Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Mean Streets

Editor's Note: The street is the open area between buildings and for too long the sole priority has been on facilitating the movement of automobiles in that space. As the price of this auto-centric focus becomes clear with the rising pedestrian and bicycle fatalities, cities are setting new priorities. This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? looks at how America's streets have become dangerous by design. This excerpt also includes a discussion of the modern oxymoron "free parking."

It wasn’t that long ago that “the street” meant the entire open area between the buildings on either side, and that pedestrians had “undifferentiated dominion over both the sidewalk and the roadbed,” writes Christopher Gray in a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times. “Sidewalks were not pedestrian cattle pens but off-limits zones for vehicles . . . it’s a question of territory, and the pedestrian has been losing for years.” Gray adds that the politics of this issue are changing quickly, in part because the real estate of the street is so limited and in part because pedestrians and bicyclists are much more vulnerable than motorists when hit.

New York City has been a focal point for this territorial battle because Mayor Bloomberg and his Department of Transportation have turned Times Square and other stretches of Broadway into public plazas, and eliminated hundreds of parking places in order to install 250 miles of bicycle lanes. This effort has drawn international attention and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has been on the frontlines, has been lionized by pedestrian and bicycle advocates for taming the automobile and making city streets safe. But she’s also drawn the ire of people who drive.

“I don’t hate cars,” she says in a 2010 article in Esquire. “It’s a matter of balance . . . we’re designing a city for people, not a city for vehicles,” noting pedestrian fatalities are down 35 percent and retail sales are up. A 2012 New York Times poll showed that a majority of New Yorkers, 66 percent, think the bike lanes were a good idea, with the highest support among residents of Manhattan. Only 27 percent called the lanes a bad idea; 7 percent had no opinion or didn’t answer.

A 2012 analysis from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that pedestrian fatalities in car crashes increased by 4.2 percent between 2009 and 2010. As alarming is the fact that while pedestrians and bicyclists account for a large percentage of traffic-related deaths and injuries, most safety money is used to fund projects that improve the safety of drivers. While a quarter of all traffic-related fatalities are pedestrians and bicyclists each year, only 1.5 percent of federal traffic safety funding is spent making roads safer for them, according to a 2011 report by Transportation for America, a project of Reconnecting America and Smart Growth America.

The decades-long neglect of pedestrian safety has exacted a heavy toll: Transportation for America analyzed 10 years of data on pedestrian fatalities in their 2011 study “Dangerous By Design,” and found that 47,700 pedestrians were killed — the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing almost every month. During the same time more than 688,000 pedestrians were injured, a number equivalent to a pedestrian being struck by a car or truck every seven minutes. See chart on opposite page: Best and worst regions for pedestrian safety.

Moreover, even though roads have gotten somewhat safer, pedestrian fatalities have fallen at just half the rate of motorist fatalities, dropping by just over 14 percent during the 10-year period compared to 27 percent for motor vehicle fatalities. While these deaths are “accidents” that are attributed to error on the part of the motorist or pedestrian, the majority of them share one characteristic: “They occurred along ‘arterial’ roadways that were dangerous by design — streets engineered for speeding traffic with little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on bikes,” concludes the report.

The study also found that the Top 4 most dangerous regions for pedestrians are all in Florida — the state with the highest percentage of older Americans — while regions in California, Nevada, Arizona, Arkansas and Texas also ranked high on the list.

A 1999 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that higher vehicle speeds are strongly associated with a greater likelihood of crashes involving pedestrian injuries. It was estimated that while only 5 percent of pedestrians would die when struck by a vehicle traveling at 20 mph or less, fatality rates climbed quickly as speeds increased: At 30 mph the pedestrian fatality rate was 40 percent; at 40 mph it was 80 percent; and at 50 mph it was 100 percent.

Another pedestrian safety study by the University of Connecticut in 2008 found that older cities with dense networks of streets and intersections are safer than newer cities — largely because older cities have more connected street networks, with shorter distances between intersections, which reduces speeds — while newer cities with wide, heavily trafficked arterials are more dangerous.

NOT FREE PARKING

As UCLA Professor Don Shoup contends in his book The High Cost of Free Parking, American drivers park for free on nearly 99 percent of their car trips, and cities require developers to provide ample off-street parking for every new building. The result? Today’s cities are far more suited to cars than people. A recent UC Berkeley study counted parking spots in the U.S. and concluded there are about three for every car and truck. Purdue University researchers surveyed the total area devoted to parking in a typical midsize Midwestern county, and found that parking spaces outnumbered resident drivers 3-to-1, and that the average area devoted to parking is more than 2 square miles.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that areas with too much parking are not only an eyesore, they’re also unsafe when there are few people around. Parking lots also contribute significantly to the “heat island effect,” making it even hotter because the asphalt absorbs sunlight; on the other hand, asphalt doesn’t absorb rainwater, often leading to stormwater problems. Most important, parking is never free, because we pay for the cost of the real estate through higher prices at the businesses that provide the parking or through taxes if the parking is public, and through higher mortgages and rents.

All of these reasons are causing cities to reconsider how they manage parking so as to make the most of what is a valuable and expensive resource. San Francisco is testing a new parking management system at 7,000 of the city’s 28,800 metered spaces and 15 of 20 city-owned garages. The city provides real-time information about available parking so drivers can stop circling and find a space quickly, and adjusting meter and garage pricing up or down depending on demand.

Minneapolis is also revisiting its off-street parking policies in order to balance demand with other important objectives including a desire to maintain the city’s traditional urban form and encourage people to use other means of transportation than the car. Minimum parking requirements have been eliminated from downtown and the provision of bike parking has been emphasized. Denver is also involving neighborhoods in parking management, following a study that found at least 25 percent of parking spaces in the 11 neighborhoods studied were vacant, and that lots reserved for particular businesses were significantly underutilized.

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