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Memphis Is Nation's Deadliest City for Pedestrians

A new report tracked pedestrian fatality rates in the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. Almost all of them are becoming more dangerous.

A streetcar in downtown Memphis
The rate of pedestrian fatalities is rising in Memphis, along with most other U.S. metropolitan areas. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Memphis, Albuquerque and Tucson have the highest fatality rates for pedestrians, according to a new report from Smart Growth America.

  • The 20 most dangerous cities in the U.S. are all in the southern half of the country.

  • Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be killed while walking than white people. Low-income communities are the most endangered.

  • In a new report, the advocacy group Smart Growth America compared the rates of pedestrian deaths and injuries per capita in the largest metropolitan areas in the country, and found that nearly all of them were becoming more dangerous.

    The group has been tracking traffic violence and issuing the report, called Dangerous by Design, every few years since 2009. That period has seen a big rise in traffic deaths and serious injuries.

    More than 61,000 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the last decade, compared to about 46,000 in the decade before that, according to the report. In 2022, 7,522 pedestrians were killed — an average of more than 20 people per day. “If 20 people a day fell out of the sky, we would shut down the aviation industry,” said Calvin Gladney, the president and CEO of Smart Growth America, during a press briefing on Wednesday.

    Pedestrians, bicyclists and other people outside of a car also make up a larger share of traffic deaths than they used to. The report also tracks common disparities among pedestrian deaths: Black pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be killed as white ones, with Native Americans more than four times as likely. Pedestrian fatalities are also most common in census tracts with the lowest incomes. “The more struggling you are financially, the more dangerous our roadways will be for you,” said Beth Osborne, a vice president at Smart Growth America.

    Memphis, Tenn., is the most dangerous city for pedestrians. The Memphis area saw 343 pedestrian deaths between 2018 and 2022, up from 186 during the previous five-year period, even as its overall population shrank. It was an exceptional spike in traffic danger for the city, but the overall trajectory is common. Of the 101 metro areas studied in the report, the fatality rate for pedestrians trended upward over the last five years in all but 18.

    Other cities with the highest fatality rates for pedestrians include Albuquerque, N.M.; Tucson, Ariz.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Daytona Beach, Fla; and Baton Rouge, La. All of the 20 most dangerous cities are in the southern half of the U.S., where the population is growing most quickly.

    Hidden Costs

    The report focuses on some “hidden costs” of traffic violence. Collisions that don’t result in death nevertheless cause injuries with varying degrees of severity: 137,325 pedestrians visited the emergency room for injuries between 2021 and 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the danger on American streets prevents “countless” people from taking walking trips in the first place — a detriment to public health.

    “Improving infrastructure and building safer, more welcoming streets for all road users leads to higher rates of walking,” the report states. “Increased physical activity supports reduced stress, improved social connectedness and other indicators of health and well-being.”

    Most traffic deaths occur on state-owned roads, according to the report, including 66 percent of deaths in the 101 metro areas the group studied. The group lays the blame for traffic deaths at the feet of roadway design. On roadways designed for 40-mile-per-hour speeds, corner intersections are often designed to allow drivers to maintain speed as they make a turn, Osborne said.

    That makes it less likely that the driver will have time to stop for a pedestrian, even if there’s a pedestrian crosswalk. “What we’ve told the driver is, you don’t need to slow down to make this turn, but if there’s a pedestrian a few yards ahead of you, you need to stop on a dime,” Osborne said. “Those are two things that are not possible in the rules of physics as we know them in this dimension.”

    To improve safety on roads, cities should consider a range of tactics for reducing conflicts between drivers and pedestrians, the report concludes. The federal government is providing new funding for such projects — things that include lane narrowing, protected bike lanes, raised pedestrian crosswalks and curb bumpouts — through the Safe Streets for All program.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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