Dangerous by Design 2019

Smart Growth America has released its ‘Dangerous by Design 2019‘ report for 2019. Pedestrian (walker) fatalities have increased 35% over the last decade, becoming a bigger percentage of roadway fatalities, now at 16%. Sacramento (the Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade Metropolitan Statistical Area MSA) ranks 46 of 100 on the list of most dangerous areas for pedestrians, and the danger increased 4.9% from 2016 (year of the first report they did) to 2019. California ranks 16th on the list of states, and had an increase of 3.8%.

The National Complete Streets Coalition is part of Smart Growth America, so it is expected that the report emphasizes complete streets and roadway design. However, by focusing mostly on that, it misses some important issues. The report acknowledges, on page 7, that the design of vehicles, particularly the explosion of pedestrian-killer SUVs, is important, but then fails to list a significant action related to it. If these vehicles are 2-3 times more likely to cause fatalities, as research indicates, then that could explain more of the increase than many other factors.

Another issue that the report does not even mention is driver behavior. Though an increase in the number of poorly designed roadways could explain part of the overall increase in pedestrian fatalities, I doubt that it could account for all of it. Though most of our roadways are dangerous by design, we are building fewer of the most dangerous ones, and have fixed some of the worst of the worst. I will speculate, without research backing but with anecdotal and direct experience, that a precipitous decline in driver behavior is a significant cause. More pedestrians are being killed because more drivers are killing them. Yes, roadway design is responsible, and is the easier problem to solve in the long run (than human behavior), but if behavior, violation of the law, is in fact a significant contributor, we miss the boat by only talking about design.

Though ultimately, the redesign of our roadways is the best solution, in the meanwhile we need to prevent fatalities, and addressing driver behavior is part of that. This is not a minor issue. This morning, while using a clearly marked crosswalk, I was nearly hit by a driver who passed through the crosswalk without even slowing down. If I had not jumped back, I would not be here writing this post right now.

The report uses the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) as data for the number of people walking, and says there has actually been a decline in walking over four years and a slight increase over ten years. However, the NHTS only counts commute trips, and assigns all commute trips to the category of the longest leg. Therefore, a transit and walking commute would be classified as transit only. Data about overall walking rates is lacking, and Smart Growth America can hardly be blamed for that. California performed one broad-based survey in 2013, and the results varied significantly from the NHTS data. I realize that Smart Growth America is a nonprofit with limited resources, but at least a small sample analysis using other sources of data would really help illuminate the cause of the increase in fatalities. We can’t adequately assign fatality rates if we don’t really know the rate of walking. It would seem to me that one of the key actions at the federal, state and local level would be better pedestrian trip data, but that does not show up in the report.

As I have said many, many times, here and other places, the model complete streets policies that Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition promote do not give sufficient weight to the frequency of safe crossings. As a result, most local policies fail to address this issue at all. If we end up with a national policy that continues this weakness, we won’t really be solving the problem. So I can’t, at this time, support the recommendation, on page 7, for a national complete streets policy. NCSC needs to clean up its act before asking others to clean up their act.

Complete Streets aren’t

The Complete Streets movement, now 13 years old and with a newly released criteria for evaluating policies, is considered by some to be a success. Not by me.

There are two gaping flaws in the complete streets concept, that after all this time have not been addressed:

  • Who is responsible for sidewalks?
  • How close should safe crossings be?

Sidewalks: On the first issue, responsibility for sidewalks, most cities and counties (not all) have code that makes sidewalk maintenance the responsibility of the adjacent landowner. This includes repair and snow removal. Most cities have some money set aside to repair sidewalks, but only a tiny fraction of what is needed for the huge backlog of deteriorated sidewalks. A very few cities also clear sidewalks after snow. Sidewalks are every bit as much of the transportation network as travel lanes and bike facilities, but most places wash their hands of this reality and this responsibility, pushing it off to others. It has been pointed out that few cities and counties have the funds to also take care of sidewalks, but that is exactly the point. If we allow cities and counties to prioritize cars over walking, they will continue to do so.

How does complete streets play into this? It doesn’t. Complete Streets set no expectation that cities and counties will maintain their sidewalks. In the new policy rating documents, the word sidewalk only shows up twice, neither in this context. Even a search of the Complete Streets website only mentions sidewalks in relation to case studies and model projects. Fortunately, a few places do much better than just have a policy, but the Complete Streets movement does nothing to encourage this.

El Camino complete street, 0.3 miles to the next safe crossing

Crossings: the second great weakness of the complete streets movement and Complete Streets documents is the lack of attention to frequent safe crossings. The new criteria does not mention crosswalks or crossings. The illustrations of a complete street often show an intersection with high visibility crosswalks and sometimes curb extensions to increase visibility and shorten crossing distance. But other illustrations show long distances along a “complete” street, with the next safe crossing often not visible.

In the Sacramento region, every complete street project along arterials has added sidewalks and bike lanes, but none of them have added safe crossings. In fact, several of them have removed crossings. If a busy street is hard for walkers to cross, they won’t cross it. They will either drive, or just avoid the other side of the street. So that fancy complete streets project, with the wonderful looking wide sidewalks, does not serve the very people it is claimed to serve. People need to be able to cross any land all Streets in a safe crossing at an interval of no more than 1/8 mile. The grid in downtown Sacramento is 1/12 of a mile. Few places in the suburbs are less than 1/4 mile, and many are 1/2 mile. To me, this is unacceptable. I would think a complete streets policy would address this distance between safe crossings issue as being key to walkability. Again, the Complete Streets movement ignores this issue.