Pedestrians and cars: Getting around in America

August 28th, 2019

Rise in pedestrian fatalities

A study released earlier this year by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) discovered that pedestrian fatalities are at the highest level in the United States since 1990 and, with 250 more pedestrians killed in 2018 than in 2017, are expected to increase. Pedestrian fatalities now account for one of out every six traffic fatalities, and five states combined — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas — account for almost half of these deaths in 2018. Senior citizens, children and the poor are disproportionately likely to be victims, probably because these groups are less likely to have access to cars and are subject to infrastructure that’s often designed without considering nonmotorists.

Not surprisingly, both distracted driving and the use of smartphones while operating a vehicle contribute significantly to pedestrian fatalities. While more states are passing “hands-free” legislation prohibiting drivers from touching their phones, these laws still have to be enforced to make a difference. The American preference for larger cars like SUVs, pickup trucks and crossover utility vehicles has also played into the increase in fatalities. When pedestrians are hit by bigger, heavier, more powerful vehicles, the outcome is more likely to be deadly. The GHSA report notes that pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs jumped 50% between 2013 and 2017. Additional factors that have impacted the recent increase in pedestrian deaths include the growing population in many states as well as cheap gas prices that encourage more people to drive more miles.

Oddly, despite pedestrians being the more vulnerable party in these accidents, many proposed solutions to reduce fatalities are directed toward them and not the people operating potentially lethal metal vehicles that weigh several tons. Several cities, including Honolulu, have passed “distracted walking” laws that include fines for using digital devices while in a crosswalk. Despite the evidence that systematically redesigning streets to prioritize safety over speed is what reduces road deaths, as The Baffler magazine noted in 2018, public service announcements continue to target pedestrians with reminders to wear bright or reflective clothing and make eye contact with drivers before entering crosswalks. Instead of protecting pedestrians, the politically expedient thing seems to be to blame them rather than challenge the prevalence of car culture.

America loves cars, but at what cost?

Nowadays, most city streets are designed primarily to be used by cars, but this wasn’t always the case. Historically, streets were part of the public realm and, as recalled in The Baffler, were shared by vendors, streetcars, playing children, horsedrawn vehicles and people on foot. This began to change in the early decades of the 20th century as cars became more common. Laws privileging cars and their right-of-way were enacted in the 1920s under encouragement from the burgeoning auto industry.

As cars became cheaper and more accessible throughout the 20th century, the automobile culture of the 1950s took root, and cars became synonymous with American life and freedom of movement. While other countries invested in mass transportation and railway lines, President Dwight Eisenhower worked to create the interstate highway system with the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

There’s no question that automobiles are extremely convenient. Access to a car means no waiting for a streetcar to arrive, for instance, and no sweaty walk uphill while carrying groceries. But nationwide, having more cars on the road also means increased traffic and slower commutes, costing both time and money. America continues to benefit from cheap fossil fuels that encourage driving over other means of transportation. Since most car trips involve only a single person, this means a huge number of mostly empty vehicles on the roads. Alarmingly, our personal vehicles are one of the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing immensely to climate change. Though cleaner fuels and hybrid or electric vehicles help some, buying a new car is a large expense. Since most cities lack a comprehensive mass transit system, many people are left without much choice but to drive.

Toward a better future

In other arenas, Christians are quick to concern themselves with the safety and protection of the most vulnerable as well as with the future flourishing of the environment around us; but when it comes to transportation, we might be hesitant to pass judgment or make suggestions about individual behavior. Instead, we should zoom out to the systemic level. Ideally, people could safely and enjoyably use a variety of transportation mediums to access their destinations, but there are so many incentives to drive that they’re hard to overcome.

The Vision Zero Network seeks to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. Viewing traffic safety as a public health issue rather than an inevitable side effect of modern life, Vision Zero promotes redesigning roadways and other policies to account for the inevitable mistakes that drivers make to ensure that these don’t result in fatalities. Their direction starts with the ethical belief that everyone has the right to move safely in their communities, whether or not one owns or has access to an automobile.

Others believe that many of our problems with urban design are owed to a failure of imagination. To put it simply, we’re so conditioned to cars that we don’t think of alternatives. In response, some cities are experimenting with temporarily closing down streets to cars. In Paris, the famous Champs-Elysees goes pedestrian one Sunday a month. Other communities host Open Streets events where people are encouraged to walk, bike and otherwise engage with their neighbors and improve their health in a way that’s not possible while encased in a metal box. Similarly, churches might encourage alternate transportation such as carpooling or bicycling.


The scooter conundrum

Over the last year, cities around the United States have found themselves inundated with dockless scooters. Operated by companies such as Bird, Lyft, and Lime, these electric scooters can be unlocked and paid for with an app on your phone. In theory, they offer a quick and easy way to travel distances of a couple miles or can be used as a “last mile” solution in concert with public transportation. In reality, users discard them carelessly, blocking sidewalks, and often ride them recklessly or while intoxicated.

Since scooters travel at speeds up to 15 miles per hour, the companies encourage riders to use them on roads and in bike lanes rather than on sidewalks; but the lack of infrastructure in many cities leads users to utilize the sidewalks, causing a danger to other pedestrians. Injuries and even some fatalities have resulted from their usage, causing some cities to cut down on the number of scooters on the streets.

These California-based companies entered the market with the aim of “disrupting” transportation, and they have done that, exposing the latent desire for a quick, cheap, and fun means of transportation, Vox reports. Instead, scooter users have few places to ride safely and succeed in angering both motorists and pedestrians. Meanwhile, cities struggle to regulate the scooters and adjust to the rapid changes to our roads and other public spaces.

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