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The ABCs of Making Streets Safe for Pedestrians

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More than 4,500 pedestrians (see my earlier blog post) are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America.

This is not an inevitable fact of modern life. These deaths are preventable, as shown by the dramatic decline of pedestrian (as well as bicycle and motorist) fatalities in Sweden after they adopted the Vision Zero approach to traffic safety.

The gravest danger to walkers and bicyclists as well as motorists is other motorists who drive dangerously. According to data collected by the New York City Department of Transportation from 2008-2012, "dangerous driver choices" contribute to pedestrian deaths in 70 percent of cases.

As the old saying goes, speed kills. Two landmark studies, one from the US and one from the UK, found that pedestrians are killed:

  • 5 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 20 mph
  • 37-45 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 30 mph
  • 83-85 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 40 mph.

In light of these findings, it's scary to realize that traffic on many if not most American roads travels closer to 40 mph than 20 mph.

"If we could do one switch to make safer streets it would be to reduce car speeds to 20 mph, which would reduce pedestrian fatalities by 90 percent," says Scott Bricker, Executive Director of the America Walks pedestrian advocacy network.

This means more than lowering speed limits. Charlie Zegeer, project manager at the University of North Carolina's authoritative Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) says, "Research shows that lowering a speed limit without other improvements like road design changes or improved police enforcement doesn't work to slow traffic-- it's the roadway design that affects the speed."

Here's a few of practical steps to slow speeds, deter distracted driving and help make walking a safer, comfortable and enjoyable experience for everyone.

--Reduce the number of travel lanes on wide streets wherever possible. Downsizing four-lane suburban and urban streets to two travel lanes with an alternating turn lane in the middle has become a popular trend across the country. Not only does this create safer streets, it lessens noise for residents and creates an opportunity to add sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaping. (This is known as a road diet, lane reduction or 2+1 road.)

--Reduce the width of travel lanes. Wide lanes send an unmistakable message for drivers to speed up.

--Reduce the length of crosswalks. A shorter walk across the street is a safer one. This can be done in a number of ways, but most commonly by extending the sidewalk out into the intersection. (This is known as a curb extension or bulb-out.)

--Add raised medians islands in the middle of busy streets as a refuge for crossing pedestrians. This has been shown to reduce traffic accidents by 56 percent, according to Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities.

--Make crosswalks more visible. Elevate them to curb level (known as speed tables), or mark them with wide swaths of paint.

--Give pedestrians a head start at traffic lights. Five seconds allows pedestrians to enter the crosswalk first and be far more visible to motorists, says Penalosa. Lining up waiting cars a few feet back from the intersection can also be helpful.

--Install traffic circles, roundabouts, speed humps, raised crosswalks and other traffic calming devices, which help motorists drive safely and keep an eye out for pedestrians.

--Strict enforcement of laws against speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, drunk driving and reckless driving. Injuring or killing people with a car is no less tragic than doing it with a gun.

--Establish Safe Routes to Schools campaigns, which bring educators, parents, neighbors and kids themselves together to find safe, satisfying ways for students to walk and bike to school.

"These pedestrian improvements also typically improve motorists' and bicyclists' safety," Zegeer adds. "It's a win-win-win. Everyone's safer."