Two Transportation Tragedies Show How It Is Time to Put Pedestrians First

©. Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

On National Walking Day, a look at how putting cars first kills people who walk and drive.

National Walking Day was started by the American Heart Association as a way of promoting healthy hearts, but all the good achieved through that exercise might be offset by the thousands of walking people who get killed every year. That’s why good pedestrian walking infrastructure is so important -- so that people can walk safely, comfortably, and not worry about being hit by drivers in cars.

When I lecture on Sustainable Design at Ryerson University, I try to keep the topic current, so this week, when I was talking about urban design, I started with a slide of the collapse of the Florida International University pedestrian bridge being built with shiny new fast bridge building, and of the the shiny new Uber Autonomous Vehicle killing Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. I thought both were examples of how people who walk are pushed off the roads by the people who drive and who are in charge of the roads and infrastructure.

I was not alone in making that connection; in Governing Magazine, on the day I was doing my lecture, Daniel Vock wrote about how Transportation Tragedies Shine Light on Pedestrian Infrastructure Needs. He notes that they both “have shined a light on the challenges of deploying new infrastructure technologies.”

But the two incidents also highlighted something else, according to many safety advocates: the inadequacies of legacy designs when it comes to pedestrians.

Uber car

Uber car after crash/Video screen capture

Looking at the Uber crash, Vock quotes Linda Daily of NACTO:

“It does point out that the roadways there are designed for unsafe speeds for pedestrians. It’s a remnant of the highway and mini-highway era, where engineers set speed limits as high as possible and pedestrian crossings are viewed as slowing down traffic,” she says.

But people tend not to walk 500 feet to the nearest crosswalk, particularly since most have learned that it probably isn’t even that much safer.

“We have to engineer for actual human behavior. There are no hardware or software upgrades for actual human beings.”
Bridge collapse

© Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When I wrote about the Uber crash, a commenter wondered, “Where's a pedestrian bridge when you need one?” But in most cases, pedestrian bridges don’t get built to protect pedestrians; they exist to help traffic move faster, with no pesky pedestrian crossings to slow down cars. They make the people walking climb stairs, which is inconvenient and sometimes difficult, so they then have to line the road with fences. As Miami architect Victor Dover noted, “pedestrian bridges” are not really about providing safety and delight to pedestrians.

The real purpose of the bridge was to reduce the pesky crosswalks and speed up traffic, to minimize signal phases when motorists would have to wait for people to cross on foot. Meanwhile, the effect of such bridges is to permanently surrender the at-grade pedestrian experience....Climbing up to bridges is usually inconvenient for pedestrians, not to mention going out of their way to get to the bridge from the intersections where they’d rather cross, scarce as those are. As transportation planner Jim Charlier once quipped, “The real benefit of pedestrian bridges is to provide shade for the pedestrians that still insist on crossing below them, at ground level.”
Florida crossing as imagined

© Kenneth García, CNU-a and Victor Dover FAICP

Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog noted that the Police had their own pedestrian safety program: “Handing out warnings to pedestrians and cyclists before ramping up with fines for people jaywalking or not using sidewalks.”

Even the construction technique, which probably contributed to the bridge failure, was chosen as a way of inconveniencing drivers the least. The “accelerated bridge construction” method had cars driving under the bridge just hours after it was moved into place, before the cables were all connected and the bridge was tested. Even after cracks were noted, engineers didn’t think to close traffic.

In the end, the two incidents, while very different, have the same root cause: in Arizona, the pedestrian infrastructure is lousy and cars drive too fast. In Florida, it is more important to let people drive fast than it is to actually tie the university together and make the street walkable.

They should be a lesson on this National Walking Day: It is time to put first the people who walk in our cities. To do Step One of Jeff Speck’s ten step program for walkable communities: Put cars in their place to reclaim our cities for pedestrians.

To take back the streets.