Advocates call for a new approach in addressing traffic violence as pedestrian fatalities continue to increase.
When walking my dog around my neighborhood each morning, I brace myself for crossing Richmond Avenue. Morning traffic speeds are high throughout the corridor while drivers run red lights and turn into pedestrian crossing areas, which often lack crosswalk stripes. And I’m never quite sure if the crossing button works (I swear I pushed it two cycles ago?!) or if anyone cares that I have the right-of-way.
There’s a good reason to feel unsafe while walking: it is, according to the newest report, Dangerous by Design, from Smart Growth America.
Street Design & Our Continued Disinvestment in Safe Infrastructure
In the last decade, the number of people struck and killed by people in motor vehicles has increased by 45%. This trend persists despite action and investment locally and statewide.
Cities such as Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lackawanna, and Lockport have passed complete street policies. Erie and Cattaraugus counties have done so as well. Suburban communities such as Grand Island are also working on similar policies, all with the intent to, “include pedestrian and bicycle facilities in all new street construction, street reconstruction, street maintenance, public works, and park projects” because we all recognize the value of making our streets safe for all users regardless of age or ability.
Despite these policy changes, motor vehicle access and level of service continue to be the leading driver in street design. For evidence, walk down a city street. Should you really want to experience corridors lacking safe infrastructure, head over to Bailey Avenue, Niagara Falls Boulevard,, or Sheridan Drive – some of the most dangerous in WNY. For now, if you’re going to stay seated, see conversations around Main Street’s proposed re-configuration, our debate about the school zone speed cameras, the continued absence of bicycle infrastructure despite bicycle master plan recommendations, and the long-debated fates of our urban highways.
New York State passed a complete streets policy in 2012, mandating the same. However, we need to look no further than our city to see this policy’s failures either. Our state-managed thoroughfares–Oak, Goodell, and Elm streets, to name a few–are tragic asphalt moats that, despite “road diets,” continue to be inaccessible and uncomfortable for anyone outside of a motor vehicle.
Perhaps, we should not be surprised then that our state vision for pedestrian and bicycle fatalities is not zero, but a few thousand. In 2018, when mandated to establish federal goals for the number of pedestrians likely to die or be seriously injured by motor vehicles in 2019 and 2020, New York planned for 2,726 and 2,627, respectively. Subsequently, it is less surprising that we continue to treat traffic violence as accidental, a merely inevitable consequence of our societal structures, like the rock-throwers in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.” Yet we continue.
Like many things Americans, we do not share the risk of experiencing traffic violence equally. According to the Dangerous by Design report:
“From 2010-2019, Black people were struck and killed by drivers at an 82 percent higher rate than White, non-Hispanic Americans. For American Indian and Alaska Native people, that disparity climbs to 221 percent.”
Further, people living in low-income neighborhoods are struck and killed at much greater rates than those living in wealthy areas. Our crash map for Buffalo shows that is true locally.
Last, seniors are most vulnerable to traffic violence. Data show that people aged 50 and up, especially people aged 75 and older, are overrepresented in pedestrian deaths.
What Covid Taught Us
Early in the pandemic, driving and vehicle miles traveled (collective number of miles traveled by car) dropped precipitously as people largely stayed at home and stopped commuting to work. Locally, traffic volumes dropped about 66% at the start of the pandemic (according to GBNRTC) and continue to remain below average (commutes to work remain about ~35% less than the baseline while trips to retail and indoor recreation places are about 24% less than baseline (data from Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report).
However, as outlined in the report, with fewer cars on the road, speeding went up nationally (locally, a 3.7% increase, per the GBNRTC), and traffic deaths subsequently increased as well–an estimated 24%, according to the Dangerous by Design report.
What does this tell us? Frequently, policymakers and traffic engineers treat vehicle miles traveled and traffic fatalities as inexorably linked: the more we drive, the more we die. But the COVID data demonstrates a different story, suggesting instead a relationship between the speeds at which we travel and fatality rates.
Speed, SUVs, and the Rise in Pedestrian Deaths
The relationship between motor vehicle speed and pedestrian and bicyclist deaths is well-documented. At 40 mph, 85% of crashes involving a pedestrian or bicyclist result in death; at 20 mph, only 5% of crashes result in pedestrian death—speed matters.
However, an alarming relationship is emerging between rising SUV ownership and pedestrian fatalities rates. According to Dangerous by Design, SUVs and large trucks are two to three times more likely to kill pedestrians than smaller vehicles. Local and federal policymakers in the US have yet to introduce vehicle design metrics that consider people’s safety outside of the vehicle.
Injuries Versus Fatalities
Though this report looks solely at the relationship between poor street design, its effects on speed, and resultant pedestrian deaths, it’s essential to recognize those injured as well. In Buffalo and WNY, a small fraction of these events make the news, yet we can still see the life-changing impacts of car crashes on people:
- A 63-year-old pedestrian was struck by a vehicle on Bailey Avenue in August 2020. A person in a motor vehicle was traveling southbound on Bailey Avenue when another person pulled out in front of them. The southbound driver swerved and struck the pedestrian walking down the sidewalk and a building instead of the other driver.
- A person was struck on Elm Street at 7:15 am on January 5, 2021. The driver left the scene of the crime.
- In December 2020, a car struck a couple viewing Christmas lights from behind in their North Buffalo neighborhood, resulting in a head injury and a destroyed mobility device. The driver left the scene of the crime.
- In April 2020, a Buffalo Police cruiser hit two women walking on the sidewalk on Main Street. One of the women suffered life-threatening injuries to her brain and spine.
Per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2018, 6,283 pedestrians were killed, and an additional 75,000 were injured. Further, in total, 36,560 people died in traffic crashes, and 2,710,000 were injured! The cost to speed is substantial, no matter your mode.
What Should We Do?
In short, everything. We should do everything we can to fix the American epidemic of traffic violence.
First and foremost, prioritize pedestrian safety over speed every time, even if the vehicular level of service for motor vehicles and their ability to be stored on public property (also called parking) is affected. In addition to decreasing the likelihood of people dying or experiencing life-changing injuries, our health, businesses, and environment will benefit, too.
Second, invest in areas that affect our most vulnerable. When a child was killed while walking in Delaware Park adjacent to the Scajaquada Expressway, the state immediately lowered the speed limit and invested in traffic calming elements for the road. Yet, when a baby was killed on Buffalo’s east side when her mom and grandma were forced to walk in the street due to broken sidewalks, we did nothing. All over Buffalo’s east side, sidewalks are absent or broken, missing trees and excessive asphalt result in urban heat effects, and once-continuous blocks stand separated due to the Kensington Expressway. We’re a poor city with few resources, but how long can we continue to focus on canalside and the Skyway while ignoring more than half our city’s needs?
Third, trust the science. Use best practice. We know what factors lead to traffic violence; let’s fix them. The US leads the developed world in traffic deaths. The solutions are available and well-documented in their efficacy; we need only to embrace them. Create vehicular design standards to address pedestrian safety failures of SUVs and trucks. Stop exchanging human life for speed. Implement the complete streets policies passed to fix this.
What Can You Do?
Talk to your elected officials about your support for better infrastructure. Ask them to use their position to invest in it and advocate for it.
Call 311! Let your city know you see our broken infrastructure and want it addressed. Squeaky wheels get the grease, and our infrastructure is no exception.
Voice your support for the federal Complete Streets bill.
Want to learn more? Attend our virtual Complete Streets workshop on April 19 at noon. Register here.