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August 2022 - Episode 6

Killer Roads

We have a problem in America. That problem is pedestrians getting hit and killed by cars. It’s an issue that government officials and transportation professionals alike spend a good deal of time and money trying to solve.

And while this affects every community in the country, it disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. It’s just one way that Black Americans have had their mobility arrested.

Why is it that Black and brown folks are the ones most likely to be struck and killed? And why did fatalities go up in 2020 even when driving went down?

Today, we’re exploring why these preventable injuries and deaths happen and what can be done about it.

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Barcelona street
Photo by Barcelona on Unsplash

Charles T. Brown:
In 2010, Jonathon Stalls walked across the US. He began to notice that necessary parts of our communities, grocery stores, bus stations, housing were not safely accessible as a pedestrian. He took to social media to show people what he was seeing.

Jonathon Stalls:
Just notice all the gaps here. So we have hotels, destinations. Everything behind there is a transit station, Home Depot, large commercial area, a bus route that goes right here, mixed income housing that’s right over here, a large residential neighborhood right on the other side. So much disconnection around the dignity, health of people who walk and use a wheelchair, those who depend on it, and all of those, the millions, who would choose to do it.

Charles T. Brown:
The roads separating these communities were often at least four lanes, wide with speeding cars and insufficient pedestrian crossings.

Beth Osborne:
Those roads are not built for the communities that they touch. Those big fast roadways are built for people coming from another community that sees your community as along the way in the best possible light, and in the way in the worst possible light.

Charles T. Brown:
We have a problem in America, that problem is pedestrians getting hit and killed by cars. It’s an issue that government officials and transportation professionals alike spend a good deal of time and money trying to solve. And while this affects every community in the country, it disproportionately affects black and brown communities. It’s just one way that black Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today we’re exploring why these preventable injuries and deaths happen and what can be done about it. I am Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us. At the top of the episode, you heard from Jonathon Stalls, a walk-in artist who runs a project called Pedestrian Dignity. More on that later in the episode. You also heard a powerful quote from Beth Osborne.

Beth Osborne:
My name is Beth Osborne. I’m the Vice President for Transportation and Thriving communities at Smart Growth America. Smart Growth America is a national nonprofit that focuses on the built environment, the way we develop our community and build our housing and our transportation, with the goal of creating communities that are healthy, prosperous, and resilient. We want it to be that way for all people, whether or not they have the money that you might need to purchase a vehicle to get around or, as is the case in too much of the country, one vehicle per person 16 and over in your house to be able to just accomplish those daily needs.

Charles T. Brown:
I wanted to talk with Beth because their organization publishes the report every year called Dangerous by Design. The report examined cases where people were struck and killed while walking or using a mobility device, breaking the data down by race, income, and location.

Beth Osborne:
This is a report that we started doing back in 2009. A part of Smart Growth America is the National Complete Streets Coalition, and the Complete Streets Coalition is focused on creating roadways that are built for and safe for everyone no matter how they travel, whether they’re inside or outside of a car. Well, back in 2009, the safety trends were going well when you averaged them out, but what we could see is they looked very different when you looked at the pedestrians. And so overall things were getting safer, but not for people outside of a car. I would argue that that was because of all the time and attention we have put towards vehicle standards that protected those inside a vehicle from increasingly dangerous conditions. Well, in recent years, we’ve continued to build up the armor of those vehicles, creating increasing danger, particularly to those outside of the vehicle.

And the reason it is important… I mean in recent years, particularly 2020 and 2021, there’s no good news on roadway safety for anybody. Things have gone really poorly, and we have seen deaths amongst people walking or rolling, like on a wheelchair or using mobility assisted device. Those deaths have gone up 4.7%. We really saw a profound leap in roadway fatalities in 2020, pedestrians among them. And it looks like preliminary results for 2021 is it was another record-breaking year in the worst possible way. So why the report is important, is it showing that we are not accomplishing our goals in spite of claiming repeatedly that safety is the top priority. We don’t actually demonstrate that in our actions or our results, and more importantly, it is the most vulnerable on our roadways that are bearing the brunt of that danger.

Charles T. Brown:
The report also ranks the top 20 most dangerous cities and states for pedestrians using data from 2016 to 2020.

Beth Osborne:
Nobody likes being at the top of our list. We rank cities or metropolitan areas, and we rank states, and they hate being in our top 20 on either. It’s not good news. I do take pains to argue that those that are not in the top 20 don’t tend to have much in the way of bragging rights either. Being middle of the road or even one of the safer communities in the most dangerous country in the world when it comes to roadway safety is, it’s not bragging rights. But we have made people explain to their public, explain to their locals, explain to their press why it is they are doing so poorly. No one likes to do that. So it puts a higher level of pressure on them to prioritize safety in a new way. I hope this particular report, which showed that even when driving went down by a profound amount, that things got more dangerous.

