“Government and public health officials routinely face problems that exceed their capacities and powers. Traffic deaths are not one of them. Although the average transportation agency confines itself to repairing potholes, repaving roads, maintaining signs, and so on, there is much more that municipal governments can do. From 2007 to 2013, both of us worked in the New York City DOT under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Our approach to traffic safety was simple and cost effective. Instead of dreaming up megaprojects, we took a long, hard look at the streets we already had, this time from the perspective of the most vulnerable people. Between 2007 and 2013, the Department of Transportation redesigned lengthy portions of 137 streets and revamped 113 intersections — expanding the space to walk, decreasing crossing distances for pedestrians, and making streets navigable enough for children, senior citizens, and people with physical disabilities to cross. By narrowing lanes and putting drivers in closer contact with pedestrians and cyclists, the redesigns forced drivers to proceed, turn, and change lanes more slowly and predictably.” (and safely!)
Often, all it takes to make streets safer is paint, planters, and basic materials already in stock in city depots, such as stones, signs, and flexible traffic posts.”
There’s an epidemic killing millions of people across the world — and no, we’re not talking about the coronavirus. We’re talking about the pandemic levels of traffic violence on our streets, which claim the lives of 3,698 people worldwide every day. And in an explosive new article from Foreign Affairs, sustainable transportation luminaries Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solmonow are putting rest to the notion that there’s nothing we can do to cut the death toll.
Sadik-Khan is most famous for serving as Mike Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner when he was mayor of New York City — a tenure whose highlights included the establishment of the nation’s largest bike-share program and the conversion of over 180 acres of car-dominated city streets into infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. She’s making waves lately, too, as one of the brains behind the bold, sustainable-transportation-focused infrastructure plan that would-be President Bloomberg released earlier this year.
Solomonow is also a long-time Bloomberg collaborator; he was Sadik-Khan press secretary, and is currently a manager with Bloomberg Associates, working to frame a message about transportation that would radically re-orient city space away from cars and towards human beings.
Sadik-Khan’s and Solomonow’s article should be required reading for every American road user, and you can get it in full with a subscription. But here are just a few of the highlights to whet your appetite:
Traffic violence is a bigger killer than most people think — and it’s on the rise
“Car crashes killed 1.35 million people in 2016 — the last year for which World Health Organization data are available — a grisly 3,698 deaths a day. Traffic injuries are now the top killer of people aged five to 29 globally, outpacing any illness and exceeding the combined annual casualties of all of the world’s armed conflicts. And the toll continues to rise: it grew by 100,000 in just three years, from 2013 to 2016. This does not include the up to 50 million people who are hit and injured by motor vehicles each year, some grievously, but who nonetheless survive.”
We know what the root of our traffic violence crisis is — but we’re not doing anything about it
“To the extent that policymakers have reacted to this crisis, they have tended to do so through incremental measures: passing universal seat- belt laws, mandating air bags and antilock brakes, lowering speed limits, and raising penalties for drunk driving. These are valuable steps, but they are nowhere near enough. That’s because the root cause of traffic danger isn’t defective cars or unruly drivers. It’s the roads themselves.”
It all started when we started widening roads to “solve” car congestion
“In 1955, the urbanist Lewis Mumford noted that widening roads to solve traffic congestion was like loosening one’s belt to solve obesity — it temporarily eased constraints but did not solve the underlying problem.
The result of a century of car-focused design is that on every continent, roads and lanes tend to be wider than is necessary or safe. Although this keeps cars farther apart, bigger lanes — usually around 12 feet wide — reduce what traffic planners call “friction,” a healthy interaction among drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and others that induces safer behavior. Inevitably, roads designed for speed are deadlier. Psychology plays a role — oversize lanes encourage drivers to drive at dangerous speeds and to view everyone else on the street as obstacles—but so does physics. A pedestrian struck by a car moving at 25 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of surviving. If that car is moving at 40 miles per hour, the odds drop to 50 percent.
…In the United States, federal and state street-design guidelines explicitly promote wider lanes, even though they are known to be deadlier. In other words, far from being “accidents” — and indeed, the World Health Organization and other traffic-safety proponents have shunned that term — traffic deaths are caused by roads that are operating exactly as designed.”
Instead of fixing bad road designs, we still focus on the wrong things: blaming “distracted pedestrians,” futile driver training efforts, and writing laws we often fail to enforce
“As well meaning as most traffic-safety laws tend to be, they aren’t enough. Many societies have already had a century of practice training better drivers and writing better safety laws. Despite the laws on the books, vast numbers of crashes involve excessive speed, a failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, or drinking and drug use. In 2017, 29 percent of traffic deaths on American roads involved alcohol. An estimated ten percent of crashes involved distracted drivers, many of whom were using cell phones. Instead of trying to legislate safety, a more effective approach is to design it.”
