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How walk-first cities are saving lives

Prioritizing pedestrians over cars means everyone wins

A pedestrianized street in Mexico City

Cars prey upon the world’s most vulnerable humans—about 1.3 million people worldwide are killed each year in traffic fatalities, most of whom are in low-income countries. If cities continue to design wide, fast, auto-centric streets, the number of annual deaths is expected to nearly double by 2030.

But a new video from Streetsfilm looks at how even big car-choked cities are taking major strides to restore their citizens’ right to walk by putting the pedestrian first—building out complete walking networks with routes that are shorter, safer, and more direct than those for drivers.

The examples are inspiring. Mexico City’s downtown was extensively pedestrianized in 2012, closing many busy streets to cars completely, and now a network of wide sidewalks and bike lanes provide options for non-drivers. Perhaps most impressive is Chennai, India, where the local government has completely shifted its fiscal priorities to allocate 60 percent of its transportation budget to walking.

The video also adds some global perspective to the traffic death crisis, with data supplied by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP). Traffic fatalities claim the most lives in developing nations, where the majority of residents don’t even own vehicles. Cars are also the leading cause of death for teens worldwide.

Most wealthy nations have managed to reduce traffic deaths significantly in the past few decades, but the U.S. has not seen traffic deaths plunge at the same rate—and in recent years, they’re actually going back up. Overall, U.S.’s traffic deaths are much lower than they were in the 1970s, which experts often attribute to safety regulations like seatbelt laws.

But Jemilah Magnusson, global communications director for ITDP, has a different take on why deaths plummeted—those walkers simply became drivers. “The U.S. used to have a really high pedestrian death rate which we ‘solved’ by putting people in cars,” she says. “So now it’s even more hostile to pedestrians.”

Magnusson says there is a lot of of positive change happening in U.S. cities, with newly redesigned streets for walking, a rise in bike-share systems, and a shift in attitudes about cars, particularly among young people. And when cities do redesign streets for pedestrians, it has proven to welcome more walkers and save more lives.

She points to Queens Boulevard in New York City, which had been nicknamed the “boulevard of death” for how many pedestrians and cyclists were killed on it. “Since the redesign in 2014, there have been zero fatalities,” she says, which is part of a bigger Vision Zero campaign that resulted in the city’s lowest number of traffic deaths in a century. But it also highlights the fact that this kind of change shouldn’t be a special exception, she says. “It shouldn’t be just one street, it should be the whole city.”