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New York City street crossing in the lower Manhattan, SoHo area. People are shopping during the holiday. Tourists are visiting and sightseeing.
In 2018, 6,283 people died in the U.S. while walking or using a mobility device, a number not seen since the mid-1990s
Jack Berman/Getty Images

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Walking Is Increasingly Deadly, and Not Because People Are on Their Phones

A new book on the pedestrian-death crisis busts myths and offers solutions.

Over the past decade, the number of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. has increased by 50 percent, even as other roadway deaths have decreased. When Angie Schmitt would tell people she was writing a book about the reason why, they’d always claim to know the answer.

“Cell phones,” says Schmitt. “It’s always cell phones.”

That’s why the entire first section of Schmitt’s new book, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, walks through the potential causes for the dramatic increase one by one. She rigorously myth-busts the “distracted pedestrian” trope: More people walking or using mobility devices are killed at night and while crossing mid-block, where they are unlikely to be obliviously scrolling through Instagram. (Phones — in the hands of drivers — probably do play a role, she says, but do not alone explain it, since smartphone adoption has increased in other countries over the past ten years without a marked increase in deaths.)

Instead, it’s a convergence of trends: Cars are getting bigger, drivers are going faster, roads are getting wider, and more people are moving to transit-lacking suburbs and Sun Belt cities. But as Schmitt, a former editor at Streetsblog, clearly argues, while the flaws of vehicle design, bad roadways, and lack of investment would seemingly fail Americans at equal rates, the pedestrians who die are disproportionately Black, brown, low income, or over 65. “It’s a lot about power,” she says, “and whose needs are being prioritized — the guy who is driving to work or to Walmart to spend money, not the lower-income folks who are waiting for the bus. When their interests come in conflict with the people in power, they won’t be prioritized.”

In 2013, Amy Cohen’s 12-year-old son, Sammy, was killed by a driver in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when his soccer ball rolled into the street. Within a year, New York City had dropped speed limits to 25 mph citywide, and Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to a Vision Zero program meant to eliminate traffic deaths. Cohen went on to co-found a nonprofit, Families for Safe Streets, which now has local chapters across the country telling the stories of victims and pushing for infrastructural and policy changes.

That’s inarguably a good result from a tragic event. But Schmitt compares the story of Cohen, who is white, to that of Raquel Nelson, a Black woman. In 2010, Nelson’s 4-year-old son was killed by a driver as they crossed a wide road in an Atlanta suburb where the nearest light was one-third of a mile away. Even though the driver, who had two prior hit-and-run convictions, admitted to drinking earlier in the day, it was Nelson who was charged with vehicular homicide. She did not even own a car. “Amy was in the right place: She was a person of means, a person who had privilege, and she could put together a semblance of justice for herself,” says Schmitt. “Raquel Nelson faced jail time.” Nelson was eventually cleared but still ordered to pay a $200 jaywalking fine. Even the death of Elaine Herzberg, the woman who was struck and killed in March 2018 by an Uber SUV that was operating semi-autonomously, should have been one of the highest-profile pedestrian deaths in history. Her story was marginalized instead because she was homeless.

There are solutions that might prevent such crashes: better designed crosswalks, median islands where pedestrians can safely pause, and so-called road diets that narrow lanes of traffic. All of these, as Schmitt repeatedly notes, tend to become subjects of heated, yearslong battles between elected officials and local residents who don’t want to lose space for their cars. But infrastructure is only part of the solution. The bigger challenge, Schmitt argues, is addressing the systemic racism built into cities: “a legacy of segregation, housing segregation, and implicit bias” that infiltrates every aspect of transportation planning, from engineering to law enforcement. Just this week, yet another Black man, Dijon Kizzee, was shot and killed in South Los Angeles by sheriff’s deputies, who claimed they stopped Kizzee because he was “riding a bicycle in violation of vehicle codes.” Two days after the shooting, the sheriff’s department still had not said what he was doing on his bike that was supposedly illegal.

Enforcement has become central to the pedestrian safety plans of most large U.S. cities, which have modeled their approach after Sweden’s Vision Zero, a successful data-driven, infrastructure-focused initiative to eliminate traffic deaths. But enforcement isn’t part of Sweden’s Vision Zero, and not because of conflicts with police — it’s because studies have proven that changing the infrastructure works better. “There’s not a lot of evidence that finger-wagging about certain behavior produces differences in how people are behaving,” Daniel Firth, a Stockholm official, tells Schmitt in her book. The American version of Vision Zero enacted in dozens of American cities, by contrast, is awash in police. It is built around enforcement. One investigation in Sacramento, prompted by a horrific police-brutality case, showed that Black residents are issued 50 percent of the city’s jaywalking tickets, even though they only make up 15 percent of the population — all in the name of “safety.”

