Metro Orlando has once again topped the list of the most dangerous cities in America for pedestrians. The results are based on a pedestrian danger index created by Transportation for America that calculates the number and rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the percent of people who walk in the community. The last time I wrote about this in 2009 Orlando-Kissimmee ranked number one because of its high fatality rate of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 residents, despite the small number of residents who walk to work. This time, the rate climbed to 3 deaths per 100,000 residents. Based upon 10 years of fatality data, the study finds that between the years 2000 and 2009, 5,163 people were killed while walking in Florida. The study also estimates that the cost to the state was $22.20 billion, and that reducing pedestrian fatalities by just 10% would have saved Florida $2.22 billion over 10 years. Four metro areas in Florida made the top 10 which makes Florida the most deadly state for pedestrians, according to the study.
Officials Question Results
Central Florida officials disputed the results in 2009 and have again questioned the validity of such rankings arguing that the injuries and deaths per 100,000 are artificially inflated by the millions of tourists who come to Orlando every year. Although calculations and indexes can be subject to interpretation, and Orlando recently reported that it had over 50 million tourists visit in 2010, the number of deaths are still significant, and we can do better.
Who is to Blame?
Transportation for America supports use of alternative forms of transportation and argues that pedestrian deaths are predictable because we have historically designed roadways for cars and ignored design standards that are more pedestrian-friendly. Roads are built to move traffic quickly and little thought goes into how people that walk or ride bicycles will use the roadways for travel. The group correctly points out that most pedestrian deaths are labeled “accidents” and attributed to error by the driver or the pedestrian. If I asked you to guess the most dangerous roadways in Orlando for pedestrian accidents, you would probably answer Colonial Drive, Highway 50, State Road 436, Orange Blossom Trail and U.S. Highway 192. You would at least guess 3 or 4 correctly. That’s because we all know those are dangerous areas because of the density of traffic and how wide the roads are. I once represented a client who was partially blind and struck by a car running a red light. What was chilling was my client’s account of how difficult it was for her and her children to get across Highway 192 before the light changed. Most of us probably take our ability to cross the street for granted. Most of us probably take having cars for granted, and when we do walk, we probably take sidewalks for granted too.
Not Everyone Owns a Car
A couple of months ago I met Timothy McKinney from United Global Outreach who was speaking at a Kiwanis meeting I was attending. Mr. McKinney’s organization is leading a community revitalization campaign in Bithlo, which is just outside of Orlando. Growing up in the Orlando area, I knew of Bithlo as the local punch line for jokes about poor folks who live in trailers. Although I knew the community was neglected, I hadn’t really thought about what it was like for someone in Bithlo to get to work or go to a doctor. Mr. McKinney told stories of residents walking several miles along the shoulder of the highway just to get to a bus stop. Several years ago our public transportation service, LYNX, stopped offering bus service to Bithlo due to funding cuts. Many of the residents do not have transportation and have to walk to get to work, to a grocery store, or to a bus stop. Because they cannot afford to own a car, they have no choice but to make the dangerous walk down Highway 50.
The statistics cited by the Transportation for America study show that pedestrian fatalities disproportionately affect seniors and minorities. The fatality rate for seniors is 3.7 per 100,000 compared with 2.7 for people under 65. The average for Hispanics was 37 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites, and the rate for African-Americans was 48 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites. These differences can likely be attributed to income levels. Consider that lower income residents are less likely to own automobiles and tend to walk more. Also, most higher income neighborhoods are not adjacent to high traffic areas, in contrast to apartment complexes which are usually built closer to major roadways.
What’s the Answer
Transportation for America argues that it simply comes down to infrastructure and smart design. As pointed out in the report, more attention and money must be spent on the problem. Smart design means transportation agencies must make pedestrian safety a priority and not just design roadways for speeding traffic. Obviously, Floridians rely heavily on automobiles for transportation. When we had the chance to build high speed rail, Governor Scott killed the plan and rejected federal money because he argued there wouldn’t be enough riders to justify the cost. So, Florida will continue to do what we’ve always done - build more roads and add more lanes. But, at what cost to our safety and our prosperity? Sure, as long as we have our weather and the attractions, the tourists will come. But what about businesses and new residents? Infrastructure and quality of life are vital to our long term economic development, and transportation band-aids will never be in our long term interest.
When times are tough and our state budget is out of whack, it’s easy to brush a problem under the rug in the name of fiscal responsibility. U.S Rep. John Mica of Winter Park wants to lift the requirement that 10 percent of federal gas tax proceeds be spent on things like sidewalks and bike lanes. Governor Scott’s new Secretary of Transportation, Ananth Prasad, recently testified before Congress saying, “We must give serious consideration to whether—when resources and dollars are at a premium—spending money on sidewalks, bike trails, beautification, and other projects like this is the most prudent use of taxpayer money.” Beautification is one thing, but saving lives is another. We can and should do better. Growth is inevitable and necessary, but we must have responsible growth. To grow our economy and be attractive to job-creators, we’ve got to have safer streets and sidewalks that make our state a better place to live and work. Ignoring the problem is not the answer. Please share your opinion with me in the comments below.