April 2023 By Adam Paul Susaneck, Graphics by Sara Chodosh and Taylor Maggiacomo, Mr. Susaneck is an architectural designer and the founder of Segregation by Design. He uses historical data and archival photography to document the consequences of redlining and urban renewal.
An estimated 19 pedestrians a day, on average, were struck and killed by automobiles in this country in 2022. The year before, pedestrian deaths reached a 40-year high. Line chart showing that U.S. pedestrian deaths have increased 37% since 2000 while motorist deaths have declined 24%.
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
While these deaths spiked across the board during the pandemic, the fatalities follow a clear and consistent pattern: Across the country, Black and Hispanic pedestrians are killed at significantly higher rates than white pedestrians.
A study published last year by Harvard and Boston University deepened our understanding of this phenomenon by controlling for the distance traveled by different racial groups when driving, walking or riding a bicycle. It found that Black people were more than twice as likely, for each mile walked, to be struck and killed by a vehicle as white pedestrians. For Black cyclists, the fatality risk per mile was 4.5 times as high as that for white cyclists. For Hispanic walkers and bikers, the death rates were 1.5 and 1.7 times as high as those for white Americans using the same modes of transportation.
Black pedestrians and cyclists have a higher per-mile risk of being killed by cars
Dot plot showing that Black pedestrians are at more than two times the risk of death as white pedestrians
Source: “Disparities in Activity and Traffic Fatalities by Race/Ethnicity” in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The design of our cities is partly to blame for these troubling disparities. Pedestrian and cyclist injuries tend to be concentrated in poorer neighborhoods that have a larger share of Black and Hispanic residents. These neighborhoods share a history of under-investment in basic traffic safety measures such as streetlights, crosswalks and sidewalks, and an over-investment in automobile infrastructure meant to speed through people who do not live there. Recent research from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that formerly redlined neighborhoods — often the targets of mid-century “slum clearance” projects that destroyed residences and businesses to allow for new arterial roads and highways — had a strong statistical association with increased pedestrian deaths. The neighborhoods graded D for lending risk by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation had more than double the pedestrian fatality rate as neighborhoods graded A.
Decades of civic neglect, collapsing property values and white flight took a further toll on pedestrian safety. Sidewalks — which many cities rely on property owners to maintain — were left to crumble along with vacant buildings, turning a simple walk down the street to a bus stop or store into a perilous journey. One study of Florida roads found that the likelihood of a crash involving a pedestrian was three times as great per mile on roadways with no sidewalks.
The broken streetscape is only part of the problem. These neighborhoods are “much more likely to contain major arterial roads built for high speeds and higher traffic volumes at intersections, exacerbating dangerous conditions for people walking,” according to a recent report from Smart Growth America, a nonprofit focusing on urban planning and sustainability. These roads and highways, designed in the middle of the last century to provide convenient access to the city from the ever-sprawling suburbs, often brought misery to the minority communities they hurtled through.
In Los Angeles, for instance, a 2020 analysis by U.C.L.A. researchers found that although Black residents made up 8.6 percent of the city’s population, they represented more than 18 percent of all pedestrians killed and around 15 percent of all cyclists. From 2016 to 2020, the Los Angeles metropolitan area had more pedestrian deaths than any other metro area in the United States and a pedestrian death rate higher than the metropolitan areas around New York, Philadelphia or Washington. Series of maps showing how, in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., the network of roads with the most injuries overlaps with the regions with high Back and Hispanic populations
Construction of the Harbor Freeway in the 1940s and ’50s rammed mid-block through the residential heart of South L.A., displacing tens of thousands in an area that by the 1930s had become majority Black.
Outside of highly congested Midtown Manhattan, New York City’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians are disproportionately located in historically Black and Hispanic areas of the South Bronx, East Harlem, and East New York.
Some of the most notoriously dangerous roads, such as Atlantic Avenue, Grand Concourse and Queens Boulevard, were redesigned in the 1940s to accommodate high-speed through traffic.
The most treacherous streets are concentrated in West and North Philadelphia, the cores of the city’s Black population. North Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard has earned a particularly notorious reputation as the “Corridor of Death.”
Despite passing through residential areas, six of the road’s fourteen miles don’t even have sidewalks.