We can redesign every road to end traffic violence. But first, we have to re-think what transportation agencies can do
“Although the average transportation agency confines itself to repairing potholes, repaving roads, maintaining signs, and so on, there is much more that municipal governments can do. From 2007 to 2013, both of us worked in the New York City DOT under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Our approach to traffic safety was simple and cost effective. Instead of dreaming up megaprojects, we took a long, hard look at the streets we already had, this time from the perspective of the most vulnerable people. Between 2007 and 2013, the Department of Transportation redesigned lengthy portions of 137 streets and revamped 113 intersections — expanding the space to walk, decreasing crossing distances for pedestrians, and making streets navigable enough for children, senior citizens, and people with physical disabilities to cross. By narrowing lanes and putting drivers in closer contact with pedestrians and cyclists, the redesigns forced drivers to proceed, turn, and change lanes more slowly and predictably.”
New York isn’t the only city that should inspire urban planners to make some big changes to the streetscape if they want to save lives
“Most of the time, urban planners do not have to reinvent the wheel. They have the experience and testimony of others to draw on. For instance, the Global Street Design Guide synthesizes the real-world experience and practices of experts from 72 cities spanning 42 countries. The guide has now been adopted by 100 cities and several nongovernmental organizations focused on traffic safety. It represents a sea change for street design, putting pedestrians and cyclists, rather than freight and private vehicles, at the top of the street hierarchy.
Often, all it takes to make streets safer is paint, planters, and basic materials already in stock in city depots, such as stones, signs, and flexible traffic posts.”
Autonomous cars aren’t the answer
“It’s all well and good to claim that driverless cars operating in a closed, connected system would be safer. But everything is different on the open road, where those cars would need to drive alongside hundreds of millions of human-driven vehicles, whose operators are still speeding, cutting one another off, and jockeying for position. There has been only one death involving an autonomous car, but even one death doesn’t speak well of the technology’s capabilities in city centers alive with thousands of human actors — a jumble of people walking, biking, making deliveries, panhandling, and so on.
Transportation officials can’t wait for driverless cars to make streets safe. Sidewalks won’t extend themselves; crosswalks won’t magically appear. Countries can’t bet their futures on the promise that better cars or better drivers will reverse the damage caused by a century of car-obsessed roadway design. If cities want infrastructure that accommodates all users, they need to lead by example and reclaim, redesign, and reconstruct their roads.”
Ending traffic deaths is not impossible
“Government and public health officials routinely face problems that exceed their capacities and powers. Traffic deaths are not one of them. Indeed, traffic-related fatalities are unusual in that their causes are as straightforward as their solutions. Eliminating most health hazards on the roadway doesn’t require new technologies or unsustainable investments. It requires changing how we view traffic deaths and injuries, treating them as avoidable byproducts of a crisis in urban design rather than an inevitable feature of modern life.”
Feb 16, 2020
The Re-Planning Of Cities Is Essential. And It Requires Changes In Our Habits.
More and more voices are calling for a re-planning of cities to redesign them not around the car, but around people. The age of permanently congested cities, which kill millions of people through respiratory diseases, and where in many cases traveling times are worse than a century ago, is proof of the unsustainability of a failed model that assumes that every household needs at least one car, and where the vast majority of space is used to accommodate these cars, as if the city were whose primary function is to serve vehicles.
New York is considering ending its car culture by filling its streets with bicycle lanes. The center of San Francisco is already closed to private vehicles. Cities like Seville, or like Paris become success stories where 100% of their streets will be bicycle friendly by 2024. Is it cold out there? No problem, it’s colder for Finns, who like to say that there is is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Other chilly places, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, aim to ban traditional combustion cars by 2030. The United Kingdom has brought forward its ban on the sale of diesel, petrol and hybrid vehicles by five years, to 2035, sending a clear signal to buyers of new cars. This year, more and more large European cities will remove cars from their centers: in Spain, dozens of cities following plan to follow the example of Pontevedra or Barcelona, which has created areas where only residents can drive, called superilles (superblocks), while a number of US cities where car culture is practically a religion are trying out other initiatives to make their streets more pedestrian-friendly.
The message is clear: cars must go, they have made our cities unhealthy and expensive for everyone, and while bicycles and pedestrians are part of the solution, we need to redesign streets for pedestrians and for autonomous vehicles. This needs to be backed up by competitive public transport that is more intelligent and versatile, and powered by real-time data.
Shops on streets that are closed to private cars do not suffer, but quite the opposite. Living in a city without a car is perfectly possible: it is already significantly cheaper to rent a car as often as you need than to own one and have to face expenses such as insurance, parking or taxes. But all these solutions raise a fundamental question about changing our habits, about how we get to work, for example: working from home or flexible hours are increasingly established trends.