That’s what makes the data-driven approach to saving lives so problematic, says Charles T. Brown, a senior researcher and professor at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers, who wrote the book’s foreward and served as Schmitt’s technical adviser. “What is revered or put forth as a best practice or as evidence-based is really just a reflection of the priorities and needs of the dominant society — white America — because the voices, opinions, and lived experiences of racialized minorities are not captured or considered in most planning and research projects,” he told Curbed. “Then we wonder why traffic violence is so rampant in minority communities — it is because those most victimized by traffic violence are excluded from the transportation decision-making processes. Quite frankly, the people closest to the pain should have the most power.”

Decades of transportation decisions have now been made without proper representation from the communities most affected, from local agencies to the government bodies that set the country’s policy agenda. In the chapter “The Ideology of Flow,” exploring how engineers came to prioritize vehicular speed over pedestrian safety, Veronica Davis, a Black civil engineer who runs a consultancy in Washington, D.C., talks to Schmitt about being one of only a handful of people of color in her school’s program. “Engineers aren’t taught about public involvement,” she tells Schmitt. “They’re taught where the road needs to go. They’re not taught about the people part.”

A shift toward designing streets for people will bring about the changes needed on roadways, says Brown, who is Black. “No matter how we advance as a society around the design of our vehicles and the design of our streets, the victims remain the same: They are disproportionately Black, brown, and low income,” says Brown. “How do we make it better? We focus on the people. And we design the city around their needs and then we adapt the technologies to fit their needs. It’s simple: You center people.”

While Brown agrees that sharing stories about victims and their families is important, he offers an idea that might flip the narrative on the crisis: a national, publicly accessible registry of drivers who have killed people. Right now, he says, the reporting and investigation of fatal crashes focuses so heavily on who is killed that it ends up pathologizing the victims’ communities and behavior. “We need profiles of the perpetrators in the same way we have profiles of the victims,” he says. “Who are we protecting by not demanding the race or ethnicity of the drivers involved in crashes with pedestrians?”

The cover of the book with a pedestrian signal that is cracked. The title is Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, by Angie Schmitt, foreword by Charles T. Brown. Island Press

A national registry might also start to track patterns of which types of vehicles are more likely to kill. Schmitt was one of the first writers to connect the uptick in pedestrian deaths to the increase in SUV sales, which has since been proven by multiple investigations. One of the most jaw-dropping statistics in the book is the fact that 50 children are injured or killed each week in the U.S. in “backover” crashes, during which a vehicle is backing up at slow speeds. But since many of these incidents happen in driveways and parking lots, they are not included in municipal or federal crash data. Schmitt argues that these very large and heavy vehicles — which are, in addition to outselling sedans, getting bigger and more dangerous every year — sell to drivers who are oblivious to their bulk and their risk to people on foot. Merely tracking the height of large vehicles is something no federal agency does, so Schmitt took this piece of research upon herself, including photos of her 4-year-old son standing before the imposing grille of a Ford F-250 truck.

It’s not a coincidence that these vehicles are being used as weapons in the violent vehicle attacks — including some by police — that have increased this year during protests. “You have some very angry white men who are using them to intimidate people,” Schmitt says. “The auto industry needs to be shamed for that, for making money off it, and promoting it the way they have.”

Schmitt finished the book in February, just as the novel coronavirus pandemic began to upend society. A short, optimistic prologue addresses it: “At this point we can only hope that the devastation from this illness will be limited and we will emerge with a renewed sense of care for our fellow citizens and their health and well-being,” she writes. But in some ways, Schmitt might have anticipated that COVID-19 would end up killing more than four times as many people as car crashes do in an average year. The U.S.’s apathy toward pedestrian deaths is similar to the way it has approached the pandemic. Just like the pedestrians killed on U.S. streets, COVID-19 victims are disproportionately Black, brown, low-income, and over 65. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic might have been different if the country had already decided, as many other wealthy nations have, that those lives were valued. As Schmitt explains in the book, if the U.S. just matched Canada’s pedestrian safety record, 20,000 American lives could be saved every year.

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