June 13, 2011

How to reduce our "epidemic of preventable pedestrian deaths"

In 15 of the country's largest metro areas, pedestrian deaths increased even as overall number of traffic deaths fell, according Transportation for America's new study, Dangerous by Design 2011.

Why? Walker safety simply isn't taken seriously by most governments. Pedestrian fatalities account for nearly 12% of total traffic deaths, but states only spend 1.5% of available federal funds for improving pedestrian safety, Transportation for America concludes. Many of these deaths occurred on roads "with little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on bicycles." You can see an interactive map of locations with reported pedestrian fatalities on the Transportation for America Web site.

In fact, walking is not an optional activity for many people, any more than driving is. Yet non-auto transportation simply doesn't come into consideration in so many places across the U.S., from roads designed for driving only to to snow removal for vehicles only (far from making sidewalks clear for walking, many communities actually worsen the pedestrian experience in winter by piling snow at corners where people usually walk).

I went to see a friend in Switzerland last month and the contrast was dramatic. In every city and small town we visited, there were walking areas that were safe and appealing. It was easy to get from a train station in one town to her apartment nearby in another town without a car, either by bus along a major road or a beautiful pedestrian path between the towns. In how many American suburbs is it easy to walk from a station in one town to home in another? In Framingham, it feels dangerous to walk from one shopping center to another, if that involves crossing Rte. 30 or Rte. 9.

Two-thirds of pedestrian fatalities in the US occurred on major roads that are eligible to receive federal funding, the study notes. Transportation for America suggests several changes to the next federal transportation spending bill that could help reduce the number of walker fatalities in America, such as demanding that streets be designed for safe use by pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation users and motorists alike.