Which comes first, the car culture, or the infrastructure for cars?
I ask this chicken-and-egg question because I saw in a recent report by the alternative transportation advocacy groups Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) that the 10 most dangerous metro regions for pedestrians are all in the South. If you have ever spent much time in the South, the statistics are no surprise. Southern drivers tend to behave very aggressively toward pedestrians, and pity the poor fool pedaling a bicycle. Even in car-centric L.A., motorists usually cut pedestrians a pretty courteous berth.
Transportation for America and STPP blame roadway design and urban development practices for the dangerous conditions in which pedestrians trod. Urban growth patterns that require everyone – motorist, pedestrian, cyclist – to use the same collector and arterial streets are a real safety hazard. I think these conditions create a car-only culture in which anyone who tries to get around without a car is considered a lesser human being. No sensible person would be out there walking along a road without a sidewalk, right? This attitude then drives (pardon the pun) a public policy that is overwhelmingly aimed at accommodating the needs of automobiles.
Yet nearly half of the people living in the United States do not drive. They are too young, they are too old, they are too poor to own a car, they have a physical or mental disability. A few people even choose not spend the $5,000 to $10,000 a year it costs to own, operate and insure a car.
This sidewalk along a Sacramento retail center provides excellent access to a utility box, but none to the apartments in the background.
According to the advocacy groups, about 13 pedestrians in the U.S. are killed by motor vehicles every day. I disagree with the groups that all of these deaths are preventable. No matter how we design our cities, drunks will stumble into downtown traffic, depressed people will jump in front of buses, and kids will do stupid things. Still, many deaths and injuries are entirely preventable. The advocacy groups have four recommendations:
• Employ traffic calming and street design to slow motorists.
• Design and build "complete streets" that take into account the needs of all users, not only motorists.
• Take advantage of the federally funded Safe Routes to School program.
• Design and develop walkable neighborhoods in which residents and visitors may literally run errands.
Pedestrians have forged a narrow path where a downtown San Leandro sidewalk ends. The city has plans to alter this hazardous situation.
In California, we're lucky that many cities already follow some or all of these recommendations. That doesn't mean our cities couldn't do a lot more. None of them, after all, made the top 10 safest cities on the advocacy groups' list.
On a related note, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel business writer Richard Birch recently wrote an interesting piece on the social and financial costs of our devotion to the automobile. Yes, it's another one of those why-can't-we be-more-like-Europeans? opinion columns, which can be so tiresome. Still, Birch makes several good points.
– Paul Shigley