Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In the U.S., pedestrian fatalities have climbed 35 percent since 2008. And federal traffic safety regulators aren’t at work, thanks to the government shutdown.
The status quo in American road design is claiming more and more lives, according to some transportation safety advocates. The 2019 edition of Dangerous by Design, a recurring report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition, finds that the number of people struck and killed while walking has grown a startling 35 percent since 2008.
There are multiple factors behind this, but the report emphasizes one in particular: overly wide arterials that give too much space to cars and too little to humans. High-speed, multi-lane avenues that underpin sprawling urban growth, as opposed to slower, narrower streets that support walkable neighborhoods, are “consistently linked ... to higher rates of both traffic-related deaths for people walking and traffic-related deaths overall,” it states.
The geography of greatest danger gives some weight to that conclusion. The Sun Belt states of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, and others are home to some of the country’s most spread-out metro areas. And they are among the states with the highest “pedestrian death index,” which measures how deadly it is for people to walk there. The report calculates this metric based on fatality numbers, controlling for population and how many people walk to work, for the years between 2008 and 2017.
By those counts, Florida is by far the most perilous place to walk in America, with a significantly higher state-wide PDI than Alabama, the second-highest state. Eight of the top 10 most dangerous metropolitan areas landed in the Sunshine State. “It sticks out like a sore thumb,” Emiko Atherton, the director of the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, said on a Tuesday conference call. Atherton emphasized Florida’s automobile-oriented development history, combined with its many population centers, as a primary cause for its unusually lethal numbers.
Billy Hattaway, the director of transportation for the city of Orlando, pointed to state and local efforts to enact “Complete Streets” policies in Florida, whereby roads are explicitly designed to protect pedestrians and cyclists with wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and safer crossing areas. It will take years to see these practices become widespread, Hattaway acknowledged. “In time, we’re hoping to see some improvements,” he said.
But the shape of roads and highways alone can’t explain the growing safety risk of walking in America, which has been noted in many other surveys and contexts. Rising vehicle-miles traveled and low gas prices in the post-recession years has been linked to the rising tide of car crashes and pedestrian fatalities. Some researchers has pointed to the popularity of ride-hailing as another explanation for more vehicular mayhem on the streets. Plenty of safety advocates and planners have laid the blame on personal technology. “The thing that has changed is the smartphone revolution,” Mighk Wilson, a transportation planner for Florida’s Orange, Seminole, and Osceola counties, told the Orlando Sentinel last year.
Less publicized, but of great importance, is the kind of vehicle that more drivers are choosing to drive. Nationally, more Americans can be found behind the wheels of ever-more-massive pickup trucks and SUVs—huge, heavy machines that tower over smaller road users. As a Detroit Free Press investigation revealed last year, their proliferation a leading cause of the national escalation of pedestrian deaths in recent years; it’s harder to spot mere humans from the lofty perch of a SUV driver’s seat, and a person’s odds of survival shrink when she’s struck by heavier machinery. And the federal government has long known about this issue, the Free Press found.
Lower fuel prices aren’t the only thing whetting the American appetite for Rams and F-150s. Lenders are also increasingly catering to lower-income consumers that weren’t necessarily able to buy such jumbo-sized models in the past, with dealers giving out more subprime loans and longer loan terms. More Americans have been able to purchase new full-size truck and SUV models since the end of the last recession, and drivers in the Sun Belt are no exception—indeed, the region has some of the highest rates of auto loan delinquency in the nation.
All of this puts plenty of onus on lawmakers who must grapple with infrastructure priorities in 2019.
Arguably, thanks to the refusal by Congress to fund President Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, infrastructure is already a hot topic in 2019. If only the government would reopen, then the real debates over road-and-highway packages—such as the White House’s long-awaited infrastructure bill, which will reportedly get a push this year, and the current federal transportation bill that’s up for reauthorization in 2020—could begin. Atherton closed out the conference call by pressing for reforms to the requirements states must follow in order to receive federal transportation funding. Road safety targets and enforcement regimes should be more aggressive, she argued, and pedestrians and cyclist protections should be included in all new projects. “You can no longer just think of vulnerable users as an add-on,” Atherton said.
What about making vehicles themselves less lethal? That, too, depends largely on the federal government. Citing the link between more full-size vehicles and pedestrian deaths, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had announced plans during the Obama administration to reform its vehicle-rating system to include a pedestrian safety measure. That program was due to roll out in 2018, but it didn’t—one of many examples of a federal agency failing to perform basic regulatory tasks under President Trump. NHTSA told the Free Press in June that it was working on a new pedestrian protection standard.
Right now, the feds are completely silent on the subject of saving pedestrian lives, since NHTSA’s offices have been essentially vacant throughout the month. Among countless other critical responsibilities of the federal government, the entirety of NHTSA’s “vehicle safety activities,” which include rulemaking, enforcement, research, data analysis, and consumer testing programs, are suspended during the ongoing government shutdown.
“When people are not at work, they’re not making progress on those important issues,” said Sarah Wilson, a Washington, D.C.-based partner at the international litigation firm Covington, whose practice focuses on consumer and automotive safety issues. Since the shutdown hasn’t stopped people from driving and walking, America’s roads might be more dangerous than ever.