Walking is a great way to exercise and, for many, a necessary mode of transportation — but in parts of car-centric Baltimore County it could also get you killed.
One area in the county tops the national list of pedestrian traffic deaths according to a new report. Released by Governing earlier this month, the paper addresses walker fatalities in neighborhoods with at least 3,000 people and says that “poorer neighborhoods record significantly higher per-capita pedestrian death rates.”
But Governing used data from 2008 to 2012, and the number of traffic deaths in Baltimore County keeps rising. Twenty-two pedestrians died in collisions in 2013 according to the Baltimore Sun, and so far in 2014, 11 have lost their lives. With around 400 non-fatal crashes a year, ABC reported in June that County responders deal with at least one car-to-person collision every day. Crashes are concentrated in three unincorporated areas according to the news station: Merritt Boulevard in Dundalk (near the focus of the Governing study), York Road in Towson and Liberty Road in Randallstown.
Officials trying to curb this alarming trend have organized awareness campaigns — for walkers. According to the county’s Walk Safe program, 80 percent of walker-car crashes result from “pedestrian error.”
But what — pedestrians ask — about drivers? What about the county’s freeway-centric layout? What about streets without sidewalks and bus stops hundreds of feet from the nearest crosswalk?
“I think they’re blaming the victim,” says Allysha Lorber, a Towson resident and member of the county’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee. “It’s true that there are instances where pedestrians are at fault — looking at their cell phones or wandering into the street — but many are just making difficult decisions faced with poor options.”
“Pedestrian Error” is even a Twitter account. “Responsible for at least 80 percent of the #jaydriving, #jayplanning & #jayengineering in Baltimore County,” its description states.
The majority of motorists care about pedestrian & cyclist lives exactly as much as the engineers who designed the street they’re on.
— Pedestrian Error (@PedestrianError) August 21, 2014
Baltimore County surrounds the city. It has its own government and its suburban areas are technically census-designated places instead of incorporated towns. Though the city has historically had higher rates of pedestrian crashes, more tend to be fatal in the county because drivers zip down wide suburban corridors at high speeds.
Lorber, also an urban planner, describes the county’s design, which she says is not at all walker-friendly. Radial freeways — “like rays of the sun from the center of the city” — extend into the county clustered with development. But like so many suburban areas, pedestrian infrastructure is a patchwork.
A runner, she recounts it from the ground.
“There are a lot of areas where the choice is to be in the roadway or in the grass or a mud path,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a sidewalk but often it’s bumpy or has poles sticking out of it or is overgrown with vegetation. There aren’t a lot of crosswalks, and pedestrians are everywhere.”
And in the census tract studied by Governing — a working-class suburb with a mall, low-income housing and lots of big-box stores — that’s a recipe for disaster.
Heather Strassberger was the pedestrian, bicycle, and human services transportation planner for Baltimore Metropolitan Council, until she quit in 2013. She calls the area’s layout an environmental justice issue.
“Eastpoint Mall is the major feature of that census tract,” she says. Walker deaths come from people crossing the road not just to shop, but also to work at the mall.
“It’s a transitional area right between the city and the beltway,” she says. “More affluent areas have gotten retrofits, and that’s one the of issues. If you’re working two jobs to make ends meet, you’re least able to participate in public meetings.”
Strassberger points to several other county-specific factors. Towson is home to Towson College, so students contribute to that area’s fatalities. And in Randallstown, a primarily black suburb in a primarily white suburban region, racial biases could also be at play. She cites research by Portland State University that found motorists yielded more frequently to white walkers than black walkers, and says in Randallstown, drivers granting right-of-way to pedestrians even in crosswalks has been a problem.
With all of that in mind, Strassberger also feels that “pedestrian error” as a measure of traffic fatalities is lacking.
“The determination of fault happens for civil liability — whether the drivers’ insurance company is paying,” she says. “That doesn’t allow for the officer to determine that both users are doing the best they can on an imperfect road and that the road wasn’t designed very well. It doesn’t cover the whole picture.”
Also the determination comes partly from the motorist’s word against the pedestrian’s and — in the case of fatal accidents — the walker is dead.
Strassberger says the county’s resistance to change influenced her decision to leave the Baltimore Metropolitan Council last year. She’s now a professor at Towson University.
“It’s a challenge to tell people that the way we’re traveling is not sustainable and we have to make changes to the status quo,” she says. “We can have high-speed mobility or livable communities but not both.”
In Baltimore County, you can try to walk — if you’re transit-dependent, you may even need to walk. But for now, as death rates rise, you do it at your own risk.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian