Back in the days when Winona Ryder was still a teenager in Petaluma, California, she and her buddies would hang out with their skateboards in front of the old downtown movie theater, which sat safely alongside a little parking alcove off of Petaluma Boulevard. A decade later, though, the action moved a couple of blocks north. With coffee shops on both sides of the boulevard and teens crossing constantly in the middle of the block with the restless energy of people on the hunt for fun, at least one pedestrian or biker could count on getting hit along that stretch each year.
So Petaluma tried something new: LED lights implanted in the road that flash and tell drivers whenever people are crossing. It has worked. In six years, there has been only one pedestrian accident on Petaluma Boulevard, and it was caused by a biker who darted suddenly into traffic. The Petaluma lights, which cost about $20,000, have now been installed in 150 places from Florida to the Northern Mariana Islands, with more to come.
In fact, there is much more to come, not only in the limited field of crosswalk lighting but across the whole range of pedestrian safety issues. Sixteen states are considering legislation this session to address pedestrian rights one way or another. Many of them are earmarking funds for localities to hold educational campaigns or build roads that may be more pedestrian-friendly.
There's no question that some of this is a function of federal attention. As recently as 1990, only 4 million federal dollars were devoted to bike and pedestrian safety projects around the country. Last year, the amount had increased to $296 million. Also, fear of lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act has promoted accessibility in road designs, which has aided all pedestrians, handicapped or not.
But something much larger is involved--a growing national recognition of just how treacherous crossing the street can be in an ordinary American town. Pedestrian programs still account for only about 1 percent of transportation funding, but walkers make up 12 percent of all the traffic-related dead. There are 5,000 pedestrians killed by motor vehicles every year. An increasing number of people--parents whose kids walk to school along roads with no sidewalks, neighbors watching seniors get hit as they try to navigate widening streets-- have reached the conclusion that these are preventable deaths and that something should be done to stop them.
A long walk around the San Francisco Bay Area offers a pretty good overview of the pedestrian safety efforts that are springing up all over the country, but along the West Coast in particular. Some have an "only in California" feel: San Francisco has placed posters in bus shelters that read, "I'm sorry I ran over your grandma, but I didn't want to spill my latte'." Palo Alto is running a road-sharing campaign called "Share Our Streets, As If."
But most of the attempts to make traffic less hazardous for walkers have been, like Petaluma's roadway lights, duplicated far and wide. San Jose is considering tripling its "traffic calming" expenditures to $5 million this year. San Francisco has increased the length of its green walk lights and installed "countdown" traffic signals that let a pedestrian know how much time is left to scamper across the street. These devices have cropped up in many other places, including Providence, Rhode Island, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Oakland, meanwhile, runs sting operations in which police play pedestrians and radio for help after witnessing infractions. The city is about a third of the way through the process of creating a pedestrian master plan--the second in the country, after Portland, Oregon--that will make walker safety a priority in projects over the next 20 years.
Those of us who aren't overly fond of exercise may be heartened by studies that suggest walking briskly three times a week provides as much cardiac benefit as you're likely to get out of exercise. Such studies, though, fail to note how much more dangerous it is to try to cross traffic than to run your miles on the gym treadmill. Although the number of pedestrians killed each year has actually been decreasing since the 1980s, that's not because streets are safer. It's because people aren't walking as much. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of walks the average American adult takes per year plummeted 42 percent between 1975 and 1995. Pedestrian deaths merely tracked that decline, coming down 43 percent.
In his 1998 book "A Walk in the Woods," Bill Bryson ruefully notes that "every 20 minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week." Bryson at one point leaves the trail to buy insect repellent and finds himself on a six-lane road with no sidewalk. Cars repeatedly honk at him "for having the temerity to proceed through town without benefit of metal."
Most of us have had an experience like that. Suburban developments are plotted on the self-perpetuating assumption that people don't want to walk more than a few hundred feet at any given time. Everything traffic engineers have done to make America a series of straight lines between separate points--widening roads and making it easier to turn at curbs without slowing down appreciably--has made life riskier for pedestrians.
