Can We Stop Killing Cyclists and Pedestrians?

©. April Streeter

In a New Yorker column this week, contributor Samuel G. Freedman describes two recent deaths - in the space of two months – caused by collisions between people biking and people walking.

Freedman wants to remind us, his readers, about "the dangers posed by cyclists," whose numbers have grown dramatically in New York City. The number of commuter bikers has doubled between 2007 and 2011 - nearly 40,000 people in New York commute by bike, and almost 100,000 are members of the CitiBike bicycle sharing programs.

Freeman's column is even-keeled. He says he has no 'animus' toward bicycles in and of themselves. He's owned one himself for the 30 years he's lived in the city.

Yet could a New Yorker writer get approval for a story that talked about one or two of the 156 pedestrians killed by cars in 2013? Traffic fatalities are up overall 5% in New York compared to 2012 and 15% compared to 2011.

Well, maybe not the New Yorker, but a writer at the Village Voice this week did get approval for a story like that – "It's Too Easy to Kill Pedestrians in New York" is its name.

What neither of the two stories really hones in on, however, is one fact that the Swedish traffic authority states plainly in this video: Increased traffic means more death, to people in cars, on bikes, and on foot.

In most cities, increased traffic = increased cars and trucks, and increased driving. Globally, traffic fatalities are still climbing steeply in places where new car sales are also climbing.

So it seems that if we really want to stop killing people in traffic, we need to recognize that the entire system needs to be modified, rather than implying, as Freedman seems to, that if cyclists weren't increasing death by traffic would magically abate.

The best, most effective change to lowering deaths - at least in city traffic - is reducing speed limits to 20 miles per hour. That should include cyclists, of course. It's not the only thing that needs to be done, but it really does help reduce fatalities, according to numerous studies.

So the answer to the question of whether we can stop killing people in traffic is a qualified yes.

Sweden, which has for many years (since 1997) had a 'Vision Zero' goal of reducing road deaths to none is getting ever closer to that goal, though miles driven continues to rise. Yet if Sweden's example of what it has done - looked at and built infrastructure with a 'safety first' mindset - is what has contributed to the lowered number of fatalities, the rest of the world has a long way to go. We seem to put cars first, and seem to assume that the deaths that result are the price to pay for mobility.