Tuesday, November 10

Safety for all street users

Over the past several decades, transportation engineers have been able to introduce scores of automotive safety provisions, from roadway clearance measures to elements of the vehicle design itself. Street trees are removed from the sides of roads to prevent collisions. Families have long since traded up their station wagon for a larger, safer SUV. Some of these improvements have likely slowed the annual increase in traffic fatalities, and with a little help from the recession the total number of driver deaths even dropped in 2008 to 35,000. The Wall Street Journal declared last month that "driving a car has never been safer." (this statement is true only if you ignore the fact that Americans today are forced to drive more miles than they have been before).

Amidst the constant ratcheting up - faster cars and wider roads necessitate safety improvements which lead to faster cars and wider roads - there is a constant, external variable that often gets left out of the equation: that is, people. Pedestrians do not have airbags or anti-lock brakes installed. They are not now, nor ever have been, enclosed in steel.

Transportation For America just released a new report, Dangerous By Design, assessing the nature of pedestrian deaths in U.S. metropolitan areas. 76,000 people have been killed while walking along or across American roadways in the last decade and a half. According to the report:

"These deaths typically are labeled “accidents,” and attributed to error on the part of motorist or pedestrian. In fact, however, an overwhelming proportion share a similar factor: They 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."
While pedestrians make 9% of all trips in the country and comprise 11.8% of the traffic fatalities, less than 1.5% of all federal transportation funds are spent on improving safety for walking. It should comes as no surprise that the highest proportion of these deaths, in urban areas at least, occur on major arterials, roads designed exclusively to carry large volumes of cars quickly. 41% of all deaths happen in places where no crosswalk is even available.

While some people choose to walk, many others do not. They are either too young to legally drive or too old to be behind the wheel. They don't have enough money to buy a car. They have epilepsy or they are in a wheelchair. What does it say about us as a society that the most vulnerable road users, and those least able to inflict harm upon others, are not cared for to the same degree as the rest of us.

The report recommends four federal policy actions to reduce the number of preventable deaths:
  1. A national Complete Streets policy, a piece of legislation that is already included in a proposed transportation bill reauthorization package
  2. Increase in the current Safe Routes to School program
  3. A Fair share of federal funds given to pedestrians for safety
  4. Federal accountability measures to ensure that states spend funds as they are intended


Eric Orozco said...

A recent trip to the suburbs was pretty depressing to me. I saw a surprising amount of pedestrians on the shoulders. Despite the fact that there are no sidewalks, no crosswalks, and berms and swales strategically designed & landscaped to ignore the pedestrian, people were out there by necessity. It must be a totally disempowering experience for them.

Thankfully, I live in a city that is trying to change things. My latest suburban thoroughfare project in Charlotte has a section with sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides, one side in fact has a 10'-0" wide multi-purpose trail. Amazing things are happening as more and more local municipalities adopt complete streets policies.

Daniel said...

Eric, I just read this morning that Charlotte is one of five U.S. cities that are making great strides in pedestrian safety. Good to hear to confirm this ...

Judge Glock said...

First of all, people are not "forced" to drive more than ever before. Last year VMT dropped significantly.

Second, while part of the decline in traffic fatalities is due to the drop in VMT, more is due to continuing improvement of road conditions. With millions more drivers and millions more miles driven, traffic fatalities have dropped consistently from a recent high of 43,000 in 2002 to around 37,000 last year, and that dropped occurred during years of both increased and decreased driving.


Daniel said...

"people are not "forced" to drive more than ever before. Last year VMT dropped significantly."

Right, but I purposely didn't add the word "ever" to account for the recession drop in VMT. It's worth noting that 2008 was the first drop in many years, and the WSJ statement is technically not true if you account for VMT per person increases since the 1970's.

As far as "forced" goes, I suppose there is some recreational driving that goes on, but I assume most people would rather be doing something else with their time.

"more is due to continuing improvement of road conditions."

I'm not sure how you know that it's more, but yes, I mentioned that safety improvements to roadways and vehicles have benefited drivers. These are good things. But pedestrians have not been benefited. Per trip pedestrian fatality rates have shown no improvement during this same period. That's my point - the disparity between safety measures being used for these two road users.

