| Pedestrians Get Benefits and Dangers, But Few Dollars
By Fran Taylor, Member Walk San Francisco Dec 22, 2009
Despite making up about half of the traffic fatalities in San Francisco, pedestrians receive only a tiny portion of the federal transportation funding available. Walkers contribute to their own health, reducing local medical costs, and tread lightly on expensive infrastructure, but pedestrian projects win peanuts compared with highway projects that often bring pollution and congestion instead.
Dangerous by Design, a report released in early November by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, found that San Francisco is one of the safest cities for pedestrians in the country, even though so many crash victims are walkers.
This seeming paradox is explained by the high number of local residents who walk, compared with sprawled cities like Houston or Las Vegas, and the relatively low speed of automobile travel. Pedestrians hit by a car traveling 20 miles per hour have an 85% chance of surviving, versus an 85% chance of dying if hit by a one traveling 40 mph. The speed limit on most San Francisco streets is 25 mph.
The report analyzed the number of deaths in the context of the number of walkers, which is much greater in dense cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, who all scored well. Good scores are small comfort, however, to pedestrians who do fall under the wheels. People on foot account for approximately 800 traffic injuries and deaths in the City annually.
Nationally, the pedestrian fatality rate is 1.53 per 100,000 people. A Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) used to rank cities across the country reflected the number of fatalities per 100,000 divided by the percentage of foot commuters. The most dangerous cities according to this formula are in the South, where walking can be regarded as suspect activity. The top four are all in Florida: Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville.
“Orlando tops the list because of its high pedestrian fatality rate of 2.9 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents despite only 1.3% of residents walking to work,” the report said. “In other words, the few people who do walk in Orlando face a relatively high risk of being killed in a traffic crash.”
Orlando’s PDI of 221.5 dwarfs the San Francisco region’s 40.9. The regions of New York City and Boston ranked even better, at 28.1 and 23.2, respectively. Older, denser cities were consistently safer proportionally, because so many more people walk in them compared with cities designed for automobile travel. In San Francisco, the percentage of commuters walking to work is 9.4%. Pedestrians in areas with more foot traffic enjoy safety in numbers, as drivers expect to see them and physical accommodations are typically more complete.
In some cases, however, larger numbers of walkers mesh directly with greater chance of fatalities. Nationally, Latinos walk for 40% more trips than do whites, and their death rate per 100,000 is 2.88, compared with 1.78 for whites. For African Americans, the figures are 50% more walking trips and a fatality rate of 3.01. These figures likely reflect the fact that people of color are more likely to live on or near busy arterial streets that encourage speeding and to walk in areas that lack pedestrian features such as crosswalks.
Seniors are another vulnerable group, with 2.69 deaths per 100,000 (3.91 in California). Older drivers get press for the danger they may present to others, but older walkers die in obscurity in much greater numbers.
The money numbers in the report have no such paradoxes. They simply reflect misplaced priorities. The average annual spending on pedestrian/bicycle improvements in the San Francisco region was $1.52 per person. By comparison, Nashville, in the dreaded South, spent $3.82.
“Walkscore.com and Prevention Magazine have both ranked San Francisco as the most walkable city in America,” said Manish Champsee, president of Walk San Francisco, in a press release urging the Bay Area’s congressional representatives to increase funding for pedestrian safety. “However, we need to do a better job of protecting people when they are walking. It’s time for our funding commitment to match the severity of the problem.”
When money does come through, results can be encouraging. The report found that traffic calming measures to slow auto speed and reduce pedestrian exposure, such as wider sidewalks and narrower streets, reduced collisions by 20% to 70%. It pointed at the solution by identifying the problem:
“These deaths typically are labeled ‘accidents’ and attributed to error on the part of motorist or pedestrian. In fact, however, an overwhelming proportion . . . occurred along roadways that were dangerous by design, streets that were engineered for speeding cars and made little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs, or on a bicycle.”
The report noted that more than half of all fatal crashes occurred on “poorly designed” arterial roads, endangering drivers as well. The solution is redesign, not an admonishment to look both ways.
“[A]rterial roads, typically designed with four or more lanes and high travel speeds, have been shown to encourage distracted driving habits,” the report said. “In fact, a study of street widths and injury collisions found that risk of injury from crashes increases exponentially once street widths exceed 24 feet, because of increased vehicle speed. Drivers respond to modern highway engineering by driving faster and less cautiously.”
To read the full report, go to http://t4america.org/resources/dangerousbydesign/.
Fran Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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