Why U.S. Cities Are Becoming More Dangerous for Cyclists and Pedestrians
Cycling Advocates set up “ghost bikes”, like this one in Brooklyn in memory of bikers killed in traffic. – Nick Gray / CC BY-SA
By John Rennie Short
Feb. 21, 2019 09:38AM EST
As cities strive to improve the quality of life for their residents, many are working to promote walking and biking. Such policies make sense, since they can, in the long run, lead to less traffic, cleaner air and healthier people. But the results aren’t all positive, especially in the short to medium term.
A New Wild West
In the 21st century, a new city ideal has emerged of a more bike-friendly, walking-oriented city. But piecemeal implementation of bike lanes, pedestrianized zones and traffic calming measures often just adds to the confusion.
Many bike lanes and pedestrianized zones only extend for short distances. Most American drivers have yet to fully appreciate that urban streets are to be shared. And even in the best of times, cars and trucks are not good at sharing the road. Vehicle drivers are often moving too fast to identify and respond to pedestrians and bicyclists. Blind spots for drivers can be death traps for other road users.
Then there’s the asymmetry. Drivers are operating fast-moving lethal weapons, and are encased in a protective shield. And speed literally kills. A car hitting a pedestrian at 36 to 45 mph per hour is four times more likely to cause death than a vehicle traveling between 26 to 30 mph.
All of these factors are making walking and bicycling more dangerous. While pedestrian deaths in Norway declined by 37 percent from 2010 to 2016, in the U.S. they increased by 39 percent. Non-driver traffic fatalities are increasing in the U.S. at higher rates than most other wealthy nations.
A Better Vision
Vision Zero, a strategy first proposed in Sweden in 1997, imagines cities with no traffic fatalities or serious injuries. At least 18 U.S. cities and states have signed on to reach that goal by 2024, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC.
Strategies vary from one city to another. Boston, for example, has reduced the city speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 25 mph. Washington DC is improving 36 intersections that pose threats to pedestrians and enacting more bicycle-friendly policies. These cities still have far to go, but they are moving in the right direction.
There are many more options. Manufacturers can make vehicles less threatening to pedestrians and bicyclists by reducing the height of front bumpers. And cities can make streets safer with a combination of speed limit reductions, traffic calming measures, “road diets” for neighborhoods that limit traffic speed and volume, and better education for all road users.
Initiatives to create more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly infrastructure should also be sensitive to social and class differences that may shape local priorities. And advocates contend that shifting to autonomous vehicles could make streets safer, although the verdict is still out on this claim.
The most radical shift will require not only re-engineering urban traffic, but also reimagining our cities. In my view, we need to think of them as shared spaces with slower traffic, and see neighborhood streets as places to live in and share, not just to drive through at high speed.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.