In a recent post about traffic in Toronto, I noted the contradiction in policies where the mayor wants to reduce congestion and speed traffic up, while at the same time, reducing the carnage on the road that killed or injured a thousand people since June, and which can mainly be done by slowing traffic down.
However, this is not just a Toronto issue. In Curbed, Alissa Walker describes how Our streets are killing us, with the subhead Traffic deaths will continue to increase unless cities prioritize humans over cars. It is a lesson that many cities need to learn.
Last year in the United States, 35,092 people were killed on the roads, and it is predicted that this year, it is already looking like it will be higher. Linda Bailey of the National Association of City Transportation Officials notes in a statement:
Especially troubling, this national data shows that the most vulnerable road users – people walking and biking, statistically more likely to be old or very young, poor, or of color – are, each year, an increasingly larger proportion of traffic fatalities. These fatalities, and the more than 2.4 million serious and life-altering injuries that happen annually on U.S. streets, are statistically predictable and preventable through better street design and reduced vehicle speeds.
Walker claims that the reason for the increase is simple: more people are driving more miles thanks to cheap gas, poor transit options and lack of affordable housing in our successful cities. I am not sure it is so simple; the Vehicles Miles Traveled is ticking up again, but is still lower than it was before the start of the Great Recession, when gas was not so cheap. There is more to it; our cars are turning into distraction factories with their giant displays and audio options, competing with our smart phones. There are more cyclists and pedestrians to hit as our cities densify. The population is aging, which affects the speed at which people cross, their vision and hearing, whether they live or die and how quickly they recover.
If you are actually in a car that hits another car, things have never been better. Airbags, seat belts and crush zones designed into the sheetmetal have led to a consistent decline in the rate of fatalities of people inside cars. But for people outside of cars, it just keeps getting worse as more people switch to SUVs and pickup trucks, while having more distraction and dealing with more cars and trucks on the road. That's why pedestrian deaths were up 10 percent last year, the biggest increase ever.
Linda Bailey of NACTO explains in her statement the kind of changes that can make a difference:
NACTO’s 47 member cities have proven that better street design, coupled with smarter, automated speed enforcement, is the best way to increase safety and save lives on U.S. roads. In Seattle, shortening pedestrian crossing distances on Nickerson Street reduced crashes by 23% and brought excessive speeding down from 38% to less than 2%. In New York City, wide avenue redesigns that offered pedestrian refuges and created designated bike and turn lanes reduced crashes with injuries by an average of 17%, with pedestrian and cyclist injuries falling even more: 22% and 75%, respectively. In Santa Monica, a simple reduction of lanes, along with the creation of designated turn and bike lanes on Ocean Park Boulevard resulted in a 65% reduction in collisions.
Walker also notes that speed is a critical factor, and that “just a few miles per hour can determine the difference between life and death.” But lowering speed limits alone doesn’t actually do anything, because people tend to drive at the speed that the road is designed for. Basically, putting up signs about speed and yielding to pedestrians is futile; as they have demonstrated in Sweden with the Vision Zero program, it requires a serious road redesign.
NACTO would have us narrow lane widths, ban left and right turns, give pedestrians a head start, add islands, tighten curve radii. All of these are anathema to suburban politicians and voters who just want to get where they are going in their cars faster. Walker concludes:
But even cities that are designed to be slow and safe also must have the ability to enforce that behavior, another hurdle for Vision Zero campaigns. That’s especially a challenge when a full two-thirds of all U.S. traffic deaths are caused by people who are speeding, driving recklessly, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In the near future, that won’t be an issue. The robot drivers really can’t get here soon enough.
Alas, I am not sure that we can wait for robot cars to save us. We have to fix what we've got.