More than 4500 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America--more than those who died in the horror of 9/11.
A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition studying ten years of data found that 16 times more people were killed crossing the street than in natural disasters over the that same period. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors and people of color, according to the report.
Streets are unsafe for pedestrians all over the world. More than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year--22 percent of a total 1.24 million traffic fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.
"It's like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed," notes Scott Bricker, Executive Director of America Walks, a coalition of walking advocacy groups. "We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency."
"Where's the moral outrage?" asks Katherine Kraft, America Walks' National Coalition Director and Coalition Director of Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of citizens, businesses and organizations across many fields.
Unfortunately, pedestrian deaths are viewed as an inevitable side effect of modern life. "People accept this as normal, just as 100 years ago most people accepted that women could not vote," observes Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, an international organization working to make streets safe for people of all ages.
Yet recent history offers genuine hope for making our streets safer. A generation ago domestic abuse and drunk driving were seen as sad, unalterable facts of human nature. But vigorous public campaigns to prevent these tragedies have shown remarkable results, offering clear evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.
Sweden Paves the Way for Zero Traffic Deaths
Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country from Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon. This new safety strategy, called Vision Zero, is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden, where overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000--making Swedish streets the safest in the world according to The New York Times. Pedestrian deaths in the country have also plunged 50 percent since 2009.
The Economist magazine reports that Sweden accomplished all this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design. The influential conservative newsweekly cites improved crosswalks, lowered urban speed limits, pedestrian zones, barriers separating cars from bikes and pedestrians, and narrowing streets for the impressive drop in traffic deaths.
Streets of New York
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office last year on the promise of reducing traffic deaths in a city where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle every two hours on average.
"The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable," he wrote in a letter to New Yorkers. "They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians--especially our children and seniors." Traffic accidents are the largest preventable cause of death for children under 14 in New York, and the second highest source of fatal injuries for people over 65.
In May New York's City Council passed 11 bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio's Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments, including:
-Increased police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians and dangerous driving;
-A campaign in the state legislature to allow the city to lower speed limits to 25 mph (and 20 mph on some streets), which passed in June;
-Safety improvements such as traffic calming, speed cameras, and "slow zones" on streets; and
-Street safety curriculum in schools.
One of New York's biggest problems, according to walking and bike advocates, is that the police department focuses far more resources on street crime than on street safety, even though 356 people were killed in traffic accidents last year (half of them pedestrians and bicyclists), compared to 333 murders.
After New York, Vision Zero planning in the US is most advanced in San Francisco, which last year saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities. Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition recently launched the Vision Zero Coalition with the San Francisco School District and more than two dozen community organizations.
A number of local advocacy organizations around the country in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Oregon as well as New York an San Francisco are working with the national Alliance for Biking and Walking to launch the Vision Zero Strategic Collaborative to push for these policies across the nation.
America's Emerging Walking Revolution
America is on the verge of a walking revolution. After many decades in which walking continually lost ground to other modes of transportation and recreation, there's growing interest across many fields about restoring walking as a way of life.
A diverse network of organizations came together at the first-ever walking summit last year to champion walking as one solution to our health care crisis (one-half hour of walking each day reduces the risk of many major diseases), as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heighten the sense of community and security), as a clear route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means less CO2 emissions) and as a boost for the economy (by lowering health care costs and stimulating local business districts).
Katherine Kraft warns, "We won't increase walkability--which is good for people's and communities' health--until we make the streets more safe and comfortable for walking." Vision Zero, she says, is the path toward a better life for all of us.
Follow Jay Walljasper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JayWalljasper