The Vicious Cycle at the Heart of Pedestrian Safety

When people feel unsafe, they walk less; with fewer pedestrians, walking becomes less safe.

1 minute read

December 17, 2023, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Low view of empty crosswalk at night from middle of street with blurred cars speeding by on both sides.

Thecountryside / Adobe Stock

Responding to a recent New York Times story highlighting the high rate of nighttime pedestrian deaths in the United States, Streetsblog’s Kea Wilson notes that the article, which identified some key factors in the road death crisis, missed one other point: “the dwindling number of walkers on our roads may itself be contributing to the nation’s fatality rates — and how much worse the death tolls look when seen in the context of how little Americans walk.”

While walking rates dropped by 36 percent between 2019 and 2022, pedestrian deaths increased by 20 percent. “And because walkers are generally safer in numbers, thinning that herd can have deadly consequences for anyone who remains.” As Wilson points out, the U.S. has a much higher per-mile pedestrian death rate than countries like the U.K. or the Netherlands.

Traffic engineer David Levinson calls this phenomenon as the “cycle of unwalkability,” wherein “the presence of cars worsens the conditions of pedestrians; worse conditions for pedestrians reduces walking; reduced walking increases the use of cars; repeat.”

“We don’t just need to install streetlights, redesign roads and cars, disable cell phones when their owners are behind the wheel, and give the poor the mobility and housing options they need to keep them out of harm’s way.” For Wilson, it will also take the rebuilding of “a culture of walking.”

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