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Safe by Design

Last week, Smart Growth America published their semi-annual Dangerous by Design report, highlighting the most perilous places to be a pedestrian in the US and calling for a variety of policy measures to help put an end to the 13 people whose lives are stolen every day because of fatal street design. Clearly, given our ongoing blog series, Design for our Lives, and our data-driven efforts to put teeth behind Vision Zero (and the like) programs over the course of the past 9 months, the report caught our attention. Accordingly, we culled through the report and pulled out not only the key stats all citymakers must have at their fingerprints about road safety - whether they are involved in a Vision Zero program or not - but also the critical design and policy measures that must be implemented immediately - literally as a matter of life and death - to go from dangerous by design to safe by design. And next week, we’ll distill these design and policy guidelines into specific, actionable urban design changes that all citymakers need to start implementing STAT (we were gonna do it this week, but we didn’t want to cut too much more into your important citymaking schedules! ;)). So without further ado, we present the top three findings of the Dangerous by Design report and the seven top design and policy recommendations that must be heeded to get Safer by Design.

This is us.

On page 16 of the report, we meet, Mariela…a nine-year-old from Knoxville, TN. We learn that while Mariela was walking with her grandmother, Francisca, they waited to cross this street. But only one of them - Mariela - made it across alive. Both Mariela and Francisca were struck by a driver while still in the crosswalk because they ran out of the “designated” time to cross the (freaking 5-lane street) street. Maybe the driver felt so emboldened by “their” green light that the thought of pedestrians still being on “their” road (because they didn’t cross the five lanes “in time”) didn’t even cross their mind. Because pedestrian lives - don’t matter (as much, I guess)? But, as much as we may want to…we can’t blame the driver alone. Make no mistake, this was a “DEATH by design.” And if you only read this story alone, you get the crux of the message being delivered by the 22 page report…(although I wouldn’t blame you for thinking - man, seriously, you can’t just like, LOOK…to see if there are, like actual humans in your midst?!?)…

This story didn’t just strike me because of its microcosmal nature or because the protagonist and I share the same (relatively uncommon) name…but because this could literally have been me. This could have been your grandmother, your granddaughter, YOU. This also hits home. I happen to embody two of the three characteristics that SGA points out make up the most vulnerable among us - people of color (I’m Hispanic) and people walking in low-income communities (not unlike where I grew up in Westchester, Miami). The third more-vulnerable group include older adults (give me another 10 years yet!). Finally, it so happens I grew up in Florida, the state that “resiliently” held steady at - the worst kind of - “first place” one would want - the dishonor of being the state most dangerous by design. In fact, I searched for my childhood home within SGA’s impressive interactive map feature, and unsurprisingly found that a pedestrian had been killed on the street I was terrified to cross while growing up in Miami, and two more just one intersection away (see above).

I wanted to personalize these findings before digging right into the key takeaways to help bring home just how important these facts and data are. I urge citymakers fighting the good fight to do the same. Empathy + Data = Success. So now, without further ado, below please find the key takeaways from the report and even more importantly, following that are the key urban design and policy recommendations all you Citymakers should heed to help save lives.

More dangerous by design

#1 Poor urban design is killing (more) people. From 2008 to 2017:

  • Pedestrian deaths increased by 35.4%

  • Vehicle miles traveled increased by 8.1%

  • Walking as a share of all trips increased by less than 1%

  • Traffic deaths among motor vehicle occupants decreased by 6.1%

  • BOTTOM LINE — more people are not being killed by drivers on fatally designed roads simply because more people are walking. In fact, the opposite might well be true - more pedestrians are being killed by drivers on fatally design roads because more people are driving. AND clearly it’s safer to drive now than a decade ago.

  • KEY QUOTE — “…safety improvements for occupants of vehicles, ranging from seatbelts to automatic braking and lane departure warnings, have played an important role in saving lives on our roadways overall. However, the safer street and vehicle design standards needed to protect people walking have progressed slowly or not at all.” Citymakers!!! Take note!! Automobile companies are making it safer for their own to drive; and you’re doing NOTHING to make it safer for your own to walk. Unacceptable.

#2 Poor urban design is killing older adults, people of color, and people walking in low income neighborhoods disproportionately MORE!

  • Black or African American pedestrians are 50% more likely to be killed than White pedestrians; American Indians or Alaska Natives pedestrians are nearly 3X more likely to be killed than White pedestrians!

  • Pedestrians over 50 are 1/3 more likely to be killed relative to the percentage of overall walking trips; those over 75 are nearly 2X as likely to be killed.

