Walking Getting More Dangerous

Take a walk across the street and, depending on where you are, you may take your life in your hands.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project, an advocacy group, says 4,955 pedestrians were killed in accidents last year. It says the number is rising, even though people are walking less each year.

The project's organizers listed the most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians. Five of the six worst were in Florida: Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach, Memphis, Jacksonville, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Nashville.

What do those cities have in common? It is not simply that they are Sun-belt cities; rather, organizers say they enjoyed spurts of growth in the 1960s and '70s, when well-meaning engineers sometimes labeled pedestrians as "traffic flow interruptions."

Take, for example, sections of Route 19 in Pasco County, Fla., north of Tampa Bay. The Surface Transportation Policy Project called it the country's most dangerous road. It is a multi-lane strip with large stores, but few sidewalks. It is not built for pedestrians, but 22 of them have been killed there anyway in the last two years.

"Most traffic engineers in our country were trained to move traffic and move it very well and very efficiently," says Dan Burden, a town planner from northern Florida. "They were not trained how to move pedestrians."

Crusade for Walkers, Bikers

Burden has been on something of a crusade, he says, to reclaim America's streets for walkers and bicyclists. When we met him, he and some colleagues were putting out traffic cones on a corner in Hartford — city No. 26 on the danger list.

Burden is a practitioner of "traffic calming" — finding ways to slow traffic just enough so that walkers will be safe. He uses an arsenal of techniques: a stop light here, a curve in the road there. In Hartford, he suggested that at some street corners, the sidewalks be widened to include some of the space currently paved for cars.

"By having curb extensions," he said, pointing as traffic passed us, "then you get a clear view of the traffic, and the motorists can see you quite clearly, and there's less chance for a crash."

Such crashes have made it more dangerous to cross many streets than to fly across the country. Pedestrians account for only 5 percent of all trips in America, but 12 percent of all traffic deaths.

Safety Features

So cities across the country are trying new things. Cambridge, Mass., turned some of its crosswalks into speed humps, and saw a five-fold increase in the number of drivers yielding to pedestrians.

San Francisco put strobe lights in the pavement at some crossings, with sensors to set them off when a pedestrian is approaching. The system, called "Light Guard," has spread to other western cities.

"This particular device," says Michael Harrison, the developer of Light Guard, "just warns the motorist when a pedestrian is about to cross, and it does not impede the traffic flow."

That's a surprising thing to some engineers. It turns out that the right technologies will move cars on their way more easily, rather than creating traffic jams. Cars' top speeds may go down, but they're screeching to a halt less often.

"So they stay in motion, drive a lower speed, more friendly for pedestrians, and yet the motorists get to their destination faster," Burden said.

Some of Burden's solutions can cost $20,000 to $30,000 for one corner. But that's less, say their advocates, than $80,000 for a set of stop lights — and far less than the $247,000 it will cost if one person gets run over.