The status quo in American road design is claiming more and more lives, according to transportation safety advocates. The 2019 edition of Dangerous by Design, a recurring report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition, reports that the number of people struck and killed while walking has grown an alarming 35 percent since 2008.
There are multiple factors behind this, but the report emphasizes one in particular: overly wide arterials that give too much space to cars and too little to humans. High-speed, multi-lane avenues that support sprawling suburban growth, as opposed to slower, narrower streets that encourage walkable neighborhoods, are “consistently linked ... to higher rates of both traffic-related deaths for people walking and traffic-related deaths overall,” it states.
My husband and I chose our neighborhood, Westchester, because we find it to be the most walkable in Bakersfield. We like that street trees provide shade in the warm summer months, and we don’t have to walk very far to reach a locally owned coffee shop. By now, we have our own preferred routes that follow the quietest streets with the least amount of speeding car traffic. We have carved out a comfortable path to and through downtown that maximizes shade in the heat and safety all year round. Even so, we see improvements that could be made.
These conclusions came about after a lot of pounding the pavement.
We recently calculated that we’ve walked at least 1,100 miles with our son in the stroller throughout our neighborhood and nearby downtown area since he was born 19 months ago. That’s a lot of walking with a baby in tow. We joke that buying one quite pricey but well-made stroller was our best investment yet.
I can still vividly remember the very first walk I took with him on a sweltering July afternoon when I had a terrible case of cabin fever and needed to get out of the house. (A photo of this walk actually accompanied my very first column in this newspaper.) We combined play dates with walks. We’ve walked him down silent streets in the wind and rain with droplets gliding around him over the plastic cover. While walking with my son, we saw the infamous Westchester coyote, sick and hungry, roaming down 20th Street. While pushing my son, we’ve chatted with friends, received fresh flower bunches and oranges from neighbors’ yards, watched leaves change colors and spring blossoms pop. Traversing these streets so much lately, we have firsthand accounts of both the beauty and the challenges.
Here are some takeaways:
• For a majority of stretches, there is a real absence of safe space to travel by foot.
Many streets lack curb cuts so that those with a stroller or in a wheelchair are unable to consistently travel by sidewalk and are forced to walk in the street. (Note: This is slowly improving. In the downtown district, many new sidewalk ramps have been added and crosswalks repainted in recent weeks, paid for by a grant obtained by the City of Bakersfield. However, there are still numerous gaps.)
I have personally been honked at by car drivers for legally crossing streets at intersections and traveling on the right-hand side of the street when no sidewalk ramps exist.
• We lack adequate nighttime lighting on many downtown stretches.
• Many streets are so wide that cars drive faster than they should, endangering themselves, other drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.
My own experience signals systemic problems that I see throughout our city. It’s time we get serious about pedestrian safety.
One recent study ranked Bakersfield as the seventh-worst city in the country for pedestrian safety. In the past decade, there were 247 pedestrian deaths in our city.
With all of the data supporting narrower streets that encourage walkable neighborhoods, our city should decide to do just that. We should avoid expanding arterial streets. We need to think about all users of a street, not just volume and ease-of-use for cars. Streets that children use to walk to schools and parks should be designed to be as safe as possible with well-marked, lighted crosswalks and other traffic-calming measures.
In Bakersfield, the attitude of many city officials and traffic engineers is that traffic volume is more important than pedestrian safety.
Cities, ours included, seem to believe that wider lanes are safer. And they’re dead wrong. This is because of a basic error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering — a refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. On highways, drivers speed up and pay less attention to outside elements. Basically, the wider the lane, the faster and less aware of pedestrians, bicyclists and other cars that drivers become.
While driving in wide-laned highways, drivers often set cruise control (literally or figuratively) at a speed a bit higher than the posted limit. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment generally free of impediments to high-speed travel.
Unfortunately, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore speed limits and drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars around? How wide is my lane? Can I see beyond that corner? Is an intersection approaching? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are people walking or biking nearby?
City officials here ignore the data and psychology suggesting drivers take cues from the environment to decide how fast to travel and how aware they remain.
Safety concerns are of paramount importance, but so are financial returns. Studies show that properties within walkable communities have higher values. This is just another reason to create safer city streets.
Since walkable communities tend to be more desirable to individuals and businesses, they are often associated with higher values. Walk Score, a service that measures the walkability of addresses across the country, has shown that for each point a property has toward walkability, its value typically increases by $500 to $3,000.
If we really care about the future of our community, we must reevaluate our priorities from both a safety and economic perspective.
Though masked by the fact that our city tops lists for the most dangerous streets, another Bakersfield is possible — one where it is easy, enjoyable and safe to travel on foot. I experience hints of this every day. But to truly uncover this potential, we have to change the way we make decisions. Our city can no longer afford to prioritize the movement of vehicles at the expense of safety, with heartbreaking consequences.