Cars and the City – Safety

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.