How Better Design Could Save Pedestrians' Lives

New York City police are stepping up efforts to rein in jaywalkers after cars struck and killed several pedestrians earlier this year. But enforcement alone won't make streets safer.

In the wake of public outcry over a spate of pedestrian deaths earlier this year, New York City officials announced that they would adopt a "Vision Zero" policy. Modeled after a Swedish concept introduced in the late '90s, it sets a goal of absolutely no traffic fatalities in the country. Sweden has reduced its road deaths by half since 2000, becoming one of the safest places in the world when it comes to traffic deaths. A total of 264 people died in traffic in the country last year. By contrast, 176 pedestrians were killed in traffic in New York City alone last year.

Mayor Bill DeBlasio outlined his proposals for achieving Vision Zero in mid-February. They include lowering the citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph and stepping up enforcement for moving violations like failing to yield. Controversially, although DeBlasio has insisted it's not part of citywide plans, police have ramped up their efforts to rein in jaywalkers: according to the New York Times, the department issued 215 jaywalking tickets in the first month and a half of 2014, compared with 27 issued in the same period last year.

Image: NACTO, Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. "John Massengale, Victor Dover, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, 2014.”

While it's important to step up enforcement of basic traffic laws--like, say, don't turn on top of a pedestrian with the right of way--the issue is in many ways a matter of design. Few people get into their cars with the intention of running down a pedestrian or two. Redesign roads and traffic planning policy with safety as the highest priority, and the number of fatalities falls. How Swedish planners achieved a safer traffic system, per a recent explainer in the Economist:

Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of '2+1' roads--where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking--is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps, are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five years.


Despite the fact that New York has the highest rate of transit ridership in the U.S. and walkable neighborhoods, there are still plenty of places where the city has been molded by the need to get cars where they're going, fast. "We have roadways designed around the car, in a city teeming with ever more people on foot," journalist Leigh Gallagher wrote in a New York Times editorial last week.

Gallagher notes that the stretches of roadway that have proved most dangerous in New York City are not bustling downtown streets teeming with a mix of pedestrian traffic, bike messengers, taxis, and parked cars. New York has plenty of narrow, crowded streets of exactly the sort urban designers consider the safest. The more upfront obstacles drivers have to avoid, the more they stay alert, slow down, and drive carefully.

Image: NYC Crosswalk via Shutterstock

Rather, it's the roads that feel safest to drivers that are most dangerous for those on foot. Big, open highways where it feels perfectly normal to relax and hit the gas do not mix well with pedestrian traffic, Gallagher writes:

These streets are not intimate village blocks; they are major corridors that more closely resemble arterial roads, those fast-moving stretches of four- to eight-lane thoroughfares that connect one suburban town to another, on which cars travel up to 60 miles an hour.

Such roads are famously dangerous for pedestrians. Eric Dumbaugh, the director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University, has found that every additional mile of arterial road increases traffic fatalities by as much as 15 percent.


One of the major thoroughfares that has proven so dangerous for New Yorkers on foot is Queens Boulevard--sometimes called the "Boulevard of Death." It's a highway, part of New York State Route 25 that at its widest stretches across 12 lanes. Putting up a pedestrian crosswalk or a painted bike lane on the side of a 12-lane highway isn't enough. New infrastructure has to safeguard the large swath of residents who need to traverse that section of Queens without a protective layer of air-bag equipped vehicle, whether that comes in the form of bike lanes, pedestrian bridges, or something else entirely.

Better yet, turn it into the city street it's pretending to be. Narrow lanes. Add trees, speed bumps, and zebra-striped crossings. Put up intersections designed with pedestrian and cyclist safety in mind, rather than easy traffic flow. Steal a chunk of road as a pedestrian plaza.

These designs have been shown to slow cars down. That's the whole point. Sweden's Vision Zero policy is based in large part on the idea that no car that might interact with pedestrians should be going more than 18 mph, a speed at which most people survive being hit. When roads are designed like highways, drivers treat them as such. Redesign the road to feel like a 30-mph street rather than a 60-mph highway, and people will slow down. That makes everyone safer.

[Image: Crosswalk via Luciano Mortula / Shutterstock]]

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