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Cars and the City – Safety

by Nic Darling on May 4, 2009 · 7 comments

in Philosophy,Urbanism

I was reading a report from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) this morning. The goal of this report was to identify the causes of pedestrian roadway fatalities in hopes of reducing their number. This is not the best way to stay awake in the morning, particularly during an office-wide shortage of hot coffee, but I did find a couple of interesting (if unsurprising) statistics.

There were the expected stats about alcohol involvement and time of day as key contributing factors. Apparently intoxicated pedestrians stumbling in front of drunk drivers on dark streets at three in the morning is a dangerous combination of elements. Shocking, I know. There were also the sad statistics about the increased danger to children and the elderly. In other words, I really chose an uplifting way to begin my day.

However, the most important statistic, I felt, was that two-thirds of all pedestrian fatalities occur in urban areas. If you want to reduce deaths, it seems like this might be a good place to start. With so many cars and people living in such close proximity, this statistic is no surprise. City streets also differ from their suburban and rural relations because they are used much more often by pedestrians. Aside from crossing, which is certainly the most significant pedestrian usage, urban streets are also areas into which other activities spill both by accident and intent. Sidewalk games find themselves in the street from time to time as the ball scampers away or as more space is needed for additional participants. Hydrant cool-downs spray children out into the summer road. Under-used byways become basketball courts and hockey rinks. Construction or poor snow removal forces sidewalk traffic to detour into street traffic.

Over time our cities have ceded more and more land to cars. Over 30% of Philadelphia is devoted, in one way or another to motorized vehicles. This percentage would be much higher if we looked at how much outdoor space was car specific. Of all the open space between buildings, pedestrians are limited to two narrow widths of sidewalk and small striped strips that cut across the street at block intervals. These crosswalks, where they are available, are themselves only a minor concession to the walker. They occur only at intersections where cars are pausing for one another anyway.

Why all this space for cars in an environment which should eliminate much of the automobile’s necessity? Why aren’t pedestrians given the greater power and flexibility, particularly in downtown areas? Why are pedestrians treated as intruders in the city when it is the car that is detached and transient? Could we correct this safety issue by prioritizing the pedestrian and making it less convenient to drive in our cities? What specific tactics might we use toward such an end?

I have some thoughts on these questions, but I’d rather hear yours. Shout them out in the comments.

Next time on Cars and the City . . . The local economy.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kevin D May 5, 2009 at 6:04 am

Share cars are probably the near term future of the urban car.

If you convert your attached garage to living space, rent it out, you’re at least $1000/ month ahead. With a share car, you can still get somewhere for the weekend, get huge quantities of provisions as needed.

Longer term, electric cars will become cheap enough so that everyone can afford them. They are 5 times cheaper than gas powered cars to run, so we may wind up back where we were (are). At that point, the real estate they consume may be the largest cost factor of ownership.

2 Nic Darling May 5, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Unfortunately, I think you are right about electrics. While this would be a gain in terms of air quality . . . space usage, safety and other concerns are still there. It is a repeat of the troublesome thinking that the right product/energy source will prevent us from having to change our behavior. The behavior is still problematic. Sort of like the mentality behind those potato chips that blocked fat absorption. Great, we can eat as many chips as we want, but now we have “leakage”.

I would like to think we could find ways to discourage driving in urban areas and maybe even eliminate it downtown. This would make a safer, more flexible area for pedestrians.

Besides, imagine the interesting things that might come out of architecture, design and urban planning if cars weren’t in the picture.

3 Kevin D May 5, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Oh yeah, if the topic of cars and cities interests you, you MUST read Jane Jacobs.

My two favorite quotes from her 1961 book:
“What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles?…The answer will be clear…. The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles” (Detroit tried this, it failed)

On the subject of mid-century city planning:
“As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.”

In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, the first chapter is called “The uses of sidewalks: safety”

4 Stephen Lyle May 6, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Dear Nic,

You are so right about the outrageous number of pedestrian fatalities due to cars. It is a major public health disgrace that is simply taken for granted and never talked about, in between swine flu outbreaks. I am an active member of Transportation Alternatives, in New York City. I recommend checking out their site as addressing this problem is central to their mission. . Other valuable and related groups in nyc/national include I assume there are similar groups in Philly. Voicing outrage to politicians and joining concerned groups is the way to go!

PS nice pictures of the house

5 tom toolbag May 7, 2009 at 10:24 am

Here’s some points to ponder…….G.M. wants to build an electric car that goes approx. 40 miles p/charge fo roughly $47,000, and currently you can buy aftermarket equipment to convert a car to electric for $10,000 and slightly less(not including the car) that can go up to 100 miles p/charge. So for a guestimate, a $10,000 car, a $10,000 conversion = a $20,000 electric car that costs roughly under $5.00 a week to operate depending on electric rates, with little maint. Where’s the economy of mass production?
I was at the Chicago Auto Show in Feb. and spoke with some factory reps about this and they thought I was crazy! Then I asked about battery manuf. and pointed out that there are currently no U.S. manuf., and over 50% of lithium “reserves” is located in a C. American country that the leader has already said he is opposed to strip-mining for lithium. Then there’s the issue of gas tax. Every gallon of gas bought has the fuel tax(fed. and state) pre-paid. No collection issues involved, don’t pay tax, no gas. If electric cars become more commn, how is the fuel taxes paid? If you plug in your car to your outlet, the meter doesn’t distinguish that it is a car or microwave. Will the power co. put in a seperate meter? And for how much? Then how are the fuel taxes paid? There would be collection issues, because it would be after the usage, or pre-paid. Considering a lot of converted cars and proposed production electric cars are roughly the same weight as i.c.-engine cars, how are the roads going to be maintained? A D.O.T. stat says that roughly 70% of daily commutes is under 50 miles. Imagine if 5% of those commuters just used existing infrastructure, look at the drop in oil consumption and needed upgrades.
With regards to pedestrians, how about sky-walks? Downtown Des Moines, Ia. has an extensive sky-walk system, it’s so elaborate and large that they have 18 hole golf courses set up for charity events. The police even foot-patrol inside them, with a big savings in vehicle cost and maint. I’m sure that there are pictures somewhere on the web of those. It is an efficient system, but a bit awkward to haul tools and equipment in.
Just some comments, but anybody agree?

6 tom toolbag May 7, 2009 at 10:28 am

Oh yeah, some of those conversions run up to 125-150 miles p/charge, but MOST are in the 50-100miles p/charge range.

7 jason May 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm

i’ve often thought of the idea of taking the middle of a block and blocking it to trough traffic and creating a small social area on that block for gathering and play and having parking only up and down each side of this small “park”. you could park the same amount of cars at an angle instead of parallel, stop traffic on that block and increas cross-street social activity and creat safe outside spaces.

i’m a dog walker in west phily so i’m constantly crossing intersections and on a daily basis i’m almost hit by someone who thinks they are going to roll through a stop sign or maybe stop AFTER they have crossed the cross walk. We are all guilty of this behavior but man i’m really about to just go nuts here in my hood dodging cars while walking across the intersection. i was missed by inches in the rain a few nights ago and a few weeks ago i was hit on my bike.

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