Street, Midlothian Turnpike and Rt. 1. The peculiar mix of retail, restaurant and office activity along these corridors induces people to walk across streets ill suited to pedestrian traffic with frequently tragic results.

The same pattern prevails across the state. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, cited the example of an elementary school principal in Loudoun County who was killed last year trying to cross a four-lane, 35 mph road. “As more people make the sustainable and healthy choice to leave their cars at home, we are unfortunately seeing more tragic crashes,” he said in a press release yesterday. “Decades of car-oriented design has made it hazardous in many of our communities simply to walk to school, work, or shopping.”

What public policy approaches are available to curb the incidence of pedestrian deaths? One option, pursued most vigorously in Florida, is to step up education and police enforcement of speed limits and laws that require cars to yield at crosswalks. A less authoritarian approach is to alter street design. There is a pervasive body of thought that wide roads, wide lanes and the absence of visual cues induce motorists to drive faster than posted speed limits. Proper design discourages pedestrians from attempting to cross high-speed roads and encourages cars to drive much slower on people-friendly streets.

Public officials need to think of “streets as public realm, not as right of way,” said Steven Spears, a principal with Design Workshop landscape architects, who designed the conversion of the Bagby Street corridor in Midtown Houston into a more pedestrian-friendly street.

The Complete Streets movement advocates such tactics as installing on-street parking to create barriers between pedestrian and automobile traffic, reducing lane widths, rounding corners to make cars slow down when they turn, and improving crosswalks. Often, roads can be transformed into streets without adding to right of way simply by converting space dedicated to cars into space for sidewalks or bicycle lanes.

“For many years, we built wider and wider streets throughout the region that encourage speeding and are incredibly dangerous for pedestrians to navigate. We’re now finally moving towards designs that make it safe for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers – to use our roadways,” said Brianne Mullen, Executive Director for the Partnership for Smarter Growth in Richmond.

Schwartz and Mullen cited the example of Lawyers Road in Reston, where in 2009 the Virginia Department of Transportation converted a two-mile stretch from four car lanes (two each way) to three (one each way, and one for left-hand turns) and two bicycle lanes. VDOT also reduced the speed limit from 45 mph to 40 mph. A large majority responding to a survey said the changes had improved the road. People felt safer, bicycled more and said that car travel times had not increased.

Putting roads on a “road diet” is one of the less expensive improvements that public officials can do. The trick is to proceed in steps. First, reconfigure lane widths and road designs with striping and inexpensive materials. If the experiment doesn’t work, the road can be readily returned to the way it was. If citizens respond favorably, proceed with more permanent improvements. Ideally, many changes can be paid for with funds dedicated to routine maintenance and repairs.

Complete Streets provide another payback: higher property values. People pay a premium to live in work in walkable neighborhoods. For example, Houston’s Bagby Street project netted a 20% increase in property rents and attracted $30 million in new investment.

“Walkable communities are much in demand in Virginia based on the revival of our cities and towns,” said Schwartz. “Unfortunately, many traffic engineers push back against communities, elected officials, and smart growth developers who want to create the walkable neighborhoods so much in demand today. The good news is the VDOT has a ‘complete streets’ policy, as do a number of local jurisdictions, so it is our hope that VDOT and local transportation planners would team up to make more of our arterials and streets safer for pedestrians.”

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5 responses to “Save Lives: Treat City Streets Like City Streets”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I’m all for more facilities for peds (and bikes) but I can tell you what the real problem is:

    1. – people drive too damn fast these days – seriously – on my back bumper when I’m already 5 mph over the limit (and I do NOT block traffic in the left lane on the Interstate – I pass quickly and get my butt back over but I’m really talking about non-interstate roads here .. people these days drive way to fast especially on 1930’s rural roads..

    2. – it’s not enough that they drive too damn fast – they gotta being screwing around with their cell phones to boot.. it’s an epidemic… seriously….
    get on a two lane road these days and watch how many coming towards you are on the center line.. you have to be on your guard these days or someone will take you out from behind – or coming towards you.