  • Pedestrians walking in census tracts with less than $36K median household income are nearly 3X more likely to be killed than those walking in areas with median household incomes between $79K-$250K

  • BOTTOM LINE — this one is simple: citymakers are failing to keep the most vulnerable among us safe and structural racism, implicit bias, and spatial inequality are all part of the problem.

  • KEY QUOTE — “ low-income communities are significantly less likely than higher income communities to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks, and street design to support safer, slower speeds, also known as traffic calming.” What’s more is that people of color and older adults are both disproportionately more likely to also live in low-income communities. So the impact here is exponential. But so are the relatively simple design fixes…More on that below.

#3 Citymakers are taking LESS action instead of MORE

  • Florida is the most dangerous place for pedestrians by far - in fact its “PDI” (Pedestrian Danger Index) is 25% higher than that of Alabama’s, the next most dangerous state. That’s awful.

  • 9 out of the top 10 most dangerous states are in the Sunbelt, highlighting once again that (car-dominated) urban design is responsible for a large part of the “killing.”

  • Four out of 5 metropolitan statistical areas became more dangerous by design; with the top 10 MSAs seeing an increase of nearly 50 points on average on their pedestrian danger index.

  • BOTTOM LINE — the US is getting more hostile towards pedestrians, in an age in which increasing number of European cities are becoming car-free.

  • KEY QUOTE — “In 2017, states updated their safety goals for 2018, including setting target numbers for deaths and serious injuries among people walking, biking, or using other non-motorized forms of travel. 18 states established targets for non-motorized deaths and injuries that are higher than the number of people killed or injured in the most recent year of data reported. Ten of these 18 states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Oklahoma—are among the top 20 most dangerous states for people walking.” Ok this is a little convoluted. Basically, all this is saying is that rather than actually focus their efforts on making streets safer, citymakers in these states moved the goalposts!! They rigged their key performance indicators to allow for more danger (and more deaths) so that they could look good. Seriously, no joke. Shame on you. Do better by aiming higher. Do better by being safer by design. Do better by designing for all our lives.

Our best selves

Ok, man, that was harsh. But the good news - the BEST news - is that there is hope. And even better, hope is absolutely, unmistakably, within our easy reach!! We love that SGA pointed that OUT: “…we also need more high quality data on the street conditions where fatalities occur and on traffic-related injuries nationwide to help us better diagnose and solve the problem.” Well, ahem, we could NOT agree more!! Which is why we spent 12 long weeks working with the City of Durham’s Transportation Department - via their Innovate Durham program - quantifying the life-saving ability of urban design (and may I add, we did this pro bono because we believe in this cause with all of our hearts and of course want this to form the basis by which we help countless communities - hopefully starting with the top 20 most dangerous by design MSAs and states on SGA’s list - “GET TO ZERO.”).

Once again, TLDR, we found that a one point increase in the State of Place Index (which measures 290 urban design features tied to walkability and quality of place, aggregated into a score from 0-100) reduced the odds of a collision on average by 12.3%. Them be life-saving odds! But OK, we kinda know that design matters already (believe me, some need the evidence to be convinced, which is why we started there). We know you want to know, now what? You want to get to the diagnostic part. Well, we got you covered there too, as the State of Place Index (not being a black box and all) is broken down into ten urban design dimensions (so you know what’s working, what’s not, and where to start in terms of designing for safety). And we tied each of those ten dimensions to the odds of a collision too - so that you can diagnose not just which aspects of design are lacking, but also which of those areas of poor urban design matter most in terms of saving lives. So let’s dig into the key recommendations of the SGA report and tie that back to how you can use State of Place to bring these to - life - in YOUR community!

Designing for our Lives

  1. Funding

    SGA urges the federal government to invest in creating safer streets for people - NOT making it more convenient for drivers. We agree, obvi! But we want to take this one step further and recommend that those applying for funding be required to show how their policy proposals and/or capital improvement projects (including projects that promote safer walking and biking) will actually improve safety AND show that the projects they are advocating are the most effective in terms of improving safety. More fundamentally, we urge funders to require objective design criteria be met in order to be eligible for funding. This can and should be the case not just at the national funding level, but at the state, regional and local levels. Simply put, for example, citymakers would need to meet a minimum increase in the State of Place Index (and show how the improvement in the State of Place Index is tied to a minimum reduction in the odds of a collision) to receive funding, to ensure funding will actually support designing for our lives.

