California Pedestrian Fatalities Are on the Rise

Pedestrian deaths were low in 2008, during the recession, but they have risen again to some of their highest rates in more than a decade. Image: Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design
Pedestrian deaths were low in 2008, during the recession, but they have risen again to some of their highest rates in more than a decade. Image: Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design

As detailed at Streetsblog USA, Smart Growth America recently released its updated report, Dangerous by Design 2016, on pedestrian fatalities across the nation. In general the report found that the most dangerous areas for walking are in the South, and Florida tops the rankings with eight of the ten most dangerous cities.

But California cities are not immune. California as a state ranks at number 17 for pedestrian risk, with 6,616 pedestrian deaths between 2005 and 2014. That’s almost two pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people every year. The California regions with the highest pedestrian fatality rates are Bakersfield, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Stockton-Lodi, Modesto, and Fresno.

What do these areas have in common? Like many communities in California, they were built to accommodate cars, and many parts of them lack the most basic accommodations for pedestrians such as sidewalks and safe crossings. Yet people still need to walk, and when they have to navigate wide, busy streets with fast traffic, their chances of being injured or killed go up.

It’s notable that none of these are high-density city areas where tons of people crowd sidewalks. The opposite: most of these areas are built with the assumption that people will get around by car, and those who don’t drive are forced to navigate a hostile environment to get where they need to go.

A heat map shows locations of pedestrian in Riverside County
A heat map shows locations of pedestrian fatalities in Riverside County. Image: Smart Growth America

The SGA study also shows that risk has gone up in California in the last two years. Most of that risk might be accounted for by the Inland Empire, where pedestrians’ fatality risk increased dramatically—more than any region in the U.S. except Jacksonville, Florida and the area around Memphis, Tennessee. Other California areas that show an increased risk are the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area and LA-Long Beach-Anaheim, although there the changes are not as dramatic as in Riverside and San Bernardino.

What has changed? At a webinar announcing the release of the report, Emiko Atherton of Smart Growth America said that since 2009, the economy has been growing, and more people are traveling by all modes, thus increasing their exposure and risk for accidents. But the risk to pedestrians also has a lot to do with street design. Higher speeds increase the likelihood that crashes will kill pedestrians. Many streets in California cities are built like highways, encouraging high speeds and forcing people who walk to make onerous choices about when and where to cross.

“Our infrastructure is failing us,” said Nancy LeaMond, of the AARP. She emphasized that the question of safety is not just limited to pedestrians, nor to vulnerable populations like seniors and children. “Safer streets will benefit everyone, including our rapidly growing aging population,” she said.

There’s also the equity issue. The SGA report presents data showing that people of color and seniors are at higher risk of being struck and killed by vehicles while walking.

Charles Brown, a researcher at the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, pointed out that these are largely preventable deaths, and the fact that they are disproportionately of people of color and older adults should be cause for concern.

“It shows how street design affects people of color,” said Brown “It causes loss of life. But not just that: it also drastically diminishes safe access to jobs, to parks, to health care, and to other forms of transit.”

It’s time, he said, for “cities to give a disproportionate share of their funding to address the lack of pedestrian amenities in these communities, to make up for years of disinvestment in communities of color. These are the same communities that lack capacity and the relationships” with governmental agencies to speak up about what they need.

He applauded the efforts to do “walkability audits” to assess what a community’s on-the-ground needs are, but said it’s not enough to do so during the day. “People need to walk to and from jobs at night,” he said. “Do walkability audits after dark,” he added, to truly understand what’s needed.

Smart Growth America’s website has online maps where you can check your area, to see where pedestrian fatalities tend to occur. What is it about those areas that needs fixing?

  • HayBro

    I think it’s clear there is a correlation between Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and the number of crashes, gas prices and VMT, and income and VMT. There is a direct relationship between VMT and crashes, and income and crashes. As one of the pair goes up, so does the other. And there is an inverse relationship between gas prices and VMT, as the former goes down, the latter goes up.

    So as gas prices proceeded to double from 2005 to 2008, VMT dropped and so did crashes. After 2008, the Great Recession kicked in so incomes dropped as did VMT and crashes. Now, with income climbing and gas prices dropping, VMT and crashes are up again.

    Assuming that infrastructure has not changed all that dramatically when averaged across the state over 10 years (some cities have improved, some have not – and the short time frame does not allow for dramatic changes to factor in), I think the clearest explanation in the change is simply: VMT is up (as are the number of people in CA) and so are crashes.

    Here is one figure that shows the relationship between VMT per capita vs gas prices:
    https://combsconsults.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/vmts-and-gas-prices.png

    And population of California:
    http://journal.firsttuesday.us/wp-content/uploads/California-population.png

  • Joe Linton

    I haven’t looked deeply into this, and nearly all of CA needs to be made safer for walking, but overall totals without denominators can be misleading. If twice the number of people are walking (a 100% increase), while fatalities increase by only 50%… then the overall number of ped deaths goes up while it’s actually getting safer on a per-person basis.

    • Melanie Curry

      Thanks, Joe. I should have clarified: SGA created a “PDI”–Pedestrian Danger Index–that takes into account the number of people walking as well as the number of fatalities. That’s what is increasing so alarmingly in places like Riverside–not just raw numbers of pedestrian deaths, which is alarming by itself. Whether people are walking more or less in the Inland Empire isn’t mentioned in the report–but the risk of death from walking there is much higher than it was two years ago.

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The Unequal Toll of Pedestrian Deaths

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News reports tend to blame the victims of these crashes for transgressions like "distracted walking" or crossing where they shouldn't have. But a new analysis from Smart Growth America highlights how pedestrian deaths are a systemic problem caused by the dangerous design of our streets and transportation systems.