While appearing at the 2014 Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference in Pittsburgh this past September, Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), announced the creation of DOT’s "Safer People, Safer Streets" pedestrian and bike safety action plan.
"This initiative is aimed at reversing the recent rise in deaths and injuries among the growing number of Americans who bicycle or walk to work, to reach public transportation and to other important destinations,” Foxx said, adding that there’s a need for "definable places for folks to travel however they’re traveling." After all, he notes. "Everyone is a pedestrian."
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About his department’s increased focus on bike-pedestrian issues, Foxx has written, "If you are walking or bicycling, you should know that your safety is every bit as important — and just as much of a concern to the U.S. Department of Transportation — as the safety of an airplane passenger, a transit rider or someone in a motor vehicle.”
Foxx himself once had a close call as a pedestrian when, during his first term as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., he was jogging before work and a car making a turn clipped him as he crossed a road. ("I stopped for a moment and checked out my knee to make sure it wasn’t injured," recalls Foxx, noting that he, not the car, had the right of way. “I kept running but you should have seen the car. It was really in bad shape.”)
The 18-month bike and pedestrian safety campaign features road safety assessments conducted by DOT field offices in every state. Among the initiative’s goals are to identify the locations of nonmotorized transportation gaps — such as roadways that lack sidewalks and the so-called “last mile” safety hazards faced by people traveling to and from public transportation hubs. (For details, and to see a photo of a work-clad Secretary Foxx riding a bicycle, download the plan summary.)
1. The new DOT safety initiative focuses on pedestrians and bicyclists, road users who are often overlooked in transportation projects. Can you describe the initiative and what led you to take it on? How will the initiative make a difference for older Americans, which is an age group that has both the highest pedestrian fatality rate and a strong interest in staying healthy and active?
We’re serious when it comes to safety, no matter how people get around — in the car, on the bus, by bike or on foot. Unfortunately, fatality numbers are increasing for cyclists and pedestrians at a time when overall traffic fatalities are decreasing.
There’s no question that we want to encourage biking and walking, as these forms of transportation support many of our national goals: They’re environmentally friendly, they’re great for health, they help reduce transportation costs and, most importantly, they connect people to opportunities. But, we need to ensure that people can do both safely.
We believe our initiative will have a great benefit for older Americans, who make up a disproportionate number of pedestrian fatalities. We want to encourage not only older Americans but also all people to walk more; in order to do that, we need to ensure there are safe places for them to walk or ride bicycles. That means making sure sidewalks are well lit and maintained, that crosswalks are frequent and safely designed and that the network is safe for everyone.
2. How will the initiative benefit Americans of different income levels, ages, abilities and geographic areas? What health or economic benefits do you foresee, for both individuals and communities at large?
We’re setting out to improve our understanding of where people are able to bike and walk safely, and where there are gaps in those networks. Recent research has shown that there is a lack of safe sidewalks in lower-income communities — so fixing that is a critical way to improve both safety and economic opportunities in those areas, where people may rely on walking or taking the bus as a primary form of transportation.
The health benefits are significant. If you live in a community that isn’t walkable or bikeable, the research shows there’s a good likelihood you’ll face a higher risk of obesity. A lack of physical activity also contributes to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many other chronic health conditions.
Providing safe options to walk or bike also allows people to save money on transportation. According to AAA, the cost to own and operate a car is nearly $10,000 every year. Walking and biking offer affordable alternatives to access jobs, education and services. They can also be a big part of community revitalization. All over the country towns and cities are creating safe, walkable downtowns and main streets that attract businesses and form the base for economic development.
3. In too many communities, road and trail networks are incomplete for people moving about on foot or bicycle, making destinations out of reach for them. In announcing the initiative, you noted that road safety assessments will be conducted in every state. Can you provide more detail on how the assessments will be done, and how the findings can lead to better transportation networks? What role, if any, will local residents or volunteers have in these assessments?
The DOT-led assessments will be on-the-ground examinations of a transportation corridor conducted by multidisciplinary teams. By picking a sample corridor, we can observe safety issues in real time and identify potential physical and operational improvements that can be replicated on other, similar corridors.
Assessments also help engage staff from a variety of different agencies — such as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the state DOT, the local transit agency and the county transportation department — in developing a shared understanding of pedestrian and bicycle safety issues. The assessments will provide a practical, real-world environment to foster discussions, share knowledge and identify practices that result in gaps in the nonmotorized network.
4. How will this DOT initiative help state and local transportation agencies in their work? What tools and training will available? What will success look like when the initiative is complete?
FHWA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and other DOT offices have been providing resources on pedestrian and bicycle safety for many years, and an array of new resources are under development and scheduled to come out over the next year. The exciting news is that we know a lot about how to solve this problem — so now we need to get these new tools and resources into widespread use by our state and local partners.
We expect that more jurisdictions will be taking a complete streets approach that routinely includes all users of a street corridor in transportation planning decisions. In the long run, our initiative should result in the closing of gaps and the creation of safe, complete pedestrian and bicycle networks.
5. You have been traveling the country calling for Congress to pass a long-term surface transportation bill. How can passage of the bill advance the safety goals of the new initiative? What do you say to people who view pedestrian and bicycle safety as a local issue with no role for the federal government?
Safety is a partnership among all levels of government. A safer pedestrian and bicycle network may seem like a very local thing, but we know it has national implications because these networks literally lay the groundwork for safer communities, resulting in lower rates of crashes and fewer people killed or injured. In addition, these networks help meet national goals for improving health and reducing harmful emissions.
That’s why the Grow America Act (Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act), our four-year transportation proposal, would ensure that future projects using federal highway dollars will provide for the needs of all users of the transportation system, including people on foot and bicycle and people of all ages and abilities.
We see this integrated approach as the most economical way to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. Grow America also significantly expands funding for public transportation, since the first and last legs of a transit trip almost always have a nonmotorized component. It creates new programs that prioritize multimodal projects that connect people to destinations and opportunities. And it supports the regional transportation planning organizations that are often critical in helping plan safer pedestrian and bicycle networks.
Bonus “How To” Question
How would you suggest a local leader, organization or even a bicyclist or concerned citizen go about improving bicycle and pedestrian safety in his or her own community?
The role of local leaders and community members can’t be underestimated in promoting bicycle and pedestrian safety. One of the first things to do is to learn what transportation projects are being planned for your community. DOT has a "Guide to Transportation Decision Making" available on our website, which is a great resource to understand how the plans and decisions that affect your area are being made.
The transportation planning process includes time for public outreach and is responsive to public needs and concerns, but this means that individuals also have to be engaged. If you know there are certain problems in your neighborhood that you’d like to fix, we also have the "Resident’s Guide for Creating Safe Walking Communities," which discusses the types of roadway solutions that can help improve safety for pedestrians.
The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center we support also has a wealth of additional tools that can help communities understand, diagnose and solve safety problems. And it never hurts to pick up the phone and call your elected leaders.