By Guest Columnist SALLY FLOCKS, founder, president and CEO of PEDS, an Atlanta-based advocacy group for pedestrians
The decades-long neglect of pedestrian safety in the design of state roads exacts a heavy toll. Each year in metro Atlanta, some 1,400 pedestrians are hit by motor vehicles, resulting in 1,000 pedestrian injuries and 70 pedestrian deaths.
While the region has made dramatic progress during the past five years in reducing overall traffic fatalities, the number of pedestrian deaths remains constant. In 2009, pedestrians accounted for one out of five traffic fatalities in the 10-county region.
Pedestrian safety is often perceived as a local issue. Yet 45 percent of all pedestrian fatalities in Georgia occurred on state highways. For people on foot, the combination of wide roads, infrequent crosswalks, no pedestrian walkways, and high speeds often has tragic outcomes.
Discussion about the project list for the proposed regional transportation sales tax has focused primarily on roads and transit. Yet a successful transit system will depend on safe pedestrian access.
The on-board transit survey conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission last year confirmed that nearly three-fourths of transit trips begin with walking trips. And when people exit the bus or train, four out of five walk to their destinations.
Research by the ARC also suggests that people who walk to transit are among the region’s most vulnerable road users. From 2004 to 2008, one-fourth of all pedestrian crashes occurred within 100 feet of transit stops. People with a choice will not take transit if they have to put their lives in their hands to get across the street.
Despite the high number of fatalities and the interdependence of transit and walking, few public resources have been used to retrofit dangerous roads with pedestrian safety improvement. On much of Buford Highway, the deadliest road in Georgia for pedestrians, traffic signals and crosswalks are few and far between and sidewalks are missing from both sides of the street.
Metro Atlanta needs to transform outdated roads that were designed only for cars into complete streets that serve all modes safely. Fortunately, transportation professionals at state and local agencies now recognize the importance of increasing pedestrian safety and are eager to help.
Improving the pedestrian environment requires a relatively small public investment, which will quickly pay for itself with lives saved, increased transit usage, and better public health. Even at locations without marked crosswalks, installing raised median islands is likely to reduce pedestrian crashes by 39 percent. Additional lighting, HAWK signals, and Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons can also help transform our deadliest roads into places where people can safely access transit on foot.
If passed, the transportation sales tax will also enable the region to build new transit lines. In selecting projects, elected officials need to remember that our region is aging. In the years ahead, a growing number of people will be living until their mid-80s or 90s. Most will lose their ability to drive long before they lose their ability to walk.
To serve aging adults, the region needs to provide transit projects that people can get to on foot. Without that, more and more people will be homebound, and paratransit and human services transportation costs will continue to spiral upward.
Elected officials also need to recognize that locating transit on corridors people can walk to will provide tremendous economic benefits. We can learn a lot from the Orange Line in the Washington D.C. region, which runs through Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Taking the cheapest option, Fairfax County ran the line down the center of an existing interstate. Arlington County, in contrast, located the Orange Line through a decaying and then-unwalkable commercial corridor. In the decades that followed, development near Arlington’s section exploded and land values tripled. In Fairfax County, the transit line is surrounded by park and ride lots, with little other development.
It took over 50 years – and billions of dollars—for the Atlanta region to build infrastructure as auto-centric as what we have today. And it will take time and money for the region to create streets that are safer and more inviting for people who walk to transit.
The regional transportation sales tax provides an outstanding opportunity to achieve major progress. By investing just $400 million in sidewalks, refuge islands and corridor improvements that transform outdated roads into complete streets in the decade ahead, we can create safe routes to transit throughout the region.