Every day, Tamika Butler watches as the residents of her majority-Black neighborhood in Los Angeles dart across six lanes of traffic on busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
As a transportation safety expert, Butler, 37, knows the risks they’re taking. As a resident, Butler knows they have few other options. In some areas, crosswalks are 1,300 feet apart on a road that itself is about 75 feet wide. Last year about 120 people were killed walking Los Angeles’ streets, making the city one of the most dangerous for pedestrians.
“People are out here dying,” said Butler, an attorney and PhD student at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. “They are walking because they have to walk.”
Those deaths in Los Angeles reflect a grim reality nationally: 2020 was the deadliest on record for U.S. pedestrians in 32 years, and those who were killed were disproportionally poor, Black, Latino or Native American people, according to estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association and the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
But now safety experts hope a massive infusion of Biden administration funding will reshape cities and tribal areas to make them safer for pedestrians, reversing longstanding inequities. President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan signed into law last week provides more than $13 billion in new money for roadway safety to communities, potentially funding everything from tougher speeding enforcement to new crosswalks, safety lighting and underpasses beneath busy roads. Also on the potential agenda: more red-light and speed cameras.
Safety experts hope communities that historically lack the money to invest in safety will finally get a chance to catch up to richer areas, where streets are almost always safer. Some communities that have already adopted “Vision Zero” plans, in which local political leaders commit to concrete efforts to eliminate roadway deaths, will get additional funding for their efforts.
“It’s hard for us to overstate how excited we are for the safety impact we think it will bring,” said Russ Martin, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a 50-state nonprofit that will help distribute some of the money. “There’s a desire to try new things in some communities that haven’t had the money to try them before. Some communities have barely scratched the surface.”
He said the Biden infrastructure plan gives the association a 20% increase in grant funds, plus provides an extra $1.2 billion annually in “Safe Streets For All” grants for cities and tribal governments. The money can be used for a wide variety of projects, from lighted crosswalks to roadway improvements and tougher DUI and speeding enforcement.
Aside from these grants, much of the infrastructure funding will be awarded by the federal Department of Transportation to local, state and tribal governments starting in 2022.
The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates at least 6,721 pedestrians were killed by drivers last year, up 8% from 2019, even though people drove significantly less during the pandemic. Pedestrian deaths had been trending down for decades, hitting a low of 4,109 in 2009, but have been steadily increasing ever since, according to federal statistics.
Experts attribute the rise to increasingly distracted drivers who are driving faster behind the wheel of heavier vehicles like SUVs and pickups, which take longer to stop. Exacerbating last year’s death toll: many low-income essential workers who usually ride transit started walking to avoid COVID-19 exposure.
“People are just behaving recklessly, driving way too fast. It’s tougher on the roads. And at the same time, people have been avoiding transit in large numbers,” said Sam Schwartz, a New York City-based traffic engineer with 50 years of experience.
Schwartz, who advises federal and state government officials on traffic safety, said traffic engineers know how to reduce pedestrian deaths, by keeping walkers and drivers physically separated when possible with barriers or underpasses and by reducing traffic speeds in areas where people walk.
But even before the pandemic, virtually every American was speeding whenever they drove, according to federal studies, and they were doing it in heavier vehicles that are more dangerous to pedestrians during a collision. A crash that used to leave a pedestrian with a broken leg now may throw them across the street, causing far more injuries, said Schwartz.
He said all the modern distractions of vehicles, from cellphone calls to texting and entertainment systems, means drivers pay less attention to what they’re supposed to be focusing on.
“It’s like a disease that just keeps getting worse and worse,” said Schwartz, whose consulting company is a frequent federal and state traffic safety advisor, including on transportation inequity.
According to the most recent GHSA statistics, New Mexico is one of the most dangerous state for pedestrians, in part because large portions of it are part of the Navajo Nation, with long stretches of rural roads, few sidewalks and crosswalks. Florida and Alabama are also notoriously dangerous, largely for the same reasons.
“We do know the solutions, but part of the problem is that so much of the highway engineering design standards are designed to prioritize the movement of cars,” said Mike McGinn, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group America Walks. “We tend to think everybody drives. And that’s not true.”
McGinn said there’s a clear pattern repeated across the country: Even within the same communities, wealthy areas get more pedestrian safety options, from bike paths to underpasses and curving roads designed to keep speeds low on their “quiet, leafy” streets. Exacerbating the problem, he said, low-income Americans are increasingly being priced out of walking-friendly downtowns and moving to suburbs lacking protective infrastructure.
“Poor neighborhoods get wide roads with high speeds and few crosswalks. There are definitely racial and class issues in how we build and design our streets,” said McGinn, a former Seattle mayor. “We know that it’s wide lanes and high speeds that really cause the problem for pedestrians. If you built ’em fast and wide, you see deaths and injuries go up.”
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Experts say lighted crosswalks are one of the cheapest and most powerful tools for improving pedestrian safety, although studies have repeatedly shown that drivers are less likely to stop for Black pedestrians. Red light and speed cameras, which reduce the need for police officers to make traffic stops, may also help better protect pedestrians, according to studies.
Laying out a formal strategy for reducing deaths, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in January will publish the federal government’s first-ever comprehensive National Roadway Safety Strategy, which will help determine how the new safety money is allocated.
The federal government this fall informed 15 states and Puerto Rico — which together are responsible for half of all road-related deaths annually — of their responsibilities to improve safety, and laid out options ranging from red-light cameras to rumble strips, variable speed limits and better lighting. Another option: putting four-lane roads on a “diet” and trimming them to one lane in each direction, with a center turn lane, which can reduce crashes by up to 50%, according to federal safety officials.
“We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America,” said Buttigieg in a statement in October. “It will take all levels of government, industries, advocates, engineers, and communities across the country working together toward the day when family members no longer have to say goodbye to loved ones because of a traffic crash.”
Martin, the transportation safety and equity advocate, said she’s cautiously optimistic about Buttigieg’s efforts, which she said can be tied back to his time as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Like other experts, she said she hopes local officials can use the Biden safety money to make lasting improvements in communities that need them, rather than just building more roads to improve driving.
In Los Angeles, Black pedestrians make up nearly 20% of all walkers killed by drivers, even though Black residents represent only 9.8% of the city’s population, according to a December 2020 study by the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.
Martin said she’ll also be watching carefully to ensure that public meetings held to decide how to spend the money are held at times and in locations that help the working poor participate.
“I remain excited, I remain upbeat (but) the true work comes in the implementation,” Butler said. “Our communities have been saying this for so long: Why does my Black kid deserve to be any less safe than the white girl walking to school? All people deserve to be protected.”