Sunday, March 24, 2019

'Boulevards of death': why pedestrian road fatalities are surging in the US

from The Guardian:
Study cites population growth, driver distraction because of increased phone use and the growing popularity of SUVs as deaths reached an almost three-decade high last year
A fluorescent pink banner taped to the street light at a dangerous intersection in the New York City borough of Queens is framed with flowers. “Rest In Peace Sherena,” it reads. “Killed by a reckless driver.”

Passersby stop to read the poster, which serves as a temporary memorial for Sherena Hundalani, 26. She worked in her father’s restaurant but was struck and killed by a taxi while waiting at the intersection of the infamous boulevard on 24 February. Police are still investigating the tragedy.

Queens Boulevard has been known locally as the “Boulevard of Death”, the site of more than 130 pedestrian deaths since 1990. Such accidents sharply decreased after the city invested $4m to redesign the street, however, creating bicycle and bus lanes.

And although it’s the most densely populated city in the US, with a reputation, perpetuated in thousands of movies, for crazy streets jammed with honking cabs, roaring trucks and feisty pedestrians, New York City has become a national poster child for pedestrian safety. In 2017, it had its lowest number of pedestrian deaths since 1910. Yet Hundalani’s death serves as a reminder of the continued carnage on America’s roadways. Nationally, pedestrian deaths are rising and reached an almost three-decade high last year, according to new figures.

The tragedy plays out 17 times a day on average in the US. The latest study shows an estimated 6,227 pedestrians were killed in traffic in 2018. The report, from the Governors Highway Safety Association, found that while overall US traffic deaths fell 6% from 2008 to 2017, pedestrian deaths increased by 35% – and continue to rise.

“This was a total reversal of the progress that we’ve made in the past 30 years,” Richard Retting, a transportation engineer and author of the report, told the Guardian.

Although 23 states achieved decreases in pedestrian deaths in 2018, 25 saw increases. Five states – Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas – accounted for 46% of all pedestrians deaths in the country.

The study cannot point to a lone factor in the surge, but cites population growth, driver distraction because of increased phone use at the wheel and the growing popularity of SUVs over smaller family cars. Other issues such as poor street lighting, alcohol and drugs on the road and speeding are cited as factors in the increasing death toll because they have been largely unaddressed, Retting added.

He called for more effort with relatively simple but effective policies such as improved street lighting and stricter enforcement of traffic laws. For example, Florida is spending $100m for street light improvements to address a persistent problem of nighttime pedestrian fatalities.

Increasing the legal consequences for hitting a pedestrian could make drivers more alert, Retting said, while stricter standards for obtaining a driver’s license, especially after it’s suspended, could keep more bad drivers off the road.

Globally, the flagship initiative to end traffic-related deaths, adopted by many countries, is known as “Vision Zero”. The concept was developed in Sweden in 1997 and focuses on re-engineering streets, along with enforcement and education, with the ultimate goal of eliminating all traffic-related deaths.

In the US, more than 30 cities have adopted Vision Zero policies over the last five years, said Veronica Vanterpool, deputy director of the Vision Zero Network, a non-profit that helps cities design safety policies and shares data.

“We [need] to really account for the inevitability of human behavior,” Vanterpool said. “Designing our roadways so that if we make an error … that’s not necessarily a death sentence.”

Vision Zero plans have brought mixed success. Despite implementing Vision Zero policies in 2015, pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles spiked in 2017. The city has responded by identifying dangerous streets and modifying crosswalks and traffic lights, but political pushback from commuters halted some bolder provisions.

Comparatively, New York City, the first in the US to adopt Vision Zero in 2014, has seen success after gathering data about its most dangerous streets, redesigning some, and lowering the standard city speed limit from 30mph to 25mph, with $1bn further investment promised by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that New York, which has the largest Vision Zero program, also had the largest drop in pedestrian fatalities,” Retting said.

Joseph Cutrufo, communications director for Transportation Alternatives, a city pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group, said adjusting street design had the most impact.

“They’ve taken some of the more complicated intersections and the most dangerous and simplified them,” he said.

One so-called “priority corridor” lies between Bushwick and Ridgewood in Brooklyn, where three two-way streets once came together to form a six-legged intersection. After three pedestrian deaths there and more than a dozen injuries over a five-year period, the city permanently closed a leg of the intersection in December 2016 to form a pedestrian plaza.

Though the now-five-legged intersection still buzzes with vehicles, locals say it’s now easier to be a pedestrian.

Local resident Nymia Espinosa, 18, said: “It used to be more hectic … cars coming in from every street. “Re-engineering like this is very helpful … Now there are more people coming into this area.”

Back on Queens Boulevard, crossing the vast street is still stressful. Pedestrians have just 40 seconds to dash across 10 lanes of traffic.

“I’ve had multiple times crossing where [drivers] just don’t watch, where I’ve seen people been nearly hit or I’ve also nearly been hit,” said Vicky Straszak, 30, who works at a coffee shop on a corner overlooking the intersection.

Prakash Hundalani, the bereaved father of Sherena, who runs the restaurant in Manhattan where she was a floor manager, told the Guardian his daughter’s death proves that cities must focus on pedestrian safety.

“My daughter was just standing there” when she got hit, Hundalani said.

He sighed, clearly devastated after losing his child. “It’s so sad. Very, very painful,” he said.

by Lauren Aratani and Hazar Kilani in New York

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