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The Most Dangerous Cities for Walking—and How to Fix Them

Car-centered cities

Studies about pedestrian safety done in the past have reached similar conclusions with similar city rankings.

Despite the report’s characterization of the issue as an epidemic, there have been some signs of progress. Since the policy partnership issued the first of a series of reports called “Mean Streets” more than a decade ago, the number of pedestrian deaths nationally has steadily dropped—from 5,321 in 1997 to 4,378 last year, according to federal traffic fatality data.

And the latest report highlights one Florida area—St. Petersburg—which has responded to its poor safety ranking with an ambitious program to develop more walking and cycling trails as well as sidewalks and crosswalk enhancements. But the most persistent pedestrian safety issues are embedded in road designs that are hard to undo in a hurry.

“Florida was laid out at a time when we were building our towns around the automobile—the distances were long, the streets were wide and fast and there were no sidewalks, bike lanes or shoulders,” said Dan Burden, an Orlando-based planner with the firm Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin. “But you can’t take 90 percent of the infrastructure and turn that around overnight.”

Burden believes market forces eventually will create consumer demand for the kind of higher-density, pedestrian-oriented communities that will promote “aging in place” and help pull Florida cities off the top of lists like this. But the sponsors of the new study say there needs to be still more urgency in addressing the issue from the government side as well.

“It’s true that we’re not going to be able to change the basic layout of places that were built quickly and with too little thought,” said David Goldberg, Transportation for America’s communications director. “But with the right level of investment and attention to this problem, it would be possible to retrofit dangerous arterial roads, to implement sidewalks, crosswalks, more crossing signals … and scale back roads that are too wide and don’t need to be wider.”

Prioritizing pedestrians

Goldberg said many state highway departments stubbornly refuse to change their ways even as the federal government has given them more flexibility to spend road dollars in ways that improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. Noting that a new federal transportation bill is now in the works, he said more pressure is needed to make safer designs not just an option but a mandate.

“The states are still not spending the money in ways they are allowed to spend the money,” Goldberg said. “It’s past time for the federal government to be passing out more money to build more dangerous facilities. It’s time to start retrofitting and fixing the problems that have been built with federal money in the past.”

On that front, the study found that the average metropolitan area spends just 2.2 percent of its federal transportation funds on projects that help make walking and biking safer. But there has been some progress over the past decade, with the nation’s 52 largest metro areas having increased such spending from 82 cents per person to $1.39 per person.

The issue of pedestrian safety can’t be put on hold any longer—especially as America’s population continues to age, said Jana Lynott, a strategic transportation policy adviser for AARP. She called the report “a huge wake-up call. We can’t wait another 30 years to make these changes happen. People should be looking at where states have decided to spend stimulus dollars for transportation. If the argument is they don’t have shovel-ready pedestrian projects, the answer is, why not? We’ve known about this for 10 years.”

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