Judge Glock said...

The WSJ statement about driving being safer than ever is true especially if you consider the increase in VMT per person. As they say, there were 1.19 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in 2008, versus 1.46 per million miles traveled in 2005. This is a significant drop, but it only continues the almost constant improvements in driving safety over the past century. As this DOT document shows, the rate used to be as high as 8 deaths per 100 million miles in the 1950s, and 6 deaths per 100 million in the 1960s. The roads keep getting safer.


And I'm sorry, I didn't mean to write that all or most of this improvement was due simply to road construction. Obviously it comes from everything from safer cars, to safer roads, to safer, more risk-conscious, more sober drivers.

But you would say that these safety improvements are swamped by the increase in VMT per capita, and that has certainly increased significantly over the years, from around 3,000 VMT per capita in the 1950s to around 10,000 today. But actually the safety improvements have swamped both the increase in VMT and the increase in population. Today there are fewer fatalities on the road than there were in 1995 when there were 25 million fewer licensed drivers driving 600 billion fewer miles. There were 40,000 deaths then as opposed to 37,000 now.


Back in 1980 with even fewer drivers and fewer miles there were over 50,000 deaths.


Again, much, much safer.

And pedestrian fatalities have declined significantly too, from about 5,500 in the mid-1990s to 4,500 today, and that is a nice, gradual decline unrelated to the recent recession. Unless you can claim that pedestrian trips have dropped by almost 20% in that time period, than fatalities per pedestrian trip have declined significantly as well, even faster than automobile fatalities.

It's another debate whether people want to spend that much time driving their cars over the course of the year, but I have to say that mobility is a positive good on its own and the alternatives to auto-mobility take even more time. The average transit commuter spends around 45 minutes a day getting to work versus 25 minutes for the average driver. And Americans, because of our auto-mobility, have significantly shorter commutes than the rest of the industrialized world.


This of course coming from someone who doesn't own a car and has biked to work for the past two years.

Daniel said...

Definitely, there have been real safety improvements made across the boards, and I'm thinking now that my post didn't offer enough recognition of this. Safety engineers have it tough, because it's impossible to look at 35,000 fatalities and rest on your laurels. But, you're right, that improvements need to be acknowledged.

Other factors also need to be considered when measuring fatality rates through time : general improvements in health care (fatality rates have dropped in all activities because of this), more awareness and stiffer laws over alcohol and driving, an aging population (presumably more risk-adverse). All this to say that we would expect to see drops in fatalities irregardless of design/land use considerations.

It's worth noting that pedestrian and cyclist fatalities have shown an equally pronounced decrease (or even more so) in European countries, in particular the Netherlands, over the same period of time. And they have approached their infrastructure quite differently.


Still, since 1950 the per capita VMT in the US has more than tripled and the per VMT deaths have been cut in about a third. That pretty much breaks even - if we're considering the overall safety of being a human and navigating through life. So while VMT increases may have not "swamped" the safety improvements, they've certainly offset those improvements considerably, especially considering the overall progress we would expect to see anyway.

Eric Orozco said...

Interesting counterpoints, Judge. It is true that personal mobility has increased for most. While numbers are interesting to log overall progress, keep in mind that it is the disadvantaged groups that are suffering with pedestrian fatalities, as Daniel's post mentions, because of land use and site access decisions (not necessarily traffic engineering decisions). Mobility is simply the ability to access goods and services. That is an issue for land use policy as well as transportation policy.

But...as long as we're talking figures, chew on these:

The US spends 12% of its GDP on transportation. European countries average 8%. Meanwhile, Western Europeans actually spend BOTH less time commuting in traffic than we do AND have proportionately less traffic fatalities than we do. Is there any bearing here on the fact that European economies are proving resilient as they weather the recession?

...Perhaps not, but we need to only see the people walking on the side of our arterials, and the foreclosure signs in the cul-de-sacs, to begin to learn about some of the consequences of poorly thought out land use and transportation strategies.

Bob Giordano said...

the time component of mobility should include all the time to work to make the money to buy and maintain the car. some studies have shown that the real speed of a car is thus around 11mph, slower than a bike in many cases...

-Bob Giordano, Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation

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