A New Vision to Fix the Tragedy No One Ever Thinks About

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A New Vision to Fix the Tragedy No One Ever Thinks About

New York and other cities confront the fact that 4500 Americans are   killed crossing the street each year

Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist deaths to zero are now taking  shape around the country from Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon. (Photo: New York City Department of Transportation)

More than 4500 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America--more than those who died in the horror of 9/11.  

A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition studying ten years of data found that 16 times more people were killed crossing the street than in natural disasters over the that same period. Another 68,000 walkers on average are injured every year. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors and people of color, according to the report.

 

This pedestrian safety crisis is even more dire internationally. More than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year--22 percent of a total 1.24 million traffic fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed,” notes Scott Bricker, Executive Director of America Walks, a coalition of walking advocacy groups. “We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency.”

“Where’s the moral outrage?” asks Katherine Kraft, America Walks’ National Coalition Director and Coalition Director of Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of citizens, businesses and organizations across many fields convened by the health care non-profit Kaiser Permanente.

Unfortunately, pedestrian deaths (and all traffic fatalities) are viewed as an inevitable side effect of modern life.  “People accept this as normal, just as 100 years ago most people accepted that women could not vote,” observes Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, an international organization working to make streets safe for people of all ages.

Yet recent history offers genuine hope for making our streets safer.  A generation ago domestic abuse and drunk driving were seen as sad, unalterable facts of human nature.  But vigorous public campaigns to prevent these tragedies have shown remarkable results, offering clear evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.  

Sweden Paves the Way for Zero Traffic Deaths

Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country from Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon.

This new safety strategy, called Vision Zero, is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden, where overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000--making Swedish streets the safest in the world according to a front page story in the New York Times. Pedestrian deaths in the country have also plunged 50 percent since 2009.

The Economist magazine reports that Sweden accomplished all this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design.  The influential conservative newsweekly cites improved crosswalks, lowered urban speed limits, pedestrian zones, barriers separating cars from bikes and pedestrians, and narrowing streets for the impressive drop in traffic deaths.  

Sweden takes a far different approach than conventional transportation planning, where “road users are held responsible for their own safety” according to the website Vision Zero Initiative. Swedish policy by contrast believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist and walker errors, “based on the simple fact that we are human and we make mistakes.”  This is similar to the Netherlands’ policy of Forgiving Roads, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 75 percent since the 1970s, compared to less than a 20 percent reduction in the US over the same period.

Three US states that adopted aggressive measures to cut traffic deaths similar to Vision Zero--Utah, Minnesota and Washington--all have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent or more, 25 percent better than the national average.

Streets of New York

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office last year on the promise of reducing traffic deaths in a city where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle every two hours on average.  

“The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable,” he wrote in a letter to New Yorkers… “They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians--especially our children and seniors.” Traffic accidents are the largest preventable cause of death for children under 14 in New York, and the second highest source of fatal injuries for people over 65.

In May New York’s City Council passed 11 bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments, including:

  • Increased police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians and dangerous driving;
  • A campaign in the state legislature to allow the city to lower speed limits to 25 mph (and 20 mph on some streets), which passed in June;
  • Safety improvements such as traffic calming, speed cameras, and “slow zones” on streets;
  • Stricter scrutiny of taxi drivers’ safety records;
  • Street safety curriculum in schools; and
  • Creation of a permanent Vision Zero Task Force at City Hall.

One of New York’s biggest problems, according to walking and bike advocates, is that the police department focuses far more resources on street crime than on street safety, even though 356 people were killed in traffic accidents last year (half of them pedestrians and bicyclists), compared to 333 murders.  Advocates cheered when de Blasio chose as his police chief William Bratton, who has spoken out about the need to curb traffic injuries and deaths.

“It’s really impressive what Mayor de Blasio has done,” explains Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “He has put his money where his mouth is” by finding funding for street safety projects and increased police enforcement in an era of tight budgets.

Streets of San Francisco & Beyond

After New York, Vision Zero planning in the US is most advanced in San Francisco, which last year saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities.  Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition recently launched the Vision Zero Coalition with the San Francisco School District and more than two dozen community organizations. Their mission is to encourage city officials to:

  • Fix dangerous intersections and streets;
  • Ensure “full and fair enforcement of traffic laws,” with an emphasis on curbing dangerous behavior;
  • Invest in training and education for all road users, focusing on helping frequent drivers share the road with walkers and bicyclists;
  • Eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous streets….” Nicole Schneider of Walk San Francisco and Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicyle Coalition wrote recently. “Vision Zero is also about empowering historically underrepresented communities that are disproportionately burdened by traffic injuries and chronic disease.”

The plan has been already been endorsed by the San Francisco Police Department.

A number of local advocacy organizations around the country (New York’s Transportation Alternatives, Walk San Francisco, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Bike Pittsburgh, Oregon’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Oregon Walks) are working with the national Alliance for Biking and Walking to launch the Vision Zero Strategic Collaborative to push for these policies across the nation.

America’s Emerging Walking Revolution

America is on the verge of a walking revolution.  After many decades in which walking continually lost ground to other modes of transportation and  recreation, there’s growing interest across many fields about restoring walking as a way of life.  A diverse network of organizations came together at the first-ever walking summit last year to champion walking as one solution to our health care crisis (one-half hour of walking each day reduces the risk of many major diseases), as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heighten the sense of community and security), as a clear route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means less CO2 emissions) and as a boost for the economy (by lowering health care costs and stimulating local business districts).

