Our busiest streets and traffic arteries are designed primarily for the convenience of drivers, not the safety of pedestrians.
This, according to a nationwide study released Tuesday, is one of the reasons Bakersfield is the second most dangerous metro area in the nation to be a pedestrian.
Titled "Dangerous by Design," the study by a group called Smart Growth America analyzed data from 2010 to 2019, drawn from a number of government sources to calculate what the authors call the Pedestrian Danger Index. The index makes it possible to compare pedestrian safety in cities of different sizes, density and rates of walking.
The main takeaway nationally, study authors say, is pedestrian deaths increased 45 percent in a decade, and people of color, older adults, and walkers in low-income neighborhoods suffered higher fatality rates.
"The four most recent years on record (2016-2019) are now the four most deadly years for pedestrian deaths since 1990," study authors said in the report.
During this 10-year period, 53,435 people were hit and killed by drivers. In 2019, the 6,237 people struck and killed is the equivalent of more than 17 deaths per day.
Steve Davis, director of communications for Smart Growth America, said the Bakersfield metro region has been getting worse, not better.
"In the 10-year period from 2005 to 2014, the region had 205 deaths and a rate of 2.39 deaths per 100,000 people," Davis said.
"For the 10-year period in this report from 2010 to 2019, the region had 260 deaths and a rate of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
"The PDI has skyrocketed over these three reports. If Bakersfield had managed to just keep from getting worse, 132.8 PDI in the 2016 report would land the region today at No. 31 in this report."
Instead, Bakersfield shot to No. 2 — and Davis believes it's possible this region could overtake Orlando, Fla. in the next study scheduled to be released in early 2023.
Many places still lack the safest infrastructure for walking, the study found. For example, crosswalks, if they exist at all, are often spaced so far apart as to be impractical, or don’t provide enough time for some adults to safely cross.
Unnecessarily wide lanes encourage high speeds — a major factor in the likelihood of surviving a vehicle vs. pedestrian incident — and many streets are designed with wide turning lanes, or "slip lanes," that allow cars to make right turns through crosswalks at high speed.
"Our current approach to safety should be judged on the merits, and by any measure, it has been a complete failure," said Beth Osborne, transportation director for Smart Growth America.
"While transportation agencies have done much to avoid doing so, we urgently need to change the way we design and build roads to prioritize safety, not speed as we currently do."
Osborne said there's an obsession with keeping traffic moving and avoiding delays at all costs. And through our efforts to keep traffic flowing, we create the very dangers highlighted in the report.
It seems money can always be found to widen a road, she said, even when adding sidewalks is deemed too expensive.
It probably should come as no surprise that certain groups bear a disproportionate share of the risk, especially African Americans, older adults, and people who live and walk in low-income communities.
According to data collected by study authors, in the latest 10-year study period, Black people were struck and killed by drivers at an 82 percent higher rate than white, non-Hispanic Americans. And the fatality rate for people walking in the lowest income neighborhoods was nearly twice that of middle income census tracts and almost three times that of neighborhoods at higher levels of income.
According to an interactive map that shows the locations of pedestrian deaths, several incidents occurred on Union Avenue, a low-income area where crosswalks are spread apart, motorists drive fast and pedestrians are fairly numerous.
The city of Bakersfield, the county of Kern and others have been working at reducing the number of pedestrians who are killed or seriously injured on local roadways. Improving and creating more crosswalks — including a lighted crosswalk on 24th Street — educating pedestrians and drivers on the rules of the road and citing speeding drivers are just some efforts officials have used to help reduce pedestrian deaths.
But the authors of the study are adamant that until the design of our roadways undergoes significant change, fatalities and life-altering injuries will continue.
And in a contest between a steel machine on four wheels and a soft human on two legs, the human always loses.