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The Keys to Designing Cities With Fewer Traffic Fatalities

Reduce urban sprawl, for one thing.

The Harajuku Bridge, a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. (Wally Gobetz / Flickr)

What do Tokyo, Stockholm, London, Paris, Berlin, and Hong Kong have in common? They’re among the safest cities in the world when it comes to reported traffic fatalities.

Tokyo, a city of more than 13 million, has 1.3 such deaths per 100,000 residents. London, home to more than 8.6 million people, reports just 1.6 traffic deaths per 100,000. In Hong Kong, population 7.2 million, the figure is just 1.8 per 100,000.

According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, “Cities Safer by Design,” these numbers are no accident (so to speak). They’re the result of identifiable design patterns and practices. Those design strategies, the report argues, should serve as a model for cities around the globe.

Traffic deaths—especially in and around cities—are emerging as one of the critical public health problems of the 21st century. Already, 1.24 million people around the world die in motor vehicle crashes every year. Among people age 15 to 29, who should have many years of health and productivity ahead of them, traffic crashes are the leading cause of death. For children age 5 to 14, crashes are the second-leading cause. Pedestrians and cyclists account for more than a quarter of those killed on roads. And as urban populations boom and motor vehicles proliferate, researchers project that by 2030, crashes will be the fifth-leading cause of death for the general population.

So what can be done to reverse the trend? The WRI report writers point to a number of design measures that have proven effective in cities around the world:

  • Keep cities compact. When sprawl development rather than compact urban design becomes the norm, so does car travel. Short block lengths, as well as concentrated housing and business districts, allow easy, walkable access to public transit and reduce dependence on personal motor vehicles. Sprawl does the opposite, with deadly effects. Consider Atlanta, a notoriously sprawling city. At 9.7 deaths per 100,000 people, its traffic-fatality rate is three times that of far denser New York City (3.2 per 100,000).
  • Reduce traffic speeds. The faster drivers are going, the more likely they are to kill or gravely injure anyone they might hit. The report suggests traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps, raised pedestrian crossings, and sidewalk extensions to slow cars in urban areas.
  • Create streets that are for people, not just cars. Pedestrian islands, wide sidewalks, plazas and bike lanes are all part of an environment that reduces the primacy of the automobile—as well as fatalities.
  • Make public transportation safe, affordable, and convenient. Because then people will use it. The report cites the example of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which recently launched a bus-rapid transit system, complete with rebuilt streets designed to make walking to the stations safe. It now carries 700,000 passengers a day. According to the report, systems such as this one can cut traffic death and catastrophic injuries from crashes in half.
  • Use data mapping techniques to identify problem spots and target design fixes. With modern data-collection capacity, analyzing patterns of danger becomes much easier, allowing officials to put resources into the intersections and streets that pose the greatest risk to citizens.

“Cities and streets can be designed to protect lives, or they stick with status quo policies that endanger hundreds of millions of people, in cities large and small,” said WRI’s Ani Dasgupta in a statement. “This research makes a strong case that strategic design and evidence-based measures can better protect those lives.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear
    Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.