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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Best and the Worst U.S. Cities for Pedestrians

Air Date: Week of

In the last decade more than 47,000 pedestrians were killed in the U.S. A new report shows that the most unsafe cities were developed in the last half of the 20th century and were planned for cars, not people. Boston, Cleveland and New York are the safest; Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville are the most dangerous. James Corless is director of Transportation for America. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that senior citizens are especially vulnerable.



Some suburbs have very few sidewalks for pedestrians. (Photo: by Stephen Lee Davis/Transportation for America.)

GELLERMAN: Most days I commute to work by bus. It's quick and easy.


GELLERMAN: But the hard part comes in the evening…when I head home.


GELLERMAN: Thank you.


BUSDRIVER: Have a good day!

GELLERMAN: I have to cross 2 lanes of traffic - on a busy road. The nearest crosswalks and traffic lights are a quarter of a mile away - so I jaywalk, dodging cars, trucks and buses.


GELLERMAN: And yet compared to other major cities in the United States, metro Boston is judged the safest for pedestrians...that's according to the just released study, “Dangerous by Design," from the groupTransportation for America. James Corless is the director of the organization, and Mr. Corless, hi, welcome to Living on Earth!

CORLESS: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Corless, as you heard, I was getting off my bus, crossing the street, and taking my life in my hands. Sound familiar?

CORLESS: It does. Our report shows the last decade alone, 47,000 people have lost their lives simply crossing the street.

GELLERMAN: And those are people killed- what about injuries?

CORLESS: 688,000 injuries over 10 years, the last decade.

GELLERMAN: That’s interesting, because Boston and Cambridge are, according to your report is the safest major urban center in the country. Why is some place like Boston safe and other places not?

CORLESS: Well, if you look at the top ten list you’ve got places like Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Las Vegas, Pheonix, Huston, Dallas - these are places that were really built in the latter half of the 20th century- they were built with traffic in mind. Wide, high-speed arterial streets, it was the model for how we built a lot of our neighborhoods and subdivisions in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when it was just sort of imagined that we would, sort of, no longer need to walk anywhere.

And clearly, even from a public health perspective, we’re having doctors tell us that we need to have more exercise, go out and, you know, walk half a mile or jog. And frankly, the irony is, there’s not a lot of safe places to go and do that.

GELLERMAN: Your report says that there are some groups that are more prone to being involved in pedestrian accidents than others…

CORLESS: That’s right. Seniors, they’re at much higher risk- they’re out walking, they’re actually, generally speaking, more in places with better weather, they’re, a lot of them, retirees. Many seniors actually… they don’t have enough time to even cross some of these big, dangerous streets. There was an old story- it was a UC Davis 20 year-old who originally set a lot of the signal timing for pedestrian signals way back in the 1960s and we haven’t changed much since then.

GELLERMAN: So what do we do about that? I noticed reading your report you mentioned ‘road diets.’ What’s a road diet?

Bikers safely crossing a bridge in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of Dan Burden)

CORLESS: A road diet is looking at the entire street from curb to curb and thinking about trying to accommodate all users. So, perhaps rather than six lanes of traffic, you go to four.

You have a turn lane to accommodate turning movements, you have bike lanes, wider sidewalks. It’s a lot about the width of streets - it’s a lot about the visual cues that we provide drivers that slows that speed of traffic down which is really critical, because if you’re hit at 30 miles per hour or above, you’ve a very slim chance of surviving.

GELLERMAN: No wonder one of the cities that ranks very high over the last many years of the reports is St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay area.

CORLESS: Right, a lot of Florida cities, in fact, four of the ten most dangerous regions are all in Florida.

An example of a complete street that gives visual cues to drivers. (Photo: Sophie Glass)

GELLERMAN: In St. Petersburg, they use a system, a new system, called the enhancer. I want you to hear it because this uses sound and lights to get people’s attention.

[ENHANCER: Hi there, to cross the road, push the red button/ Hola, para cruzar la calle, por favor, aprete la buton rojo.]

GELLERMAN: So I guess this LED flashes very fast and it notifies drivers. And, as you heard, it’s in Spanish.

CORLESS: Right, which, as our report shows, if you’re Hispanic, the pedestrian fatality rates are much higher in fact. Hispanic seniors have some of the highest fatality rates for pedestrians of any demographic group.

GELLERMAN: And why would that be?

CORLESS: A lot of racial, ethnic minorities, folks on fixed income, low incomes - they’re walking more, they have less access to vehicles, and they also live in neighborhoods with some of these really big, wide high-speed streets.

GELLERMAN: Well, I want you to hear the second message that you get with this enhancer, because it seems to have really worked.

[ENHANCER: Hello! You’ve activated the cross-walk signal. Wait for the traffic to stop before you cross. To show traffic that you want to cross, place one foot near the curb-line, and remember, thank the driver for stopping as you are crossing the roadway.]

CORLESS: More of these kinds of cues for both pedestrians and drivers is a very good thing. Distracted driving, we believe, plays a role in some of these fatalities, but also I think we can’t underestimate the value of just simply designing streets to be safer.

GELLERMAN: What proportion of federal money goes for traffic safety for pedestrians and bikers?

CORLESS: Very little, actually, goes for those purposes. For walking and bicycling and those kinds of safety activities - even though it is 12 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians, less than two percent of the money gets spent on making the roads safer for people walking.

GELLERMAN: Congress is supposed to authorize the Federal Transportation Bill every, what, six years, right?

Broken sidewalks make streets hazardous for pedestrians. (Photo: Dr. Scott Crawford)

CORLESS: Every six years. We’re 600 days late on the last authorization.

GELLERMAN: Why’s that?

CORLESS: Well, there are a lot of reasons. The first and foremost, which is par for the course these days, is that they don’t have enough money. The federal gasoline tax, 18 cents a gallon, is not bringing enough money into the federal highway trust fund, raising the gas tax at a time of high gas prices is not popular.

GELLERMAN: So if you had to do one thing, make one change - what would it be?

CORLESS: We as Transportation for America, would like Congress to adopt complete streets policy, which basically says, look, every time you go in and fix a road, you tear it up, you repave it… put in some bike lines, put in a sidewalk. Do it right the first time so you don’t have to come back later and fix it at great expense. More people are walking and bicycling today even though it still is unsafe out there, and the younger generation really seems to be much more interested in a different lifestyle that includes, sort of, more walk-able neighborhoods.

GELLERMAN: Well, James Corless, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.

CORLESS: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: James Corless is Director of Transportation for America.



Report: Dangerous by Design


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