New Report Alleges “Epidemic” in Pedestrian Deaths, Ignores Nationwide Drop in Fatalities

A consortium of anti-automobile organizations led by Transportation for America and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership has released a report entitled Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths, claiming that we have a crisis in pedestrian fatalities. The authors predictably claim that “auto-oriented” communities are less safe than dense cities, and “smart growth” is the solution.

Unfortunately, the report ignores national and local safety trends showing that we clearly do not have an “epidemic” of pedestrian deaths. In 2008, the national fatality rate for pedestrians fell to 1.27 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled, an all-time low in this country. During the 2nd quarter of 2009, the pedestrian fatality rate (in absolute numbers) fell for the 13th consecutive quarter.

In most cities, injury and fatality rates have been steadily declining not only for pedestrians, but for other modes of travel as well, except for light trucks (up slightly) and motorcyclists, where rates have skyrocketed. For instance, in Portland between 1999 and 2007, total pedestrian fatalities dropped by 33% and injuries dropped by 27%, despite increases in population and driving.

The authors of Dangerous by Design claim that Orlando, Florida is the most dangerous city in America for pedestrians, with 2.9 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population. But most traffic safety statistics are presented in terms of fatalities (or injuries) per 100 million vehicle miles travelled. Injury rates per unit of population is not a very informative metric.

The report also establishes a “Pedestrian danger index,” with a formula of total 2008 pedestrian fatalities/population x 100,000, divided by the percentage of commuters walking to work. But it’s not clear why journey-to-work walking is so important, when most walking for most people occurs in non-commute settings, such as exercise, recreation or social outings.

The authors call for increased federal involvement and more federal spending, but this is not a national issue. Local communities already have plenty of discretion to spend federal funds as well as numerous sources of local funds on road safety projects, if such projects are important to policymakers. Sometimes safety is simply not a political priority.

The experience of Portland on this point is illustrative. In 2007, the city recorded the largest number of under-maintained streets in recent history, yet the City Auditor noted that between 1997 and 2007, the Portland Office of Transportation’s total revenue grew by 60% — the “largest increase among all city agencies.”

Unfortunately, fixing the many streets in SW Portland that have no sidewalks, or paving the numerous dirt roads in outer SE Portland, was not important for the City Council. Most of the increase in revenue over that decade went to the Portland Streetcar and other rail projects, which don’t make pedestrians and cyclists safer — they actually put them at greater risk.

Elected officials should understand that there is much good news in transportation safety trends, and the news will get even better if we stay focused on core tasks such as building safe highway by-passes where needed (Gresham, Sandy and Dundee, for starters); building passing lanes and shoulders in narrow mountain passes; and upgrading state highways that serve both local and through traffic. We don’t need complex new federal laws for this or more pork-barrel spending; we just need better local decision-making with the funds we already have.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.