See, underlying a lot of the rhetoric around safety has been, for all of my career, the belief that when driving goes up, fatalities go up. It can’t really be helped. It’s like an act of nature, and it’s just kind of the price of doing business. But when people drive a little less, we see those fatalities go down. Then 2020 comes along. We see a lot less driving and a lot more fatalities, little by little as we continue the drumbeat and continue to focus on this issue, one excuse after another for not focusing on designing our roads for safety, designing our roads for good behavior, designing our roads for everybody, especially those who are most exposed and most vulnerable.

Charles T. Brown:
I want to highlight what Beth said. Even when the pandemic causes driving to go down, fatalities went up, shattering the theory that fewer cars on the road means fewer deaths. There is another widely held belief that speed kills. That is, when a car strikes a pedestrian, the speed at which the car is going determines whether or not the pedestrian dies. Using this logic, you might suggest reducing speed limits or increasing police enforcement of speed limits. However, neither of these solutions get to the root of the issue, which is that these roads were designed to get cars where they’re going as fast as possible with little regard for other modes of transportation. Beth explains how we got here.

Beth Osborne:
Over the years, I think the auto manufacturers deserve some blame, and they do again. Cars have gotten much safer, which has helped reduce roadway fatalities, but now a lot of vehicle manufacturers are building their cars to be intimidating. That’s what they’re saying to the press. And that intimidation comes with real threat and real danger. It’s designed with things called front blind spots. What a delightful euphemism for blinding the driver from what’s in front of them. How that is considered appropriate to have on our roads at all is baffling to me. There is certainly blame for people who misbehave. We know that people can be distracted when they’re in a car or out a car, that people might drink and drive, or that sometimes people behave in reckless ways. However, people are people and behave that way across the world, and not every country has our terrible and embarrassing results.

So that leaves one category, and that is the people who design our roadways. And our roadways… If you go way back, they were designed for activity and commerce. And then as the car came onto the roads, we saw a lot of crashes and deaths, and then a multi-decade effort by the auto manufacturers to blame the people in the street as opposed to the drivers and the cars. And then came along the highway era, really kicking off in or being supercharged, at least, in 1956 with the Interstate Highway Act, that prioritized the building of high speed roads. This was a real important turning point. What was interesting is in the fifties, those high speed roadways were built to be safe, which meant not in our grids, not within the transportation network. They were separated. Because it would be crazy to introduce those kinds of speeds into a complex urban or rural environment. That was obviously dangerous.

But as the eligibility of the program, both at the federal and the state level, expanded include more than interstates than state highways, and a lot of the state highways that go through towns, we took those high speed standards and applied them in a one size fits all way to every kind of road. So now we have these high speed priorities built into those roadways that are often at the end of your block. And then we’re shocked that the very thing that we sought in the fifties to remove from our local networks, is creating havoc and confusion and danger. It is built for speed. Anything that slows down people in their cars, moving at a high speed on that corridor, is a problem to be fixed. It is not the goal of transportation professionals to get people where they’re going no matter how they travel, and they choose those who can afford a reliable automobile over those who can’t, or for those who don’t want to spend their money in that way, that don’t wish to pour money into cars or pour their time into being in cars.

Charles T. Brown:
With roads everywhere prioritizing vehicles rather than walkers or rollers, why is it that black and brown folks are the ones most likely to be struck and killed? And why did fatalities go up in 2020 even when driving went down?

Beth Osborne:
Before 2020, most crashes happened at night or outside of peak hours. That’s when the roadways were wide open. During peak travel, like the morning and evening rush, the roads were full, and that was an interesting safety interventions that slowed down speeds and therefore reduced fatal mistakes. When people made a mistake, they were going very slowly. Those don’t tend to… They create a little property damage, but people walk away from those crashes. That was interesting. We found that walking went up in every single community we studied, but things did not get more dangerous in every community we studied. Those areas where there was a higher share of people walking to work before the pandemic tended to not see an increase in fatalities even though walking increased.

But those that had a low share of people that would walk to work on a regular basis, saw an increase in walking and a pretty big increase in fatalities. And the third thing I would say, which is not a new finding, it’s something that we’ve seen before, but it definitely continued and that is the burden falls much more on the shoulders of black and Native Americans. Black Americans are twice as likely to be struck and killed while walking over white Americans, and Native Americans are three times as likely as white Americans to be struck and killed while walking. There’s just not been a budge in those numbers.

Charles T. Brown:
Let’s explore why those numbers haven’t moved. To help us, I brought in two researchers who authored a paper on this subject titled An Exploration of Pedestrian Fatalities by Race in the United States.

Dr. Rebecca Sanders:
Yes. Hi, I am Dr. Rebecca Sanders. I am the founder and principal investigator of Safe Streets Research and Consulting.