If our politicians are stuck in the traffic jams of the past, then as voters we need to make it clear that they have to start fitting in with the trends that are modifying cities around the world, and that above all, that they stop poisoning us. The solution is not building more infrastructure that simply attracts more vehicles, but of redesigning cities for pedestrians, for people, of building axes with powerful, non-polluting public transport services, and of carrying out an essential and increasingly urgent re-planning. Cities are not going to lose their appeal: we are still social animals who like to cluster together in population centers. But our cities will change completely in the coming years, as will many of our habits, some of which are deeply entrenched. What’s more, although we might find the change difficult to accept at first, we’ll soon wonder how we ever lived like we did.Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.
Americans are taking on more debt than ever at the car dealership — and the rise in risky auto lending has everything to do with our national rise in pedestrian fatalities.
The total amount that Americans owe on their cars rose a shocking 75 percent from 2009 to today, according to a new report from the Frontier Group. But the trouble isn’t just that more people are buying cars they can’t afford. It’s that lax lending policies are allowing them to pick huge, expensive cars — and, as Streetsblog has documented, the bigger the car, the more lethal it is to pedestrians.
SUVs and light trucks have become the vehicle of choice for U.S. drivers over the last decade, grabbing a record 70 percent of the market in 2019. That’s a stark contrast from 2009, when Americans tightened their belts in the wake of the financial crisis and opted for cheaper rides. Smaller cars outsold assault vehicles just 10 years ago — but as the economy recovered, so did buyers’ appetites for big cars.
And as cars got bigger, more pedestrians started dying. Many media outlets have connected the 10-year explosion in pedestrian fatalities to the growing number of SUVs on our streets, largely because more massive cars strike walkers at the head and neck rather than at the chest or the knees, which is less fatal.
We can stop this trend — and reforming the car-loan industry could be a crucial step. But how did we get here?
Easy money for killer cars
A raft of factors contributed to the rise of the mega-car on American roads: Low gas prices, consumer perceptions that big vehicles are safer, and a strong jobs market all played a role. But though the influence of loosening auto-lending standards on SUV purchases is less well-documented, it shouldn’t surprise us that, when you give consumers in an SUV-obsessed culture easy access to large auto loans, many will pick the biggest car they can get their hands on.
And when we say “easy access,” we really do mean easy. In the wake of the financial crash, the auto-loan industry not only expanded access to high-interest “subprime” loans for borrowers with low credit scores — a predatory tactic that leaves low-income vehicle owners vulnerable to default. It also extended the life of the average loan — 42 percent of auto loans issued in 2017 carried a term of six years or longer, compared to just 26 percent in 2009.
“It changes a person’s calculus of what car they should buy,” said Frontier Group policy analyst R.J. Cross. “In the era of Netflix and endless monthly subscription services, people are starting to determine how much they can afford not by the sticker price, but in terms of what they’ll actually pay per month. Cars are no different.”
A “low” monthly payment is a powerful incentive to pick a spendy SUV over a sensible sedan — and it opens up a new market of buyers who otherwise might have chosen a smaller, cheaper car that would be less lethal to a pedestrian in a crash.
The rise in “roll over” financing has been a boon to SUV dealers, too. Increasingly, car dealerships allow buyers who trade in old vehicles with outstanding loans to add their unpaid balance to their new car payment. The practice allows drivers to upgrade to bigger cars they can’t really afford even before their current ride is paid off — and puts them at huge financial risk if they can’t make the new-car payment.
Ballooning car loans leave drivers stranded
But whether or not they realize it, drivers who take on big loans for big cars are getting a raw deal.
The average American household already spends about 13 percent of its income on transportation — a proportion that will only rise as Americans get more access to loans at the dealership. It’s not hard to imagine what will happen to a nation full of debt-saddled drivers in the event of an economic downturn: mass repossession.
“In the wake of the financial crisis, we think people reasoned that, well, if worst came to worst and I lost my house again, I’d still have a car, and at least I’d be able to get to work,” Cross says. “But what if you took on so much car debt that you can’t afford the payment anymore? What if you lost your car, too?”
If our collective car-loan burden is bad news for individual families, it could be even worse news for the national economy. While the ballooning auto-loan industry isn’t exactly a “bubble” in the way that the 2008 mortgage industry was — the average new car only holds about 35 percent of its value five years after its driven off the lot, which means that almost all auto borrowers are technically “underwater” on their loans — a car-repossession crisis would still be devastating in auto-dependent communities. And because almost all American cities are auto-dependent, that’d be a disaster for the entire GDP. In most American cities, even the poorest workers rely on their cars to commute to their place of business — or drive to the store and support anyone else’s.
But even if such a crisis never happens, the auto-lending balloon is still a national concern for one reason: because it’s helped unleash a growing number of pedestrian-killing SUVs and trucks on American streets. We need to use every weapon in our arsenal if we want to reverse our horrifying traffic-violence trends; perhaps reforming the auto-loan industry should be the one we reach for next.