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Are America's Streets Designed for Death?

Stats show driver error and high speed limits can increase the likelihood of pedestrian deaths, but a new report names a different culprit.

file photo
file photo

By Melinda Carstensen

Streets designed to maximize speed for cars have created a dangerous world for pedestrians, a new study argues.

From 2003 to 2012, more than 47,000 people, many of them children, were hit and killed while walking outdoors. An estimated 676,000 were injured. Meanwhile, the number of adults who said they walked for transportation grew 6 percent from 2005 to 2010.

These are just some of the scary statistics outlined in a new report called “Dangerous by Design,” by Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition, a group that advocates for better neighborhood planning.

Previous arguments point to driver error and high speed limits as primary causes for pedestrian deaths, but this report names a new culprit: bad road design.

Alissa Walker, of Gizmodo, writes in a recent article that our streets “are enabling our vehicles to become death machines.”

“The problem in this country is that our streets have historically been designed for speed, to help cars go as fast as possible,” Walker says.

Smart Growth America’s report uses a Pedestrian Danger Index, or PDI, to rate the likelihood of a person walking and getting hit by a vehicle in any given U.S. region. The nationwide average is 52.2, and higher numbers are bad.

This year the Metro Orlando area was named the most dangerous U.S. region to walk, with a 2013-2012 PDI of 244.28, four times higher than the national PDI.

The Patch areas of Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami and Memphis follow, and the list wraps up with Birmingham, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte.

Many of these towns are in the Sunbelt, which in the post-war period grew with wider streets and higher speeds. Then, roadways were designed to help drivers get from point A to point B quickly, but many lacked crosswalks and sidewalks.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, city officials in New York required narrow sidewalks and wide road lanes to help move traffic, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials launched its Urban Street Design Guide in 2013 with standards for updating streets with bike lanes, speed humps and crosswalks. 

“So many things have changed in 50 years, but our streets haven’t, and our design guidance certainly hasn’t,” former NACTO President Janettte Sadik-Khan said in a press release.

In the Patch town of Burlington, Mass., shoppers at the Burlington Mall have to trek more than half a mile down the Middlesex Turnpike to catch a flick across the street at the AMC movie theater. There isn’t a crosswalk between those two destinations.

Collaborating with Streetsblog, Gizmodo lists the least crossable streets in the U.S.

Among those roads listed are Second Street in Laurel, Maryland, where walking between an office and a bus stop legally requires a .6-mile walk, and Big Beaver Road in Troy, Mich., where the closest crosswalk from LA Fitness to Big Beaver Tavern is more than a half-mile away, at Rochester Road.

Federal agencies have encouraged a “complete streets” policy to make roads safer for all travelers, and some local governments, like those in New Jersey, have implemented them.

StreetScore, a tool developed by MIT’s Media Lab, uses street density, plus the presence of sidewalks and bike lanes, to rate street safety. It doesn’t take traffic crash data into account — just perceived safety. The more pedestrians and bikers present, the safer an area was rated. 

Reduced speed limits can also save lives. The Patch National desk wrote last month about an international movement to reduce residential area speed limits to 20 mph that’s gaining momentum in the U.S.

Statistics show a pedestrian hit by a car going 20 mph has a 95 percent survival rate, compared with an 80 percent survival rate at 30 mph, the standard speed limit in many U.S. neighborhoods. Stopping distance for a car going 30 mph is nearly double that of a car going 20.

Visit Gizmodo for the full article “How Bad Street Design Kills Pedestrians.” 

Which streets do you feel are the most dangerous in your town, and how do you think your local government can help reduce pedestrian deaths?

Which streets do you feel are most unsafe in your town, and how do you think your local government can help reduce pedestrian deaths?

Daniel S. June 14, 2014 at 10:27 AM
Here in WA State, they have marked crosswalks in the middle of blocks and many of them also have flags to carry and some more dangerous zones have a flashing light system. As always however, it seems one of the issues is: "people don't really know the law". That goes for both drivers and pedestrians. The same is true of "school bus laws". States need to Issue Flyers with plate renewal stickers that Spell Out Loudly, specific laws that are constantly violated, especially that lead to behaviors that often result in severe injury or death. We Cannot Protect Everyone from Every Possibility, but we can inexpensively attempt to INFORM them repeatedly.
Magnus Thunderson June 14, 2014 at 11:11 AM
North jones ave is a very active pedestrian street with a lot of car traffic also but no sidewalks and that is a major problem. I also sure this is true on many other streets in Tampa
oldfed June 15, 2014 at 10:17 AM
Kurt B. My comment about speed bumps every 10ft. was a sarcastic joke, just like those 'electric scarecrows', or speed-registering machines. All jokes. Why, because to quote a 17th cent. Frenchman, Blaise Pascal: "Law without force is impotent". We as a nation have become stupid, lazy, and arrogant, and these types of behavior are the result. But it is, and will always be a CAR CULTURE, not a bike culture like Europe. Heck, even the Chinese are driving around now, forget the bikes. And they really are an inferior means of transport in the winter, or the rain. Unless you live w/in a mile of your house, you're dumb IMO to ride a bike to work in the summer in a suit.
oldfed June 26, 2014 at 02:40 PM
Read an article several years ago in a respected car magazine that said that the 30mph speed limit was first proposed by an MD in about 1900. Not a year for scientific research, but he postulated that if a person riding in an open car, which many were were to go faster than 30mph, his/her lungs would overpressure and they would 'black out'. Silly, but that outdated limit is still with us! When several states raised the speed limit to 65mph, fatalities went DOWN. The 55mph limit was only implemented to conserve gas. Most drivers will go at the speed that they feel comforable with. And those who have been driving longest usually slow down for school zones, accidents, bad weather, etc. The kids and the elderly are the two groups most likely to have accidents, THAT IS THE PROBLEM HERE, not phony speed cameras, speed bumps, or square tires.
Bill July 02, 2014 at 05:21 PM
We need to instigate the British system " zebra crossings! "

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