    I am no timid driver – I’ll do 75+ if the road is open and other traffic is going that speed – I try to match my speed to the prevailing traffic and not become an obstacle …

    but on non-interstate roads – people are impatient and distracted and woe to the pedestrian who is so naive to think that cross-walks give him any level of right or protection.

    the only good thing – is that more and more people who hurt others are having their cell phone records subpoenaed and being held accountable .

  2. billsblots Avatar

    I was taken aback at that high number of deaths, 42,000 is a staggering number of deaths when you contemplate the actual event that each one must have been. At different times in my life, or sometimes even now when traveling to a different city, I have been a ‘walker’. It is unsettling and certainly dangerous if you don’t know the roads or which ones are safer to cross.
    larry is on the money, every day I commute about 2/3 on interstate and 1/3 on four lane suburban and the last mile on neighborhood street. Every day there is someone noticeably wandering within or across his/her lane while one hand is holding a phone up to their ear. Yesterday evening a young lady was merging onto I-95 south from another highway and gradually kept fading left into the interstate, oblivious to the car in front of me immediately to her left. Worse, she was not making any attempt to pick up and match speeds, continuing about 45 mph and would have struck the guy in front of me had he not braked, which backed up the entire right lane. She had one hand on her phone to her left ear, blocking her view of the interstate lanes she had to merge into, and with the other hand waving demonstrably into the air while yapping, so at times not even one hand on the steering wheel.
    Other things that Virginia drivers decide to do every day on the interstate; no use of turn indicators before changing lanes, no use of headlights when dark, an unimaginable contempt for other drivers.

  3. […] Bacon’s Rebellion: Complete Streets Save Lives […]

  4. larryg Avatar

    it’s an epidemic. I think – these are folks – a lot of them with jobs – and what’s the fundamental thing about just about any job? Judgement.

    no matter the job – if you don’t show some level of understanding about the fundamental “must do” part of that job – you are fired.

    but these same folks – are total idiots these days on the roads. When you see
    someone who is driving a vehicle and appears to be intoxicated. – the alarm bells go off..

    but when someone is doing exactly the same behavior but the disability is not alcohol but an addiction to the phone – it blows me away.

    people coming across the center line.. and like BIll Blots a lady almost rear-ended me on a highway at 60 mph – because she was just totally involved with her phone.

    she eventually pass me – because I purposely slowed down and force her to and for the next 10 miles we watched her weave back and forth as she continued to fiddle with her phone.. and several near misses.

    this was a 40-50 something lady.. .. with some damage to her car already obvious.

    something has to be done…

    this is just plain loony…

    but for those of you who shop WalMart there is wonderful analogy of pedestrians vs cars.

    think about how they have designed the Walmarts.

    then if you shop there and are so inclined spend a minute or so watching
    the dynamics between the drivers and the pedestrians.

    and the irony is most folks are BOTH !

  5. larryg Avatar

    there’s really a pretty easy fix to this. Put cameras at ped/bike crossings and known conflict areas and put obvious signs out so that auto drivers know their behavior will be captured.

    irony we have folks today blathering about property rights rights and privacy but in our world today – the “rights” of people on foot and bike are not even minimally protected and the carnage is undeniable and some are getting to a tipping point (I believe) where people who do not like cameras and license plate scanners are starting to dislike even more – the uncaring idiots we have to “share”the roads with and who willingly endanger others without regard to simple and polite rules of the road.

    I’m amazed more an more of really obnoxious and mean-spirited behaviors of people on the roads these days – we need cameras. Burn their butts!

    it’s sad and unfortunate but more and more folks are coming to this conclusion even as the scofflaws rail about the “unfairness” of cameras, really the “unfairness” of being force to drive as to not endanger others.

    I think a movement could be started where people create their own “smile you’re on camera” posters that they’ll post at various places where there are not cameras but the more callous would still have doubts”.

    the other thing – that is also ongoing – is the advent of self-owned “cameras”, i.e. cell phones but also on-board cameras that are catching others in the act and turned over to police with the license plate.

    but lets start by putting cameras a ped/bike locations where there are incidents and see if we can start to nail the more overt scofflaws.

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