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Pedestrian deaths keep rising in the U.S. Can Congress reverse the trend?

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A proposed federal bill would require states to set aside highway funds for safer streets

After years of safety gains, pedestrian and cyclists deaths are up 30 percent in New York City this year.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For the past decade, about 13 people per day have been killed while walking in the U.S., a number that remains troublingly high even as other roadway deaths go down. Now a new federal bill intends to address the country’s increasing pedestrian deaths as a national crisis.

The Complete Streets Act, introduced yesterday in both houses of Congress by Sen. Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, and Rep. Steve Cohen, of Tennessee, would require states to aside five percent of federal highway funds for complete streets programs. Complete streets are defined as corridors that are redesigned to give all users of the street equal access to the roadway, with a special emphasis on safety for the most vulnerable users.

“Our roads and sidewalks are far more than a means of transportation, they are a means of economic growth and community development, and we must make them safe and accessible for everyone,” said Sen. Markey said in a statement. “Whether you are traveling by foot, spoke, or pass, everyone deserves ‘complete streets,’ and this legislation will help fund safe transportation options for the 21st century.”

Under the act, states would have to demonstrate that a complete streets program is in place and create a plan for implementing the program before they could access federal highway funding. The plans would be vetted by metropolitan planning organizations, the organizations that coordinate regional planning among nearby cities.

The bill also proposes creating federal complete streets design standards, which would dictate the way multimodal roads are designed in the same way federal highway design is standardized.

Even as more than 100 U.S. cities have launched initiatives to eliminate traffic deaths, the number of pedestrian deaths in the country is higher than it’s been in almost 30 years. Drivers killed 50 percent more pedestrians in 2018 than in 2009, compared to European countries which have reduced pedestrian deaths by a third over the past decade.

In recent years, the federal government has taken small but incremental steps towards acknowledging the country’s escalating numbers of pedestrian deaths. In 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board presented the findings of a two-year investigation into the uptick in pedestrian deaths, which included recommendations on changing vehicle design standards for SUVs and light trucks, which are more likely to kill pedestrians in collisions.

Another NTSB report highlighted speed as a leading indicator for deadly crashes, and made recommendations to study roadway design in addition to changing the way speed limits are set and enforced.

Smart Growth America, which publishes the Dangerous by Design report that highlights the cities with the deadliest streets, has created a list of the 100 Congressional districts with the highest rates of pedestrian deaths to urge constituents to contact their representatives in support of the bill.

“The federal government must take the lead on prioritizing safer streets, and the Complete Streets Act of 2019 represents the best, most direct effort yet to help states, metro areas, cities, towns and counties design and build safer, complete streets,” said Emiko Atherton, director of Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition. “I applaud Senator Markey and Congressman Cohen’s leadership on this important legislation.”

Devoting just five percent of federal highway funds to complete streets might not be enough to counteract the country’s focus on building auto-centric infrastructure. Many U.S. state transportation departments continue to widen highways, and at every level of government, transportation policy continues to subsidize cars and driving instead of incentivizing a shift to other modes. Some states, like California, are working on passing their own complete streets policies for accessing state funds.

If Sen. Markey’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio in February. Complete streets could be an important tool for lowering emissions as better walking, biking and transit infrastructure is shown to encourage a shift in modes. Safety is often cited as a deterrent for people who want to switch from driving to walking and biking.