Katherine Kraft warns, “We won’t increase walkability--which is good for people’s and communities’ health--until we make the streets more safe and comfortable for walking.” Vision Zero, she says, is the path toward a better life for all of us.

“Everyone wants to live in a community that they can enjoy.” agrees Scott Bricker. “Where their children can grow up safely.  Where we can all live, work and play without fear at any age.  We have the public will to do this.”

How to Restore Walking as a Way of Life

The gravest danger to walkers as well as bicyclists and motorists is other motorists who drive dangerously.  According to data collected by the New York City Department of Transportation from 2008-2012, “dangerous driver choices” contributes to pedestrian deaths in 70 percent of cases.  “Dangerous pedestrian choices” is responsible in 30 percent of cases and joint responsibility in 17 percent of cases.

As the old saying goes, speed kills.  Two landmark studies, one from the US and one from the UK, found that pedestrians are killed:

  • 5 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 20 mph
  • 37-45 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 30 mph
  • 83-85 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 40 mph.

In light of these findings, it’s scary to realize that traffic on many if not most American roads travels closer to 40 mph than 20 mph.

“If we could do one switch to make safer streets it would be to reduce car speeds to 20 mph,” says Bricker, “which would reduce pedestrian fatalities by 90 percent.”

Many experts think it’s not as simple as changing the speed limits. Charlie Zegeer, project manager at the University of North Carolina’s authoritative Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) says, “Research shows that lowering a speed limit doesn’t work to slow traffic-- it’s the roadway design that affects the speed.”

Solutions

Here’s a few of practical steps to slow speeds, deter distracted driving and help make walking a safer, comfortable and enjoyable experience for everyone.  This is where Vision Zero hits the road.

  • Reduce the number of travel lanes on wide streets wherever possible. Downsizing four-lane suburban and urban streets to two travel lanes with an alternating turn lane in the middle has become a popular trend across the country. Not only does this create safer streets, it lessens noise for residents and creates an opportunity to add sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaping. (This is known as a road diet, lane reduction or 2+1 road.)
  • Reduce the width of travel lanes. Wide lanes send an unmistakable message for drivers to speed up.
  • Reduce the length of crosswalks. A shorter walk across the street is a safer one.  This can be done in a number of ways, but most commonly by extending the sidewalk out into the intersection.  (This is known as a curb extension or bulb-out.)
  • Add medians in the middle of busy streets as a refuge for crossing pedestrians. This has been shown to reduce traffic accidents by 56 percent, according to Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities.
  • Make crosswalks more visible. Elevate them to curb level, or mark them with wide swaths of paint.
  • Give pedestrians a head start at traffic lights. Five seconds allows pedestrians to enter the crosswalk first and be far more visible to motorists, says Penalosa.  Lining up waiting cars a few feet back from the intersection accomplishes the same thing.
  • Ban right on red turns at busy intersections. Drivers, busy watching out for other cars, often don’t see pedestrians crossing the street on green lights.
  • Keep the turning radius 90 degrees at intersections.  Rounded street corners encourages drivers to turn without stopping or looking for pedestrians.
  • Install traffic circles, roundabouts, speed bumps, speed tables and other traffic calming devices, which help motorists drive safely and keep an eye out for pedestrians.
  • Convert one-way streets to two-way, which encourages safer, slower driving.
  • Pay close attention to road designs at bus stops.  Pedestrians often rush across the street to catch their bus, not paying attention to oncoming traffic.
  • Create pedestrian streets, bridges and underpasses in busy areas to minimize conflict with traffic and enhance the convenience of walking.
  • Separate bike lanes on busy streets with curbs, posts or other physical dividers. Protected bike lanes create a more comfortable, enjoyable trip for pedestrians too.
  • Strict enforcement of laws against speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, drunk driving and reckless driving.  Injuring or killing people with a car is no less tragic than doing it with a gun.
  • Install red light cameras and other of means photo enforcement.  It’s expensive to station a police car at every unsafe intersection, but technology can nab lawbreakers at a fraction of the cost. Washington, DC now uses cameras to detect and fine drivers who do not yield right-of-way to pedestrians as well as those who speed or run red lights, says Charlie Zegeer of the Pedestrian and Bicycling Information Center.
  • Convert traffic lights to four-way stop signs at less busy intersections. Motorists rocketing through intersections to avoid a red light is one of the most common--and dangerous--causes of speeding.
  • Establish Safe Routes to Schools campaigns, which bring educators, parents, neighbors and kids themselves together to find safe, satisfying ways for students to walk and bike to school.  
  • Training programs about pedestrian safety for traffic engineers, transportation planners, police, city officials, citizens and children. “All the kids in the Netherlands have three weeks instruction in the rules of the road at school,” notes Penalosa.  “They role play being pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.”
  • Put Pedestrians First. “Every city should have a by-law of one sentence stating: “In this city, pedestrians come first,” declares Penalosa.  “Everyone is a pedestrian at some point during the day, even if you are just walking from your parking space. So everyone has a stake in Vision Zero.”

“These pedestrian improvements also improve motorists’ and biyclists’ safety,” Zegeer adds.  “It’s a win-win-win.  Everyone’s safer.”

Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper, editor of OnTheCommons.org and author of All That We Share and The Great Neighborhood Book, writes widely about cities, community, sustainability and travel. On The Commons is a commons movement strategy center.

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