  2. Remove “LOS” as a metric of road success

    SGA rightly calls on engineers and citymakers to stop focusing on measuring - and minimizing “vehicle delay” as a KPI (key performance indicator), as that de facto leads to roads that serve the needs of drivers at the expense of pedestrian’s safety - and lives. But traffic engineers like numbers. So let’s replace LOS with yes, POS (pedestrian level of service), as others have offered, but let’s integrate quality of design as a key measure of success in this equation. And once again, we suggest integrating the State of Place Index into the fold, not only because it captures micro-scale urban design features empirically tied to more walking (that, as a measure, has been around since 2005), but also because we now know it's tied to actual safety - and lives lost (or saved).

  3. Design for Equity

    The SGA report clearly shows that those most vulnerable among us suffer the most because of poor urban design. So they appropriately call on citymakers to prioritize projects that will benefit these populations in particular. Once again, this requires a data-driven approach. Yes, clearly, this means focusing geographically on areas that have a high proportion of older adults and people of color, and within low income communities. But we can go further. We can map out current “hotspots” - where we know the risk of collision is higher - and prioritize those that fall within these communities. AND then dig deeper, using the State of Place Index, to identify the specific changes that will make the most difference in the lives of our most vulnerable of pedestrians (to be specifically outlined in next week’s blog, but you can read more about the design features that impact safety right now, here).

  4. Stop Blaming the Feds

    SGA urges citymakers to stop using federal guidelines as a scapegoat for why you can’t put forth or implement more innovative street design, noting the new, more flexible street design standards put out by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in 2016. Simple as that. Own your bad urban design. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward progress - and designing for our lives!

  5. Design out speed

    We are SO delighted to see SGA say this that we HAD to quote it: “Rather than designing roads that encourage speeding and then relying upon enforcement, states and cities should design roads to encourage safer, slower driving speeds in the first place.” OMG, YES!!! Finally!! This is simple - or it should be. It’s not just 3-year olds (or 13-year olds) who don’t like to be told what NOT to do. Negative reinforcement (or enforcement of speed) is ineffective - especially when there’s that wide, sidewalk-less, smooth, slightly winding road ahead. Instead, it’s much more effective to get people to do something - seemingly of their own “volition” (or for your fellow nerds out there - non-volitionally). So when you create a narrower street with large trees that cast shadows on drivers windows, and pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, with curb bulb outs at the intersections, etc. that entice more people to walk - you make an environment where it’s nearly impossible for drivers to do the wrong thing. Better yet, they’ll do the right thing and they’ll think it was their idea all along. That’s how you design in good behavior (and equitably so, too by the way). Stop trying futility to (inequitably) enforce out bad behavior…

  6. Complete those Streets!

    SGA and Complete Streets are inextricably linked. And we are here to help, as we believe the State of Place Index can help quantify and standardize not just what is meant by Complete Streets but actually tie this program to results and metrics of success. But as we have written about before, just as SGA importantly points out that words matter and calls on folks to call a spade a space - accidents are NOT accidents, they are crashes (indeed this was one of our top wishes for citymakers in 2019 after all!), we’re going to challenge the folks at SGA here a little bit. Let’s make Complete Streets mostly about designing for our lives. Let’s make Complete Streets a little less, “balanced.” Let’s make Complete Streets unapologetically prioritize people over cars. It’s OK if cars - drivers - are inconvenienced. It’s OK if cars are not allowed to drive on certain streets - not all streets need to be complete - in fact, perhaps some of them can be “incomplete,” that is, explicitly exclude cars. I know much of this is just nomenclature, nuance, and lexicon…but like you said, words matter! Let’s choose words that are irrefutably pro-pedestrian and let’s stop apologizing for it. Remember, they thought Seattle was going to go all carmageddon on us but then yeah, the world didn’t end…Let’s be unabashedly bold in 2019 - not just because we dare to be awesome citymakers, but because it’s literally a matter of life and death.

  7. Design for Our Lives

    Once again, we echo SGA’s words because they are pure perfection (and maybe you’ll believe them more than us! ;)): “Test out bold, creative approaches to safer street design. Poor street design is neither an insurmountable nor expensive problem. Some cities have found success by testing out low-cost, short-term interventions to create safer streets and then measuring the results to gauge the impact of their projects to work toward permanent solutions.” We literally measure 297 different urban design features that citymakers can turn to design in safety. The good news is that you don’t need all of these to create a safe, awesome place people love. This means not only that the possibilities are endless, but that there is literally something every single community can do to help design for our lives! While, we were going to outline the 7 Urban Design Dimensions Citymakers MUST Focus on to Save Lives Now, this blog has gotten super long and let’s face it, this makes for an awesome blog title for next week, no? Stay tuned. And if you are as eager to get started saving lives - STAT - as we are, hit us up below - either schedule a chat with us or dive right into our datageekdom and try out State of Place for free today (we have nearly 8000 blocks and counting in our database you can instantly access!).