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Mean Streets

Pedestrian Safety and Reform of the Nation's Transportation Law

Tuesday, April 1, 1997

Mean Streets

Pedestrian Safety and Reform of the Nation's Transportation Law

View and Download our full report here: Mean Streets

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year to make America’s roads safer, yet this investment is failing to ensure the safety of all of us who engage in the most basic form of transportation — walking. Millions of Americans walk — to school, to work, to the store, or just around the block for a little bit of exercise. Our findings indicate that from 1986 to 1995, approximately 6,000 pedestrians were killed by automobiles each year, and more than 110,000 were injured. This carnage is attributable only in part to individual misjudgment — a failure to “look both ways” as children are taught. These deaths and injuries are also the consequences of a transportation system gone badly wrong — a system focused on making the streets safe for cars instead of making communities safe for people. Indeed, people are 1.6 times more likely to get killed by a car while walking than they are to be shot and killed by a stranger with a gun.

In Mean Streets, we analyzed the failures of this system, taking a close look at pedestrian fatalities, and spending on our streets, roads and highways —the billions of dollars spent each year that frequently makes the roads less safe for pedestrians.

Thousands of Pedestrians Are Killed Each Year by Automobiles

  • Between 1986 and 1995, approximately 6,000 pedestrians died every year in the United States after being hit by cars. This is a significant public health and safety problem — the equivalent of a commercial airline crash with no survivors every two weeks. And for every pedestrian who is killed by an automobile, almost 20 more are injured — more than 110,000 pedestrians are injured by automobiles each year.

Highway Safety Money Is Not Being Used To Protect Pedestrians

  • Pedestrians account for 14 percent of all motor vehiclerelated deaths, yet only 1 percent of federal highway safety funds are spent on pedestrian safety1 (Figure 1). The remaining 99 percent is spent on automotive safety measures (such as road widening ) that typically remove the obstacles to more rapid traffic flow. The Highway Capacity Manual — one of the industry bibles — provides the typical highway engineer’s definition of a pedestrian: a traffic “flow interruption.” Traffic safety features are designed primarily to allow drivers to move at higher speeds. This basic tenet of highway engineering often makes roads more dangerous for pedestrians.

Senior Citizens Are At The Highest Risk

  • Senior citizens (persons age 65 and over) comprise 13 percent of the population, but account for 23 percent of all pedestrian fatalities — meaning that seniors are almost twice as likely to be killed by an automobile as members of the general public. As a group, senior citizens are particularly dependent on safe streets for walking because many of them no longer drive.

Most Fatalities Occur On Neighborhood Streets

  • More than half — 55 percent — of all pedestrian deaths by automobiles occur on neighborhood streets. The problem is not that pedestrians are walking in the wrong places, but that our local streets are becoming speedways — designed to accommodate more cars passing through, not the people who live, walk, and play in their communities.

The Most Dangerous Cities For Walking

The high rate of pedestrian fatalities is a national problem. In some communities however, the problem is worse than most. In this report, for the first time, we present a list of the most dangerous communities in which to walk.

The cities with the largest numbers of walkers — New York, for example, will have the most pedestrian fatalities. This does not always mean, however, that cities like New York are the most dangerous places to walk relative to the number of people walking.

The most dangerous metropolitan areas for walkers tend to be newer, sprawling, southern and western communities, where transportation systems are most biased toward the car at the expense of other transportation options. Among large metropolitan areas (those with populations of one million or more) the five most dangerous communities in which to walk are Ft. Lauderdale, FL., Miami, FL, Atlanta, GA, Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fl., and Dallas, TX. The safest walking communities are Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Boston, New York City, and Rochester, NY (Table 1). In these metropolitan areas, walking activity is high, but there are relatively few fatalities. Our findings indicate that is eleven times more dangerous to walk in Ft. Lauderdale than it is to walk in Pittsburgh.

The Solution: Making Our Streets Safe For People

Solutions to make our streets safer for pedestrians are well understood, but too seldom implemented. Indeed, some communities have demonstrated how to reduce pedestrian death and injuries. The key to improving pedestrian safety is to attack the problem at its source, and reduce hazards by improving poorly designed roadways and transportation systems. For years, traffic engineers have placed the blame on the walker rather than on the motorist or road condition. Instead of blaming pedestrians for being hit by cars, planners and engineers must design communities and roads that are safe for walking. Communities can take a variety of actions designed to make roads safer, including:

  • Traffic calming — The installation of speed bumps, traffic circles or other devices in residential neighborhoods that slow cars down, and ensure that pedestrians are safe.
  • Providing separate walkways and other spaces for pedestrians.
  • Designing public spaces to be more pedestrian friendly — including the installation of sidewalks, handrails for the infirm, bricked crosswalks, and even actions as simple as changing the patterns of the lines on the road.
  • Enhanced public education on pedestrian safety, and adequate enforcement of laws designed to protect pedestrians.

