I’ve been working my way through Transportation for America’s new report, “Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods)”, and it’s just packed with helpful information and reasons why we should push for Complete Streets instead of the usual automobile arterials.
The driving message behind the report is that the physical shape a neighborhood takes has a direct effect on the safety of its members. So, for example, we see much higher rates of pedestrian traffic fatalities along fast-moving, multi-lane roads that make little to no accommodation to walkers than we see along narrow urban streets with parked cars, trees, and sidewalks on each side. Now this may seem pretty intuitive, but the point T4A is trying to make here is that the shape of our developments has a measurable impact on people’s lives. If we want to promote a more active lifestyle in which some trips traditionally made by car are instead done on foot or by bicycle, then we need to change the way we build our neighborhoods. In particular, we need to stop building series of cul-de-sacs connected only by an arterial road or highway. According to the report, a full 56% of all pedestrian traffic fatalities occur along such roadways because they rarely have continuous sidewalks, cross walks, crossing signals or other design elements meant to ensure pedestrian safety.
But what the report also showed was that people actually want to walk and cycle more than they currently do. All we need to do is offer the proper facilities that make walking and cycling safe activities, and people will take advantage of them. This speaks to a larger truth when planning a build-out of transportation infrastructure, namely that people will use whatever transportation facilities they deem most convenient and they will use them to capacity. This is why building roads doesn’t alleviate traffic conditions: as soon as the new asphalt is laid, it fills up with people who had previously disinclined to drive because of traffic. Likewise, when you build pedestrian, cycling or public transit facilities instead of expanding roadways, people will switch their modes of travel to take advantage of the new-found convenience and the system will balance itself out. This will happen whether or not the general culture surrounding transportation. We wont suddenly turn Cleveland into Copenhagen, but we can grab the low-hanging fruit here, those who would like to pursue alternate means of transportation but don’t now have the option, which is an important first step.
Which makes it even more of a shame that states aren’t spending their transportation dollars on active-transportation infrastructure. According to the report, “less than 1.5% of funds authorized under the federal transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, have been allocated for projects to improve the safety of walking and bicycling.” That sad fact remains despite the fact that “pedestrians comprise 11.8% of all traffic deaths and trips on foot account for almost 9% of total trips.” In fact, no state spends more than 5% of federal transportation funds on pedestrian or cycling facilities even though federal transportation funding has increased by 30% since SAFETEA-LU was passed back in 2005. All of which makes me think there has to be some pretty serious resistance to this kind of development on the state and local level. But on the flip side, the money’s there — we just need to make sure we have elected officials who are interested in spending that cash for smart development.