If you build it, they will come.
That’s been the philosophy behind many efforts to expand biking and walking access across the country, as cities have debuted new bike sharing services, built “complete streets” and added protected bike lanes.
But those efforts, apparently, have come at a price.
While many communities have seen a rise in the number of residents biking to work, automobile collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists represent a growing portion traffic fatalities and injuries, according to a recent report from U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The situation represents a harsh reality for both governments and advocates who’ve encouraged Americans to drive less and walk and bike more. While they’ve been successful with that push, it’s been accompanied by a growing percentage of road deaths and injuries among those who eschew automobiles.
From 2004 to 2013, the number of total traffic fatalities in the U.S. actually declined. But according to the report, “this was not matched by a similar decline in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.” So, for example, pedestrian fatalities were 10.9 percent of all traffic deaths in 2004. By 2013, they represented 14.5 percent of traffic deaths. The proportion of cyclists’ deaths rose from 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent during that time. The percentage of injuries for both groups also increased.
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The report singles out a few factors contributing to the trend, including the overall increase in the number of pedestrians and cyclists, distraction among road users and the design of roadways themselves.
The GAO report found that most of the fatal pedestrian or bicyclist accidents involve men in urban areas. And more of the accidents occurred between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. than during any other period. Other investigations have shown that it’s even riskier to be a pedestrian in a poor neighborhood, which tend to have disproportionately high rates of fatal accidents.
Despite the trend, Susan Fleming, director of the GAO’s physical infrastructure division, said there’s hope. She said both federal and local government agencies are working toward better (and safer) roadway designs. She also highlighted several comprehensive efforts in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York that focus on everything from education to engineering to keep pedestrians and bicyclists safe.
“I actually don’t think we found too many gaps,” she said in an interview. “There obviously are some key challenges that we highlight: prioritization, having the data, the engineering, whether there are bike or pedestrian facilities. But [the U.S. Department of Transportation] really has taken steps that may be addressing these challenges.”
Better planning, but challenges persist
Even though the GAO study didn’t dwell on street design, many advocacy groups and transportation organizations have already begun to think about the importance of engineering to safety.
Smart Growth America investigated the link between street engineering and pedestrian and bicyclist safety in its 2014 Dangerous by Design report. Using data from 2003 to 2012, the report ranked the most dangerous places to walk, using a Pedestrian Danger Index calculated from the total number of pedestrian deaths, the annual number of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people and the percentage of people commuting by foot.
Four Florida cities top the list: Orlando-Kissimmee, Tampa-St.Petersburg-Clearwater, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano. The Houston metropolitan area ranked as the seventh most dangerous for pedestrians, with more than 1,000 fatalities between 2003 and 2012. Atlanta ranked right below Houston.
The report ties much of the danger to a mismatch between streets and users. In transportation planning, explained the report, moving automobiles through the city at fast speeds has long been the priority. "At the same time, however, these arterials have become the Main Streets of our communities, and now typically are flanked by apartment complexes, shopping centers and office parks," the report noted. "Design guidelines do provide some flexibility, but too often the needs of people and communities have been secondary concerns or simply left out of the process entirely.”
Various transportation organizations have been updating design standards in recent years to prioritize pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Smart Growth America notes in its report, for example, that the Institute of Transportation Engineers created a guide to "walkable urban thoroughfares." And the Federal Highway Administration added safer street crossing designs in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The federal Department of Transportation has made safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities part of its policy. "Almost every transportation improvement is an opportunity to enhance the safety and convenience of walking and bicycling," reads the policy.
Funding, however remains a persistent problem. Most pedestrian fatalities, some 68 percent between 2003 and 2012, occurred on roads funded at least in part by the federal government, according to Smart Growth America's findings, and these roads followed federal design guidelines. At the same time, however, the report found that "less than one-half of one percent of all available federal safety related funds was obligated to projects that improve safety for people walking,” between 2009 and 2013.
At the same time, cities are trying to proactively address the challenge on their own.
In Atlanta, for example, the city is working to double its mileage of bike lanes, improve its rating with the League of American Bicyclists and launch its own bike share. Those efforts as critical to creating a bikeable, walkable Atlanta safe for all road users, said Becky Katz, chief bicycle officer for Atlanta.
“Yes we have this auto-centric mentality and we do expect to drive everywhere,” Katz said, “but can’t we also expect to be able to safely bike everywhere?”
Atlanta faces many of the challenges laid out in the GAO’s report. For example, it wasn’t doing a great job of counting how many people were biking or walking regularly outside of the commuter counts done as part federal survey. “Now we’re doing a lot more baselining,” Katz said. “If a new project is happening, we should always do the bike counts.”
Thanks to a $250 million transportation bond approved last year, Atlanta has citywide funding for a variety of projects, many of which are safety related. “It ensured that every council district in the city is getting improvements and a lot of them are safety improvements; sidewalk extensions, filling in sidewalks, complete streets projects,” Katz said.
Atlanta has also made the idea of connecting communities a priority, according to Katz. Money from the bond for safety and other improvements has been evenly distributed between districts. The city also included safeguards ensuring equitable distribution of resources in the contract for its coming bike share program.
The city has also looked for opportunities to partner with state agencies on safety efforts. “The state is planning on resurfacing many of the roads they own inside the city in the next five years,” said Katz, “so we feel like right now is a major opportunity.” One of the city’s major thoroughfares, Ponce de Leon Avenue, benefitted from a recent collaboration with the state’s transportation department. “They were resurfacing it and we said, we all agree this is an important corridor with a high amount of crashes for all modes,” Katz said, “We need to do safety improvements.” The department agreed and installed buffered bike lanes, improved pedestrian crossings and installed sheltered bus stops. “It was more predictable,” she said. “Now everybody’s role is a little bit more clear.” The thoroughfare has also seen a 25 percent reduction in automobile crashes, according to Katz.
Atlanta isn’t the only traditionally car-centric city looking to encourage safer biking and walking. Continuing his support for multimodal transportation, Houston’s new mayor Sylvester Turner has put his support behind an ambitious new bike plan that would increase the city’s connectivity. Speaking to a crowd of trails and transit supporters in March, Turner said biking and walking were crucial to Houston’s future. He also highlighted the dangers bikers and pedestrians still face.
“Just between 2010 and 2014, we had 25 bike related fatalities in the city of Houston,” Turner said. “It is unfortunate, it is unacceptable, and so we need to do something better.”
The proposed plan – which the city is still soliciting input on – would not only increased connectivity between existing bike infrastructure but also make safer bike lanes. “We have a lot of unsafe lanes,” said Mary Blitzer, community and government affairs manager with BikeHouston, a funding partner of the plan. “Bike lanes that shouldn’t be there, and bike lanes where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour and people are going faster than that.” BikeHouston estimates that the city currently has 259 miles of “high comfort” bikeways – those most children and adults would be willing to use – with only 38 of those miles on streets. The plan would triple that to 793 miles in the next 5 to 10 years. The plan also includes short-term projects – striping and painting – that would quickly cover 328 miles of the city’s bike infrastructure.
Supporters hope those lower cost, smaller changes will be a palatable start. “We have the plan, and this is probably the right choice politically right now, (but) the plan does not commit any money to the projects,” said Blitzer.
Turner has expressed his support but Houston faces a cultural inertia that can be hard to change. In the name of congestion relief, voters approved two propositions in recent years that dedicated funds solely for highways as the fix.
Still, Blitzer is encouraged by the direction the city is headed. “Every new mile that’s thousands more people that are out riding and bringing the interest,” she said.