Bob Schneider:
Yes. Hi, I am Bob Schneider, and I’m a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

Charles T. Brown:
I asked them what they found in their research.

Dr. Rebecca Sanders:
We found significant disparities according to race for pedestrians who were killed in motor vehicle crashes. In particular, we found if you look just at roadway design characteristics, we found that black pedestrians were significantly more likely to be killed on roadways with four or more lanes, on arterial roadways, freeways, and local roads, basically across the board compared to white pedestrians. Once you’ve controlled for the type of environment, actually then they were less likely to be killed on roadways that had higher speed limit over 40 miles an hour than white pedestrians. But that’s after controlling for all of these other things. We also found that when you added census data into the model, so when you controlled for who lives in an area, all of that went away. And that should be alarming to every listener because what that suggests is that those really dangerous roadway characteristics are highly significantly correlated with who lives in an area. In other words, where we’ve put those really dangerous roads is highly significantly correlated with black neighborhoods.

Bob Schneider:
Yeah, that’s a really helpful overview Rebecca. I just want to back up for a second to provide a little bit broader picture as well of the differences in fatality rates by race. So one of the helpful things that the Dangerous By Design report sheds a light on is the over representation of black communities and Native American communities, in particular, in pedestrian fatalities. One question that people might have when they read that report, since they’re using population-based fatality rates, is that, “Well, do people who are black or Native American simply walk more than other groups of people?” And this is really important to know because if they do, maybe that’s why we see higher numbers of fatalities. So one of the things that we did in our Pedestrian Fatalities by Race paper was to control for the number of trips made by different racial groups using the 2017 National Household Travel survey.

And it’s certainly not a perfect estimate of exposure, but it gives us a sense of how much different groups are walking. Basically what that says is, these different racial groups are walking about the same amount. Which leads us to conclude in looking at the data that Native American and black people, in particular, their pedestrian fatality rates, Native Americans are 318% higher than the US average. Black pedestrians have a fatality rate that’s 44% higher than the US average, and then Hispanic pedestrians have a fatality rate 12% higher than national average. So we’ve controlled for the amount people walk to some degree and we still see these same disparities.

Charles T. Brown:
It is no surprise that where you live has a huge effect on your chances of being struck and killed by a car, particularly if you are black or brown. I asked Beth what role systemic racism plays in this.

Beth Osborne:
There’s so much systemic racism in putting black and Native Americans in a place where it is harder to afford a vehicle. Look at me, I could not find a job that I could get to outside of a vehicle. Well, who bailed me out of that situation? My mom and dad. Well, we know that you don’t have the same level of intergenerational wealth because so much of our history obliterated that wealth, especially in terms of property for black and Native Americans, so they can’t bail their kids out the same way.

We know that we have built a lot of highways straight through black and brown communities, separating them from jobs, and causing, again, damage to property and property values and the ability to just move around within your community to cross over what might be, you can go back further, a rail bed or an interstate that is coming through your community in a trench, might require you to go miles out of the way just to cross directly over to the destinations within sight. And even on those regular major roads in your community that we call arterial roads, they can also be built in such a way that it is treacherous to cross. And if you are amongst the population that’s going to have less access to a car and you have a dangerous road coming through your community, you’re in the crosshairs of that situation.

Bob Schneider:
Black and brown people have been more often segregated to parts of cities that have these more dangerous roadways that the people who might want to change the system as a whole see that that challenge of those dangerous roadways, multi-lane arterials that carry large traffic volumes, the challenge of addressing that is really hard because somebody’s going to have to make an economic choice to some degree to slow down traffic a little bit to save people’s lives. And in this case, they’re saying, not directly, but they’re essentially making the choice, it’s not worth it to save those lives for slowing people down a little bit. And I think that is a mistaken moral choice. And we need to be thinking about it that way.

Charles T. Brown:
Coming back to that idea of speed kills, Dr. Sanders explains how devastating it is to see roadway design that is so strongly linked to black and brown deaths.

Dr. Rebecca Sanders:
Basically, when we are looking at traffic safety, trying to understand what affects traffic safety, we know that ultimately what hurts the human body is impact speed, but what leads to speed is the design of the roadway. So yes, it’s actually speed kills, but if you don’t design the roadway so that people will go 40, 45, 50, 55 miles an hour, they won’t get to the speed that will kill the human being trying to cross the street. Those design characteristics therefore are incredibly important for us to understand speed number of lanes, because number of lanes, it doesn’t just impact speed, it also impacts yielding behavior.

