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Our streets are killing us

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Traffic deaths will continue to increase unless cities prioritize humans over cars.

A “scramble” crosswalk in Hollywood has seen only a single crash since it was installed in November, compared to 13 the previous year

In 2015, a staggering 35,092 people were killed on U.S. streets—a 7.2% increase from 2014. According to a report out this week, this year is on track to be even deadlier: Based on preliminary data, the National Safety Council predicts the number of traffic deaths has already increased an additional 9% percent in the first six months of 2016.

Sadly, cities are seeing evidence of this trend first-hand on their sidewalks and crosswalks. In New York City, 16 cyclists have already been killed this year, more than the number of cyclists killed in all of 2015.

The number of traffic deaths are estimated to be 9% higher this year
National Safety Council

The reason for the increase in traffic deaths is simple: Americans are driving more than ever. Vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, reached an all-time high in 2015, and the country is on track to exceed that record in 2016. Cheap gas, poor transit options, and a lack of affordable housing that forces people to live far from their jobs will continue to make this problem worse. (And cars are also responsible for another public health crisis; transportation is now the fastest-growing cause of deadly emissions.)

Traffic fatalities are still lower than they were in the 1960s and 70s, before seat belt laws and stricter speed limits. But after this most recent jump in deaths, that gap is closing.

7.2% more people died in traffic-related accidents in 2015 than in 2014

It’s not just the sharp increase in deaths from 2014 to 2015 that’s troubling transportation planners so much. It’s also because the rise comes after over a decade of traffic deaths trending downward. Look how much fatalities have plummeted since the early 2000s. Overall, that drop looks impressive, until you compare the U.S. to other countries.

As a CDC study noted earlier this year, the U.S. still has the highest per-capita crash death rate of any wealthy nation, a rate that is nearly double that of the second-runner up, New Zealand. And when you look at how traffic deaths have been reduced over the past decade, the U.S. fares even worse. Spain, on the other hand, has managed to reduce its traffic deaths by an impressive 75%.

U.S. crash deaths fell only 31% compared to an average 56% in 19 other high-income countries

What makes the U.S. such an outlier here? Yes, we drive more—a lot more. But I would argue it’s the lack of a unified, top-down commitment to prioritize humans over vehicles. Over the last few years, at least 18 cities across the U.S. have introduced Vision Zero plans to reduce traffic deaths to zero, a movement that Sweden famously pioneered decades ago. But there’s nothing like that at the national level here.

That doesn’t mean the federal government is ignoring the problem. As part of a call to action this week, the USDOT is opening up new data sets and partnering with companies like Waze and Mapbox to help provide insight into how and where these deaths are occurring. The idea is that using a public, data-driven approach allows anyone to analyze the information and propose new technology solutions for safer streets. (Like getting teens to stop texting while driving—a big problem.)

This is definitely a good start. Reducing overall vehicle miles by getting more people out of their cars would be a great move, too. But in reality, the only real way to make streets safer is to build them that way in the first place.

NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide helps cities envision the changes that can make streets safer

Better street design is the best tool for reducing traffic deaths, according to a statement from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which represents 47 cities nationwide. And if you want to talk about data, these cities have the data to prove it:

In Seattle, shortening pedestrian crossing distances on Nickerson Street reduced crashes by 23% and brought excessive speeding down from 38% to less than 2%. In New York City, wide avenue redesigns that offered pedestrian refuges and created designated bike and turn lanes reduced crashes with injuries by an average of 17%, with pedestrian and cyclist injuries falling even more: 22% and 75%, respectively. In Santa Monica, a simple reduction of lanes, along with the creation of designated turn and bike lanes on Ocean Park Boulevard resulted in a 65% reduction in collisions.

There’s one other important component to safe streets, and that’s speed, where just a few miles per hour can determine the difference between life and death. Cities that have designed their streets for a maximum speed limit of 25 miles per hour have seen the greatest reduction in traffic deaths (Sweden drops it even lower, to 18 miles per hour in urban areas).

But even cities that are designed to be slow and safe also must have the ability to enforce that behavior, another hurdle for Vision Zero campaigns. That’s especially a challenge when a full two-thirds of all U.S. traffic deaths are caused by people who are speeding, driving recklessly, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In the near future, that won’t be an issue. The robot drivers really can’t get here soon enough.