Since the advent of the mass-produced personal automobile, cities have catered to cars at the expense of other modes of travel. This includes public transit, pedestrians, cyclists, and anyone not in a personal motor vehicle. As the average car size increases, so does the likelihood of fatal crashes. Electric vehicles, which do not use gasoline, tend to weigh more than internal combustion engine vehicles, causing more injuries. When people don’t feel safe walking or using modalities other than cars, they end up driving or using rideshare services instead, which ultimately puts more cars on the road, endangering more pedestrians and cyclists, and slowing down public transportation. There are many ways to make cities safe for all people, regardless of their method of transportation or reasoning behind using it. Every policy choice impacts infrastructure, every piece of infrastructure is a policy choice, and deliberate action in favor of pedestrians will only improve the safety of our streets.
SUVs and crossovers have grown in both size and market share, making up more than 50% of vehicle purchases in 2021. While 50% of Americans may feel safest riding in SUVs, they are twice as likely to kill pedestrians in crashes. This is due to overall size and weight. Larger vehicles weigh more, so anyone they hit will be hit harder, causing more injuries. Size increases also mean larger blind spots in front of the car, so even if a vehicle is stopped at the limit line, they still might not be able to see if someone is in front of them or crossing the street. The hoods on some pickup trucks are over 5 feet off the ground, so while children have a greater risk getting hit, everyone is at risk. Recently, Philadelphia saw the 6’7” Kelly Oubre Jr. hit by a car, causing injuries to his upper chest. This doesn’t happen if car sizes and heights don’t increase.
Speed Enforcement Saves Lives
To protect pedestrians, planners must be intentional about speed limits and road crossings. When a person is hit by a car moving 23 miles per hour, there is a 10% fatality rate. When they are hit at 50 miles per hour, that increases to 75%. By lowering and enforcing speed limits, pedestrian deaths will decrease. Cities like Hoboken have set citywide limits at 20 miles per hour, and Seattle’s is 25 miles per hour on arterials, and 20 miles per hour on residential streets. Continuing this policy will only make streets safer.
While lower speed limits are a good first step, if they are not enforced, they will be ignored. Automatic cameras can enforce speed limits, parking rules, and red lights, all without the racial bias that can come with law enforcement officer involvement. This leads to behavior changes, and many cities have seen success in doing so. New York’s MTA ran a pilot program to ticket cars in bus lanes, finding 224,000 violations, but only 5% of vehicles received more than two tickets. SEPTA and the Philadelphia Parking Authority are also set to implement a similar program after a successful pilot on two routes, which found more than 36,000 cars illegally parked in bus lanes over 70 days. Recently, Baltimore announced plans to expand their red light enforcement cameras, placing 24-hour cameras at several key intersections.
Another way to improve pedestrian safety is to narrow roads, which has been shown to make drivers more cautious, and slower as a result. When vehicular speeds are lower, fewer and less severe injuries occur in the event of a crash. Slimmer driving lanes mean more space for protected bike lanes, bus lanes and shelters, widened sidewalks, and green infrastructure.
Intersections also leave much to be desired. Some urban crossings are good, giving a clear visual and audio cue that it is safe to cross the street, synced with the car traffic signal, and on a long enough timer to allow pedestrians to cross. However, many “less used” pedestrian crossings use methods that rely on the pedestrian to activate the signal, or alert drivers. This can mean simply pressing a button, which notifies the signal to change, but it can also mean having physical flags to carry across the road. HAWK (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk) signals, which display yellow flashing lights to drivers, switch to a red light when a pedestrian pushes a button are another option. These options offer an improvement from no signal at all, but still favor drivers because the default traffic pattern (which stays with the driver) is the automotive right of way. Cities can prioritize pedestrian safety by creating safe intersections when designing roads or implementing them without a resident complaint. Dangerous intersections may appear to be underused, but that can also mean that pedestrians are choosing to cross at a safer location.
Prioritizing Protected Bike Lanes
Cyclist injuries and deaths can be avoidable. In the United States, many bike lanes are “sharrows,” where bikes share the lane with cars, or unprotected. Car culture is so prevalent in the United States that many drivers feel entitled to the full right of way, which means not only invading cyclists’ space, but also parking in bike and bus lanes, or even on sidewalks at times. When drivers treat the entire public road as a space for their vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists are forced to walk or bike in the road, which is even more dangerous than an unprotected bike lane or sidewalk in disrepair.
Improving cyclist safety means creating bike lanes that are flat, even, and have physical separation between driving lanes, parking lanes, and loading zones. Cycling is sometimes seen as a hobby in the United States instead of a key method of transportation, simply because many people who would bike as a means of commuting do not feel safe enough to do so.
All of these tactics shift the priority from drivers in cars to everyone else using public roads, which helps bolster public transit ridership and reduce car trips, more than half of which are under 3 miles in cities. Addressing and correcting this imbalance also helps public transit run more efficiently, which saves time and money. Increasing physical activity, which happens when people bike and walk instead of drive, also has physical and mental health benefits, which reduces the overall cost of healthcare.
Reducing car use and infrastructure in cities also has environmental benefits. Slimmer roads mean less impervious surface area, so stormwater can be better absorbed, lowering the risk of flooding (which often disproportionately impacts disinvested neighborhoods due to the role systemic racism played and plays in development). Truly separated and protected bike and bus lanes can have a median that serves as a rain garden, not only absorbing rainwater and processing toxins, but also increasing biodiversity.
Vision Zero initiatives track traffic deaths for different regions, and many of their policies have seen decreased injuries and deaths. But as is evident in the name, the goal is zero traffic deaths. Philadelphia’s Vision Zero program released its 2023 report in October and found that the city has 7.4 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents, nearly three times as many as New York (2.64), and more than twice as many as Boston (3.23). By working to create safer pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, cities can save lives, get more people moving, and create a better place to live.
Grace Hanoian is a Business Development and Marketing Associate at Econsult Solutions, where she supports the marketing and business development team by assisting with proposals, events, and social media. Additionally, Grace has experience working on political campaigns both with communications and fundraising, as well as in state government.