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4,770 Pedestrian Deaths a Year and a Lot of Them in Maryland

The new "Dangerous by Design" report is out, and we're still ignoring pedestrian deaths in favor of moving cars. Is it time to do something?

So it's official.  Maryland is the 15th most dangerous state for pedestrians and cyclists.

There are 35 safer states to walk in than Maryland including such notables as Michigan (#19), known for its automobiles; New Jersey (#21), known more for its turnpike than pedestrian friendliness; and Wyoming (#37), known more for pickup trucks and ranchers than walkability.  

"In the last decade . . . more than 47,700 pedestrians were killed in the United States, the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month," according to Dangerous by DesignTransportation for America's new report on pedestrian injuries and fatalities. 

Would you fly if there were that many airline crashes killing that many people?  You'd be outraged, demanding that government take action.  Just for comparison sake, just over 3,000 people died as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Americans immediately demanded action that's resulted in two wars, billions of dollars in spending, and uncertain success.  More than that die each year just from walking.  Yet we do nothing.  

Well almost nothing.  Most states spend about "1.5 percent of federal roadway funds" on making walking and bicycling safer.  I don't have Maryland data, but even if it's double that number, it's still abysmal pedestrian-safety spending compared to improvements for cars and trucks – 98.5% of spending goes to moving automobiles.

Transportation America use's the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership's Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) in order to ensure comparability between states and metropolitan areas.  According to the report, the "PDI computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking in that area, correcting for the fact that the cities where more people walk on a daily basis are likely to have a greater absolute number of pedestrian fatalities."

So how does that impact real people?  Pedestrian fatalities fall most heavily on minorities, low income travelers, and the elderly.  Each of these groups frequently don't have the option of hopping in their Prius and heading to the Co-op.  The report notes that "African Americans walk for 26 percent more trips than whites, and the Hispanic walking rate is close to 45 percent higher. While whites made only 9.4 percent of trips on foot in 2009, African Americans made 11.9 percent of trips on foot, and Hispanics made nearly 14 percent of trips on foot."

Using Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention data, the report notes that "Hispanics suffered a pedestrian death rate of 2.23 per 100,000 persons, a rate nearly 62 percent higher than the 1.38 per 100,000 per- sons rate for non-Hispanic whites. The same data show that rates for African Americans were even higher, at 2.39 per 100,000 persons, a rate more than 73 percent higher than for non-Hispanic whites. Asian Americans died at a rate of 1.45 per 100,000 people."  Classifying people by income, poor people suffered average fatality rates of 2.91 per 100,000 persons, "significantly greater the national rate of 1.6."

The bottom line, which most of us walkers and bicyclists know, is that our roads are designed to move cars and we just don't really care about other modes of transportation.  Anything that slows down a car gets a honk, a finger, or angry letters to politicians.  Even supporters criticize attempts to ride down state highways with posted speed limits of 25 miles per hour because "they're too dangerous."

We're being penny-wise and pound-foolish skimping on pedestrian safety.  Ignoring the massive costs to the economy of those 47,700 deaths and countless injuries, just getting school kids walking and riding their bikes to school would have significant potential health-cost savings, the authors note, as the "costs of obesity and overweight [children] account for approximately nine percent of total U.S. health care spending, and a portion of these costs are attributable to auto-oriented transportation that inadvertently limits opportunities for physical activity for the nation’s children."

Bringing this back to Maryland, the State Highway Administration has largely ignored the recommendations of a group of transportation planners and citizens who made substantial recommendations several years ago to make the New Hampshire Avenue corridor more walk- and bikeable.  While Metro has made some minor improvements at its bus stops along this corridor, almost all the recent corridor improvement money has been spent making the roadway smoother and the curbs better.  The State continues to ignore pedestrians, cyclists, and local businesses rejecting any suggested change that might possibly reduce the number of cars it can push down the road.

How do they get away with this?  No one leans on them.  For example, my conversations with State Senator Jamie Raskin to improve one crosswalk on Ethan Allen Avenue, a State highway, has been completely unproductive.  While some of the blame may lie with Senator Raskin's office, the fact that SHA has ignored the Charrette and Senator Raskin's staff shows SHA is largely to blame.

The only way SHA is going to change it's behavior is to get significant local pressure. Residents need to show up at City and County Council meetings and complain.  Each resident needs to write letters, make constant phone calls, and annoy the hell out of our elected local, state, and federal representatives.  Until pedestrians and cyclists squeak loudly, their wheels will continue to lack the oil that is currently going to the squeaky car drivers.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

gridlocksmith (Earl Shoop) June 10, 2011 at 02:54 PM
Joe, thank you for your excellent article; you make some good points, and well documented, too. I hope that we can put our minds together to make traffic safer for all. As a person who has driven "for a living" in this area for 30 years, I can contribute something from the driver's perspective. Since I had a brother who was killed on a bicycle, I am also concerned for everyone's safety. Decades ago, a terrible mistake was made. Officials bowed to the squeeks of nimbys who opposed the freeway. Now, motorists have little choice but to clog streets like N.H. Ave on the way into D.C. Whether we like the idea of a freeway, or not, this is a fact. Even if our public transit system were well-run, comfortable, efficient and timely, many motorists would choose their cars, instead. Just as it may be a good idea to have a system of routes dedicated to bicycles (and hikers?), It would be good to have routes exclusively for motorized vehicle users. A truly rational plan for transportation has to address the needs and safety of us all. More of my thoughts are found at gridlocksmith.com.
Joe Edgell June 11, 2011 at 03:52 PM
When freeways are built, it is possible to accommodate bikes as well. In urban areas that's done with a physically separated bike path next to the road. The new Wilson bridge across the Potomac is an excellent example as is I-90 across Mercer Island in Seattle. It's possible, even when improving roads for drivers, to simultaneously improve those same roads for bikes and peds. Bringing this back to Takoma Park, it is possible to improve 410 to a four-lane highway, reduce traffic for residents, and improve things for pedestrians and cyclists. How? One word: tunnel. Before anyone reading this comment scoffs as "impossible," consider what they do in other countries. Switzerland, for example, with the land size of Colorado, routinely puts major highways in tunnels under cities, eliminating the impact on the historic areas, making neighborhoods more livable, and creating a very nice and fast thoroughfare for cars and trucks. In my concept, the tunnel would begin on 410 just before New Hampshire Avenue and come out either before or after the railroad overpass just inside Silver Spring. Existing streets would be calmer, or could be turned into limited access areas for pedestrians, residents, cyclists, and deliveries such as mail. It would also substantially speed up traffic for guys who drive for a living. While it would be expensive, it's that kind of long-term thinking that's made Switzerland such a livable place. We could benefit from some of that long term thinking.

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