September 20, 2021

Designing Pedestrian Safety

Post by: Kali Breheny, Proposal Manager

Drivers have a responsibility to share the road, making sure they stay aware and give the right of way to other vehicles, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. However, this is not always easy – how many times have you had a cyclist wizz by you when they have no real bike path, or a pedestrian making questionable moves along the shoulder in the absence of any side-walks or crossings?

Most sites where pedestrian deaths happen are on roads that were never intended for people to walk on or cross. Angie Schmitt, the author of “Right of Way: Race, class and the silent epidemic of pedestrian death in America” makes a striking point saying that “pedestrian deaths are a design problem,” Schmitt notes. “Certain streets are designed to kill.” 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2019, 6,205 pedestrians died in traffic crashes, up from 4,414 in 2008. That’s equal to a full Boeing 747 crashing every month. This is entirely unacceptable – so, what is the solution to this tragic ‘design problem’? 

Transforming our cities and roadways to become more people friendly will not be a simple task that can be accomplished overnight – though some places have recently made strides. 

Throughout the pandemic, outdoor space has been a precious commodity. Allowing people to travel about freely and safely has moved up in the list of priorities for many cities around the United States. (As car travel is baked into our culture and urban planning, we don’t often get to experience the exemplary public transit or bike infrastructure from other countries around the world.)

Many have now implemented Open Street programs, which temporarily open streets to people by closing them to cars. Oakland banned cars from 74 miles of streets, which is 10% of the entire city. New York City banned cars from 67 miles. Other cities have followed with similar bans of varying size and scope. While these initiatives have promoted safety by removing cars from the equation, this is a relatively short term fix; our cities were built for cars. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis specifically designed for the automobile. Too large to traverse on foot (in any reasonable amount of time at least), and far too few bike lanes to venture around on two wheels, most citizens are in possession of a car and the landscape of the city reflects that. 

While it might be difficult to imagine car-free streets in LA, there are other cities that have tackled this issue. It all boils down to a shift in focus in urban planning and design. 

For example, in Barcelona they have introduced superblocks. These blocks are an innovative concept that transforms a large area of mainly vehicular traffic into mixed usage spaces.

This approach is part of the trend of New Urbanism, which is an intentional style of planning that shifts the layout in order to promote connected communities that are walkable and more sustainable.

How can we take these lessons and apply them here? Here are three action items for a safer, more pedestrian friendly future: 

1. Infrastructure investments:

Installing modern street lights and signage that illuminate the road properly, as well as alert oncoming drivers to pedestrians is a first step.

2. Planning efforts

More protected walkways, including wider sidewalks and designated crossing areas could be a good start. In the long term, urban planners need to consider the pedestrian over vehicles in their design and planning efforts. 

3. Socio-economic barriers 

Historically, lower income neighborhoods have been subject to major upheaval as infrastructure projects plowed through their communities. Subsequently, less resources were allocated to these areas and today, we find many to be in a state of disrepair. We need to recognize the lasting negative effects of these policies and make concerted efforts to invest and rebuild. 

As Gabby Birenbaum writes in her article “How to end the American obsession with driving,” “Reducing traffic alone doesn’t make biking and walking safer; the streets themselves need to be redesigned with safety in mind.” Policy shifts from the top down will be required to introduce any substantial, lasting change. It is up to our federal, state, and local governments to incentivize behaviors and transportation patterns that better serve us all. 

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