Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
One city council member says it's time to stop blaming the victims and start addressing the real problem: car-friendly design.
So far this year, 32 people walking on the streets of Dallas have been hit and killed by people driving. That’s as many as were killed in all of 2014, when the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metro area ranked as the 12th most dangerous in the U.S. on the 2014 Smart Growth America Pedestrian Danger Index.
For Philip Kingston, a member of the Dallas City Council, the pedestrian toll is more than just a number. It’s a practical problem, and it shows up in his office in a very upsetting way, which is why he asked Dallas police and the Department of Street Services for a briefing on the subject.
“People who have been killed, their moms come to me,” says Kingston. “And they cry.”
In the September briefing on the uptick in pedestrian deaths, 24 of the 32 fatal crashes were attributed to “pedestrian failure to yield.” Kingston says he doesn’t like the way that phrasing frames the issue. “I didn’t appreciate that language,” he says. “As a society, the rule is you don’t kill pedestrians and that’s a pretty good one.” He sees a need to reassess the way streets are designed, rather than chalking the deaths up to “pedestrian error.”
“Blame the pedestrian all you want,” he says. “You’re just going to end up with more fatalities.”
Kingston says that in his central Dallas district there are more people walking and riding bicycles all the time. “It’s the result of urbanization,” he says. “We’re simply having more conflicts with motor traffic.” Street design, however, is not necessarily keeping up with that reality. People often cross mid-block because crosswalks are too far apart. Drivers often travel in excess of the speed limit. Lighting is sometimes inadequate.
In other districts with high rates of pedestrian fatalities, Kingston says, the problem is different. Many residents in those less affluent neighborhoods don’t own cars, and must travel on foot to get to work and run errands. But the streets they live near—many of them six-lane arterials—aren’t designed for people outside of cars.
“The really tragic part about it is that the two areas where we’ve had the most pedestrian fatalities, these are disinvested, depopulated areas,” he says. “Those big arterials are completely unnecessary. It’s so overbuilt. The infrastructure is built for a bygone era that simply doesn’t match what’s there now.” What’s there now, he says, are people who are traveling by foot. “There are a lot of poor people, people with no cars,” says Kingston. “So there’s a social justice angle.”
The question for Kingston is: How is Dallas going to deal with the problem? In the briefing, Dallas police and the Department of Street Services outlined plans for short-term fixes like more visible crosswalks and safety education for all road users. Kingston says that’s a good start, but he believes a more systemic rethink of the city’s streets is necessary.
He says he doesn’t have the answers—his job as a council member, he emphasizes, is to identify issues and look to the appropriate city departments to devise solutions. Change won’t be easy to achieve, he says, and it is unlikely to come quickly. “The bigger, long-term strategic solution is better design of our public spaces,” he says. “That’s going to take a long time and a lot of money.”
And yet, Kingston says, the increase in pedestrian fatalities is a nuts-and-bolts problem that will have to be faced head-on. “City government, for me, is not a great place for ideology,” the council member says. “It’s highly pragmatic. All I’m trying to go is have fewer people die on the roads. It’s a pretty simple goal.”