While much of the whiter, more affluent Northeast and Northwest quadrants prevented the construction of planned freeways through their neighborhoods in the 1960s, Southwest and Southeast D.C., which are predominantly Black, were not as lucky. Construction of I-395 and I-295 displaced thousands and increased congestion on local access roads.
Pedestrian casualties in D.C. are highest in Ward 7 and Ward 8, home to the city’s largest numbers of Black residents. Sources: American Community Survey 2021, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, New York City Department of Transportation, The District Department of Transportation, City of Philadelphia Vision Zero
As a society, we have been laying the blame for pedestrian traffic injuries on the victims ever since the 1920s, when pro-car groups backed by the automobile industry coined the term “jaywalking” to suggest that pedestrians were at fault when hit by drivers. But an emphasis on individual responsibility for road safety doesn’t seem to help, even when it’s shifted back to drivers. In its most recent report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave driver training an effectiveness rating of one star out of five as a strategy to increase pedestrian safety, noting, “There is no evidence indicating that this countermeasure is effective.”
Engineering solutions like speed humps, lane narrowing, better lighting, the installation of sidewalks and “complete street” designs are far more effective at reducing pedestrian deaths. The ubiquity of speeding is not necessarily because people are bad drivers, but because the design of our roads — wide, straight stretches of asphalt meant for high speeds above all else — encourages them to do so.
Many American cities have already introduced what are known as “Vision Zero” campaigns based on the idea that even a single pedestrian death is one too many.
Vision Zero can be remarkably effective. Death rates have dropped in many cities properly carrying out the program. Oslo and Helsinki, which adopted Vision Zero in the 1990s, recorded zero traffic deaths in 2019, and Helsinki had just two pedestrian deaths in 2021. But it requires a committed redesign of city streets and bikeways, not just rhetoric and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
America is becoming more of an outlier when it comes to road safety
Annual road fatalities adjusted for distance traveled, including those in motor vehicles as well as pedestrians and cyclists.
Source: O.E.C.D., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Note: Comparison countries selected from a list of peer countries based on comparable income levels. Some countries were excluded because of missing data.
In the United States, minimal funding, political inertia and a lack of state and federal participation have limited the effectiveness of these programs. In Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, pedestrian deaths have actually risen since the adoption of Vision Zero. “All these safety efforts come to die in the United States,” said Beth Osborne, the director of the transportation arm for Smart Growth America. “All of these could be incredibly effective, but we have to be willing to change our approach, not just make plans and talk about changing our approach.”
Last year, 312 people died in traffic accidents in Los Angeles, the majority of them pedestrians and cyclists. “If 300 people died of something in the city, whether it was something violent or whether it was something else like Covid, the resources were put behind it to try to prevent those things, to respond to those things,” said Eunisses Hernandez, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. “We have not seen that same urgency with people dying in traffic accidents as pedestrians and as cyclists.”
At right, Eunisses Hernandez at a car-free-streets event.
The United States can reverse the trend of rising traffic deaths, a trend that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic communities, by investing in safer road design: narrowing streets, reducing the amount of space devoted to cars, enforcing speed limits and adding trees to provide visual cues for drivers to slow down. While these interventions may seem simplistic compared to the scale of the problem, other countries have proved that they can work. City planners must recognize that we all should be able to walk or ride a bicycle through our own neighborhood without fearing for our life.
For Councilmember Hernandez, it is a matter of justice. “I have pictures of bike racks that are full inside of these high schools, yet there are no bike lanes around the high schools,” she said. More than one high school in her district is bordered by busy four-lane streets. And at least two pedestrians in the district have already been killed by vehicles this year.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg recently said that “every infrastructure choice is a safety choice,” and in 2022 launched a $1 billion pilot program to redesign roads with a focus on racial equity. Whether this federal action will be able to bend the statistics remains to be seen. For decades, the United States has prioritized the needs of people driving through cities over the well-being of the people living in them, and largely at the expense of communities with the least political clout. Adopting the framing of Vision Zero without finding sufficient funding and political will for road redesign is simply not good enough. Our elected officials must be willing to face an unpleasant set of facts: that the appalling racial disparity in road deaths continues on their watch, and that nearly every killing of a cyclist or pedestrian by a car is preventable.