In transportation, design matters for safety -- and for prosperity

The National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, has released Dangerous by Design 2014, a new report that ranks major metropolitan areas according to the Pedestrian Danger Index and presents recommendations for reducing pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

The report authors note that between 2003 and 2012, more than 47,000 people were killed while walking, and pedestrian fatalities disproportionately claim the lives of older adults, people of color, and children. The areas with the worst PDI scores (pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people divided by the share of the population walking to work) share some similarities:

As in past years, communities in the Sunbelt, particularly the South, top the list of most dangerous places to walk. 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.

Metro Orlando tops the list of most dangerous areas to walk this year, followed by the Tampa–St.Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami and Memphis regions.

In other words, when communities design their streets with a focus on drivers rather than pedestrians, pedestrians face a greater risk of death. Citing recent best-practice publications from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (PDF) and the Federal Highway Administration, as well as Complete Streets guidelines, the Dangerous by Design authors summarize the kinds of design features that can improve pedestrian safety:

Generally, designing for safe, walkable communities begins with understanding how people use — and want to use — streets and public spaces to access destinations. From there flow general considerations such as separate people walking from people driving vehicles; keep traffic speeds low; ensure all sidewalks and curb ramps are accessible to people with disabilities; and clarify where each road user should be expected to travel. With these principles set, transportation planners and engineers can select from a large set of nationally used appropriate design elements, including but not limited to: wide sidewalks; curb extensions; refuge islands; pedestrian countdown signals; leading pedestrian interval signal timing; midblock crossing s (especially at transit stops); pedestrian hybrid beacons; narrow travel lanes; planting street trees; restricted right turns on red lights; compact intersections; back - in angled parking and smaller curb radii.

As someone who's been walking in DC for more than a decade, I appreciate several changes that our Department of Transportation has made over the past decade, including wider sidewalks, pedestrian countdown signals (which let us know how many seconds we have remaining to cross a street) and leading pedestrian intervals (which give us a few seconds to get into a crosswalk before cars are allowed to start turning across the crosswalk). These and other improvements are courtesy of a Pedestrian Master Plan that the DC Department of Transportation developed in 2009 with the twin goals of reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries and "increas[ing] pedestrian activity by making walking a comfortable and accessible mode of travel throughout all parts of the District."

In addition to recommending that communities improve their infratstructure, Dangerous by Design includes national-level recommendations:

  • Strengthen the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) should follow Congressional intent and hold states accountable for traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
  • Make safety for people on foot or bicycle a clear performance measure for future federal
    transportation law.
  • Adopt a national Complete Streets policy.
  • Increase the federal cost share for certain safety programs.
  • Ensure better data collection

Transportation planning decisions don't just affect pedestrians' risks of injuries and death; they also affect people's access to jobs. Rebecca Burns's "Sprawled Out in Atlanta," part of Politco Magazine's in-depth "What Works" series, reports on the impacts of inadequate public transportation in Cobb County, part of the Atlanta metro area. Cobb is one of the nation's most sprawling counties, full of single-family homes and car-centric infrastructure built when the dominant assumption was that middle- and upper-income families would want to live in the suburbs and commute to cities. As that assumption has changed, so have the demographics of sprawling counties like Cobb (I wrote about the shifting geography of poverty back in October, too). Burns writes:

As affluent young professionals and older empty nesters flock back into cities across the country in search of better lifestyles, the suburbs left behind are increasingly stuck with a demographic—the working poor and struggling middle class—they were never built to accommodate. Many of these people don’t have cars, and many of them can’t even easily make it to the bus. In fact, the Brookings Institute has found, fewer than 50 percent of poor suburbanites in metro Atlanta even have access to transit, and what they have is limited.

... In Cobb County, there’s no bus service at all on Sundays. Cobb Community Transit operates a system that is tiny given the immense size of the county—just 20 routes compared with almost 200 operated by MARTA, the transit agency that serves the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, and also operates a rail network. The bus routes that do operate in Cobb are limited; some run along main commercial arteries (like busy Cobb Parkway where MUST’s headquarters is located), and others are rush-hour-only, taking commuters from Cobb to downtown Atlanta and back. But the Cobb system does not connect to MARTA’s, so if you want to get from Cobb to somewhere within the city or an adjoining county, you have to keep track of two transit cards. If you don’t keep track of transfers, you can get stuck paying for multiple tickets.

Among the 717,00 residents of the 339-square-mile Cobb County, 86,000 live below the poverty level. Many struggle to find affordable housing and can't afford to pay for a car and gas along with their rent. Getting to work (and other destinations) via transit can involve long walks, long waits, and long rides -- and can easily make workers tardy when buses break down or get behind schedule. An accompanying photo essay of riders on Atlanta's Number 10 bus, which runs between Cobb County and Atlanta, includes a picture of Santrusa Mathis, who spends eight hours commuting by bus to her job at Taco Bell. And the problems getting to work in metro Atlanta aren't confined to Cobb County; Burns reports, "poor residents of suburban Atlanta can only reach 17 percent of the region’s jobs, a recent study found, leaving them stranded in low-paying work and trapped in what few isolated pockets of cheaper housing they can find."

When low-wage workers no longer have to spend just as long getting to work as they do on the job, they'll have more time available to improve their skills, look for new jobs, care for their families, and look after their own health -- all of which can improve prosperity. Making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and transit more accessible for all, can give more people the option of human-powered commuting, which can help us meet physical-activity guidelines. (Driving will still be the best option for some people, and they can see the roads become less congested as other drivers shift to other modes.) Better transportaiton design requires planning and money, but it's a worthwhile investment that can improve safety, health and prosperity in communities nationwide.

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