These tools are already making the roads safer for pedestrians in some communities. In Seattle, the city’s traffic calming program reduced pedestrian accidents by more than 75 percent. In Portland, OR, traffic circles reduced the number of reported accidents by 50 percent. These examples clearly indicate that America has the means to make our nation’s streets safer for pedestrians. We lack only the public demand and political resolve to reduce pedestrian injury and death.

Reauthorizing ISTEA - The Nation’s Transportation Law

This year, Congress is poised to reauthorize the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). This legislation will provide over $150 billion for states and communities to spend on their transportation systems — roads, bridges, public transportation, and trails and paths for those who walk and bike. The highway lobby, known as the “road gang” — including road contractors, automobile manufacturers, truckers and even several state Departments of Transportation —␣ is pushing to weaken the legislation, so that money is spent exclusively to build highways, while less is spent to make communities safe for walking and otherwise make America’s transportation system more sustainable.

The Road Lobby’s Efforts To Weaken Transportation Law, Making Streets Less Safe For Pedestrians

The “road gang” is pushing hard for legislation, such as the Highways Only Transportation Efficiency Act (HOTEA) and STEP 21, which would make the existing pedestrian safety problem even worse. These proposals would abolish existing environmental and safety programs, as well as the Enhancements program (which currently provides funding for bicycle and pedestrian activities). In their place would be a program focused on roadbuilding and maintenance that would strongly bias transportation spending towards retrograde emphasis on highway construction.

The Clinton Administration Proposal

The Clinton Administration recently released its ISTEA reauthorization package, which was introduced by Senators Chafee and Moynihan as S. 468. This legislation would maintain the basic structure of current law, while increasing overall funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects (via an increase in funding for the Enhancements program), and measures to promote clean air.

Opportunities To Improve Pedestrian Safety

Pedestrian safety should be recognized as a national transportation safety priority on par with automobile and railroad safety programs. To make our roads safer for walking we recommend that Congress:

(1) Preserve and Strengthen ISTEA’s Current Safety Programs to Better Protect Pedestrians

Congress must adequately fund pedestrian safety activities. Specifically, ISTEA’s safety programs must be improved to

(a) Fund projects that promote pedestrian safety (from the federal safety set-aside program) at a level equivalent to the rate of pedestrian fatalities nationwide (i.e. roughly 14 percent).

(b) Expand the federal safety funding program (ISTEA’s “safety set-aside”) to enhance opportunities for funding safety programs for pedestrians, bicyclists and people with disabilities.

(c) Allow more local control over where and how federal safety funds are spent to ensure that local pedestrian safety and other community transportation priorities are given full consideration.

(d) Continue other federal highway safety programs (S. 402 and 410 of ISTEA) and promote increased public involvement.

(2) Establish A National Goal of Increasing Pedestrian Safety

Congress should establish the goals of DOT’s National Bicycling and Walking Study — a doubling of the percentage of total trips made by biking and walking, while reducing fatalities by 10 percent — as national policy. ISTEA should contain an incentive program for transportation safety based on measurable changes in a state’s per capita fatality rate. A goal and incentive system of this type will create financial incentives for pedestrian safety through a dedicated fund linked to measurable improvements in reductions in accidents and fatalities.

(3) Ensure that Road-Building Projects Don’t Increase Hazards for Pedestrians, including Children, the Elderly and the Disabled

All ISTEA-funded projects should be required to plan for the safe accommodation of pedestrians as well as other vulnerable users of the roadway (bicyclists, children, elderly and the disabled). All too often, past highway safety “improvements” have exactly the opposite effect on pedestrians. In order to remedy this problem, Congress must ensure that all existing and new roads on which pedestrians are permitted are designed and constructed to provide appropriate walking spaces and safety features for pedestrians.

(4) Collect More Accurate and Detailed Data on Pedestrians and Walking

Pedestrian safety efforts are hindered by the widespread lack of reliable and comprehensive data on walking. There is no comprehensive information on miles walked, as there is for vehicle miles traveled. Little is known about how much people walk, why they walk, what other options they have, and how these factors vary with the age of the pedestrian. The reauthorization of ISTEA presents an ideal opportunity to fill this information vacuum by requiring that the U.S. Department of Transportation collect better, more detailed and more accurate data on levels of walking, injury and fatality rates and the relative risks faced by pedestrians.

Note: 1 This includes funding for dedicated pedestrian projects only, such as installing speed bumps, constructing roundabouts (a form of traffic circle), diverting non-local drivers away from local streets, changing pavement surfaces, and narrowing the roadway. It does not include funds for auto safety projects, like traffic signals, that have an incidental effect on pedestrians.

View and Download our full report here: Mean Streets