So if you are crossing a street, and it’s a four to six lane arterial, and you may have one, even two drivers yield to you, but if the third one and the third lane doesn’t see you, it doesn’t matter that the first two stopped. We see this throughout the south, throughout any auto dominated area of our country, we have these kinds of roadways, and we have the horror stories of people trying to walk across with the baby stroller, with a walker, just as a normal person, and they are hit in the middle of a massive road, and they are killed and they do not make it home to their family, or maybe they aren’t killed, but they are injured and their life is forever changed. So those design characteristics, over and over again, show up in studies as being incredibly associated with, and some might even say at this point, we have enough to say cause pedestrian risks.

When we put those in the model with the population demographics, those that we know actually contribute to the event itself disappeared. And what we were left with was incredibly high significance of basically this being a predominantly black neighborhood or a predominantly lower income neighborhood. And so to me, it was heartbreaking to see it so clearly, that these things that we absolutely know lead to pedestrian fatalities don’t hold a candle to just whether or not the neighborhood is predominantly black.

Charles T. Brown:
Now that we’ve talked about the research, let’s go back to street level. On his walk across the country, Jonathan Stalls encountered many communities that are dangerous by design.

Jonathon Stalls:
There are and were uncountable experiences with human bodies moving through roads and environments to get home, to get to work, to get to school, and seeing and witnessing so much harm as their body interacts with an environment that’s not built for them, that’s not built for their body to safely move from place to place, whether that’s on foot or on wheelchair. Seeing so many people who use wheelchairs in the middle of roads as cars blaze by, seeing so many elders clenching the hands of their grandchildren, clenching the hands of grocery bags just next to a bus stop that doesn’t have any support without sidewalks in all weather, and just seeing that over and over and over again.

Also notice the very real and lived class and race injustices connected to bus routes and roadways related to redlining. As I was moving across the country, I was moving on a lot of arterial roads where the bus routes were. Those were the more practical paths that would get people to destinations quicker. Often as I move, that’s how I’m moving around as a pedestrian. And so the dignity element, both from a class perspective, a racial justice perspective, and just the raw, humble human frame trying to survive a trip to the grocery store.

Charles T. Brown:
When we are talking about pedestrians in our work and in our research, I want us to think of them as Jonathan Stalls puts it, the humble human frame trying to survive a trip to the grocery store. If you are black or brown, that trip to the grocery store carries with it a higher likelihood that you won’t make it home. It is a horrific reality with systemic racism at its root. Consider how news reports describe a pedestrian being struck and killed by a car.

Beth Osborne:
The reporter will say something like, “No one knew why the pedestrian was out so late at night.” But they don’t ask why the driver was out so late at night. And maybe it’s because the person who was walking didn’t have access to the same kinds of white-collar employment that people who grew up like me who had the money to send their kids to college and give them every opportunity in the world had, and so maybe they had shift work, or they had to run out for something late because they got home so late from their second job that that was their only time to go get something, or to take a break. There’s so much judgment that falls on the weaker folks in our system, and people who are traveling around with less, that I think it’s yet another place where we give decision-makers an excuse to not take action, to make things better, not just for them, but for all of us.

Charles T. Brown:
So what can we do to take action?

Bob Schneider:
I think we have several roles. One is simply to state the obvious that we find in our research, that black and brown communities have been overrepresented in these fatalities for decades, and that people need to know that that’s an issue. Secondly, we need to be asking questions and doing more in-depth research to find out why. As we’ve been talking about, we just don’t know enough of the behavioral, systemic, other reasons that might lead to crashes and fatalities to then come up with good solutions so that we will see lower risk across the board. The idea of Vision Zero that we need to be promoting, as academics and practitioners, requires all groups to get down to zero fatalities. And if the black community has a longer distance to go because of these systemic issues, we need to be prioritizing the needs in that community.

Beth Osborne:
One thing that gave me great hope is the part we did in the report with the National Association of City Transportation Officials, that got into the fact that 60% of these fatalities are occurring on 15% of the roadways. That’s it, 15. If we got serious, we could fix 15% of roadways in no time. In five years, we could make a huge dent in 15% of roadways, and we could go from the embarrassment of the Western world to at least middle of the pack, if not an incredible turnaround story that everyone points to everywhere.

Charles T. Brown:
It feels like an unattainable goal to fix all of the deadly roads in the US, and repair the countless communities that have seen their walkers and rollers killed. But as Beth reminds us, we can make a huge dent by tackling the deadliest roads first and going from there. I encourage you to go and read The Dangerous By Design Report. Find out what places join Memphis Tennessee and Fresno California on the top 10 list of most dangerous cities for pedestrians. Thanks to Beth Osborne for speaking with me. Many thanks to Dr. Rebecca Sanders and Dr. Bob Schneider, whose research paper you should also read. In fact, read all of their research. And if you’re on Instagram or TikTok, I highly recommend following Pedestrian Dignity. Thanks to Jonathan Stalls for his wisdom and time. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media @ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using #ArrestedMobility. To read the research we’ve discussed today, you’ll find all the links on our page for this episode at arrestedmobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.