"Many times as a driver, I've stopped to let pedestrians cross," says Oregon state Senator Ginny Burdick, who is sponsoring legislation to require other drivers to do just that. Burdick laughs as she says, "In some ways, I feel like I'm endangering myself and others because drivers aren't expecting me to stop just because someone is standing there waiting to cross."
If there's one thing pedestrians have going for them, it's that almost everyone likes them, if only in theory. In the hopes of every New Urbanist planner, making communities more "livable" has become conjoined with the idea of making them "pedestrian-friendly," the common denominator in shortening travel distances and promoting mixed- use development. In a particularly fulsome moment at a 1998 campaign stop, Al Gore opined, "The indicator species of a healthy city is the pedestrian."
"I would say people are looking for an environment that is safe and tranquil and healthy," says Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, "and cars don't tend to be conducive to that type of an environment." As a member of the Oakland city council, Miley helped push through the city's current pedestrian safety program, which has cut the number of collisions fatal to the pedestrian from 24 in 1994 to six in 1999.
In Oakland, different city departments meet monthly to address issues touching on pedestrian safety, involving not just planners but emergency medical crews and neighborhood groups. In some localities, the issue of pedestrian safety is moving beyond the purview of the transportation department into the broader realm of public health.
Pedestrian advocates are fond of knocking cops for not enforcing traffic laws in their favor, but the San Diego Police Department goes out of its way to alert the city's traffic engineering department to safety hazards it identifies. Retired officers are also leading pedestrian safety classes at each of the city's 15 service centers.
Traffic research indicates that, generally speaking, low-income neighborhoods bear a disproportionate brunt of pedestrian fatalities, as those residents are more likely to walk or use public transportation. In addition, low-income neighborhoods typically are home to wide boulevards without the median islands that help to protect pedestrians. An example is New York's Queens Boulevard, the "boulevard of death," where a pedestrian is killed on average every six weeks.
"Traditionally, traffic enforcement is handled the same way in every part of the city," says Lieutenant Charles Hogquist, who heads San Diego's accident investigation bureau. "What we're trying to do is tailor the programs for each of the communities."
For all the increased sensitivity in recent months, however, pedestrian safety is a difficult issue on which to sustain attention.
The media spotlight focuses on high-profile pedestrian deaths, not on organized agitation or legislative proposals. "You have a tragedy and people want to do something right away," says David Godfrey, traffic engineer for the city of Kirkland, Washington. "But it's hard by its nature to come up with solutions that are going to prevent all accidents, and that's very frustrating for everybody involved."
In general, pedestrian advocates have to be patient, as they have been in Portland, where the Willamette Valley Pedestrian Coalition goes out of its way to get its members planted on any citizen advisory committee that oversees public works projects. Getting in at the design stage is a gradualist strategy, but it has led to more curb extensions and pedestrian islands in Portland than almost anywhere else in the country.
But perhaps the most striking example of long-term pedestrian design agitation occurred in Boston. The city has long bragged that once its Central Artery Project, known as the Big Dig, is completed, the downtown and harbor will be united by walkable green space where currently there are highways. The city has less heavily advertised the fact that it plans to put a major arterial road on top of the new tunnels.
City engineers originally envisioned a 10-lane road. The groups Walk Boston and Move Massachusetts got wind of this idea and engaged in a five-year lobbying campaign, enlisting the help of neighborhood associations, downtown businesses, architects, preservationists and museum groups that eventually convinced the mayor that his vaunted "walk to the sea" should not be impeded by a through highway. Instead, the city will construct a six-lane road that will include a bike lane, wider sidewalks and increased parking.
Pedestrian advocates throughout the country have learned a lesson from the Boston episode: If they dig in and refuse to give up, they can eventually be heard even on the most expensive and elaborate projects. "It's still an uphill struggle, because cars are king," says Alameda County's Miley. "I wouldn't say it's becoming chic at this point, but pedestrian safety is becoming part of the mindset of traffic planners."