Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cars, Pedestrians and Safe Streets

Is New York really the 13th most dangerous large city in the country for pedestrians?   A study reported on earlier this week at Streetsblog shows New York, somewhat surprisingly, to have a pedestrian fatality rate comparable to such car-friendly cities as Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles. 

Regardless of the reason for these findings, the study I think does show one thing clearly: to reduce pedestrian fatalities to near zero, a city has around two options:
The Modernist solution: total pedestrian segregation.
  • Remove pedestrians from the city to the extent possible, or segregate them.
  • Remove cars from the city, or greatly constrain them.
Reflecting the first option is the idealized auto-dependent city of the early Modernist period, at right: a mocked-up American version of the Corbusian Ville Contemporaine filmed for the 1939 World's Fair, where all pedestrians are strictly segregated in recognition of the incompatibility of high-speed traffic arterials and human beings on foot (a more  localized example is the enclosed mall).  On the other hand, a car-free city such as Venice also has, unsurprisingly, a very low pedestrian fatality rate.

By contrast, in dense urban areas where large numbers of pedestrians and high-speed traffic share the streets, it appears a certain rate of pedestrian deaths is inevitable regardless of the measures which are taken to redesign street layouts.  Presumably this is due to induced pedestrian traffic: as an urban environment becomes more pleasant for pedestrians, pedestrian activity will rise in response, resulting in a numerical increase in fatalities even as the per capita fatality rate falls.  If the new pedestrian volume does not come at the expense of more dangerous automobile use (e.g. if people drive to the pedestrian-friendly area), the number of total transit-related fatalities may remain essentially the same.  Possibly this explains why cities of such varying pedestrian friendliness have roughly similar fatality rates: New York (1.9/100,000); Houston (2.0); Los Angeles (2.0); San Francisco (1.6); Atlanta (1.6); Philadelphia (1.7); Denver (1.7).  

Running the gauntlet, 3rd Avenue, NYC.
This is why I think Jane Jacobs was on point in when, in terms of improving the city's streets and other public spaces, she referred to "an attrition of automobiles by cities" (Death and Life, p. 474) rather than today's "efforts to improve pedestrian safety."  The difference may seem minor, but Jacobs' statement identifies the culprit not as insufficient accommodation for people on foot — which implicitly acknowledges the primacy, or at least inevitability, of the automobile — but the automobile itself, the culprit behind pedestrian deaths along suburban arterials and urban streets alike.

Jacobs envisioned a long-term strategy in which pedestrians would, bit by bit, encroach upon and reclaim the public realm from the car.  This is quite different from a modern Complete Streets approach, which at best seeks equality for pedestrians, rather than privilege, and which at worst, as Strong Towns Blog has shown, results in over-engineered, car-friendly thoroughfares where sidewalks and bike lanes are little more than an expensive afterthought.  To fully address street safety, the conception of the role of the car in urban settings could stand to take a bit more inspiration from Jacobs' point of view.

See also:  Are Narrow Streets A Realistic Objective?

(h/t Pedestrian Observations).


  1. Contrary to popular conception in the U.S., if you make "Really Narrow Streets," i.e. pedestrian streets of 10-20 feet wide building to building, then these streets become a pedestrian-friendly environment and pedestrian traffic fatalities are low. Take the example of Tokyo, where there are many Really Narrow Streets, and also many cars. The cars are usually not banned from using the narrow streets, but simply don't go there because it's a bad place to drive.


    A NYC government study on traffic fatalities from 2010 found:

    Lowest fatality rate: Stockholm 1.23 per 100,000.
    Third lowest: Tokyo 1.70
    NYC: 3.49
    San Francisco, CA: 4.33
    Los Angles, CA: 7.64
    Atlanta, GA: 10.97

    This is both pedestrian and driver fatalities. In NYC, 52% of fatalities were pedestrians.

    Obviously, bigger streets=more cars=more fatalities.

  2. Wrong link. Here's the NYC study:

  3. Thanks for catching that, Nathan -- I've updated the link. It's not exactly the same study but deals with the same topic.

    The one I linked does not have much in the way of non-pedestrian traffic fatality numbers, but there does seem to be greater variation in driver and passenger fatalities than pedestrian deaths among the big cities. My hunch was that as cities arrange their streets to be more unfriendly to cars, reducing speeds and/or traffic volumes, driver fatalities will drop off yet pedestrian fatalities will remain more or less constant (as pedestrian volumes increase). Difficult to argue that's a "safer" result for pedestrians specifically.

    Of course in the USA this process involves tweaking hypertrophic streets which remain 60-100 feet wide. On the other hand if streets are really slimmed down as you mention it looks as though it's possible to minimize both types of fatalities -- another point in favor of narrow streets.

  4. Hi Charlie,

    To be honest, I had no idea what the result would be until I looked it up. The data shows a clear skew that the most pedestrian places (Tokyo) have lower fatalities and the most auto-centric places (Atlanta) have the highest. I haven't been to Stockholm but they do have some narrow pedestrian streets there judging by pictures.

    Your hunch that pedestrian fatalities would remain constant makes sense, but I note that 52% of fatalities in NYC were pedestrians, and 52% of 3.49 is 1.81. That's more than total fatalities in Stockholm or Tokyo.

  5. Nathan,

    Thanks again for that study. Stockholm also has a large area of the city center which is mostly car-free -- if pedestrian activity is concentrated there, that may greatly reduce total pedestrian fatalities.

    I think the point still stands, at least for now, that in a downtown with mostly wide streets, all with several lanes of traffic, as is the case in most all large American cities, it's going to be difficult, short of removing cars (or pedestrians) altogether, to move below that 1.5-2.0/100,000 fatality level. At some point in walking around people will have to cross at grade multiple lanes of traffic that can safely move 40+ mph, no matter how nice the street trees are, whether there's a bike lane, pedestrian islands, etc., and accidents will happen.

  6. That's actually not the true culprit that Jacobs mentions in the chapter.

    "But we blame automobiles for too much."

    "Many city districts, without the benefit of erosion, are thin and impractical for use except by private automobiles and always were—even before automobiles."

    "Territories exhibiting the Great Blight of Dullness need to be supplied with whatever conditions they lack for generating diversity. This is their basic need, regardless of traffic. But it is an aim which becomes impossible to further, if accommodations for huge numbers of cars get first consideration, and other city uses get the leftovers."

    So: don't put your city into a bind by giving over too much consideration to automobiles. At the same time, getting rid of automobiles will not make your city suddenly embrace diversity. This can only be done through all the other activities she mentions that are antithetical to modernist planning principles.

    The domination of cities by cars is only one roadblock, and actually not as difficult as getting cities back to the other principles she espoused.

  7. t0wnp1ann3r: Thanks for your comment -- I agree completely. My post really pertained only to dense, mixed use urban areas that have a high level of pedestrian use to begin with. Jacobs is certainly right to suggest that impeding traffic from entering a downtown that, for instance, has been shorn of its surrounding residential fabric, or was low-density to begin with, isn't going to magically revitalize that space. In some cases it may even have the opposite effect. I suppose that's the lesson of many a 70s-era downtown "pedestrian mall" along Main Street.

  8. This is both pedestrian and driver fatalities. In NYC, 52% of fatalities were pedestrians.

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