Dangerous by Design: New report shows correlation between pedestrian deaths & street design

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There are many different ways people across the Mid-South travel to their destinations.

Most drive, but some have to walk.

According to a new Dangerous by Design report by Smart Growth America, pedestrian deaths are rising.

The organization calls pedestrian fatalities an epidemic.

The report focuses on how a street is designed could be a contributing factor to the rise in pedestrian deaths.

The report used Union Avenue in Memphis as an example of a poorly designed road. Steve Davis, Assistant Vice President of Transportation Strategy for Smart Growth America, told FOX13′s Shelia O’Connor that many dangerous streets across the country resemble Union Avenue.

“Both for the types of streets that are dangerous in Memphis, but also dangerous streets in other metro areas look a lot like Union Avenue,” said Davis.

Davis details how a street design makes it dangerous for pedestrians.

Davis told FOX13 that streets that are too straight or too wide or there aren’t enough traffic lights make it easier for drivers to speed. Davis also said it sends a wrong message to drivers.

“You should expect to travel fast on this corridor. You don’t have to pay all of your attention here. It’s straight. You can kind of coast through here,” said Davis.

Another design flaw the report highlights is the number of intersections along Union that either lack a crosswalk or the crosswalk has faded.

The report also mentions the number of businesses along Union which means more people could be walking along the corridor.

Davis said all of these factors point to cities putting priority on speed rather than safety. Davis also said how fast a car drives can determine if someone survives being hit.

“It is the number one contributor to death in a collision between a person and a vehicle,” said Davis.

A graphic part of the report shows data from 2017 from the National Traffic Safety Board shows data on a person’s chances of surviving a collision if they were walking.

The data shows a person hit by a car going 20 miles per hour has a higher chance of surviving.

However, if a person is hit by a car going 40 miles per hour, their chance of survival goes down significantly.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, early numbers show there were 7,485 people killed while trying to cross the street across the US in 2021.

The Dangerous by Design report states those numbers would “be the highest number in 40 years and one of the biggest single-year jumps in decades.”

This is why Davis said pedestrian deaths are becoming an epidemic.

“This is an epidemic that’s only gotten worse. We anticipate somewhere around 11 and 13 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities,” said Davis.

The Dangerous by Design report list Memphis as the 3rd most dangerous metro area for pedestrians.

The design of Union Avenue is something the City of Memphis is aware of, and it doesn’t always protect pedestrians. Nicholas Oyler, the Bikeway and Pedestrian program manager for the city, told FOX13 he agrees with some of the reports finding.

“They shine some good light on this issue that we’re facing, not just locally, but nationally,” said Oyler.

Oyler knows pedestrian deaths have been rising, not just in Memphis but across the country. It’s a number he monitors.

“We know that these numbers have not been trending in a good way over the last few years. They’ve been going up. This last year we had 62 people killed while walking down our streets,” said Oyler.

Oyler told FOX13 that there is an improvement project underway to make Union Avenue safer for all commuters. The plan includes improving crosswalks and changing Union Avenue from a 6-lane road to a 5-lane road and more.

“We’ll be installing a center, two-way, turn lane,” said Oyler.

Oyler details what kind of improvements pedestrians can expect.

“Almost every intersection will get upgraded with new traffic signals that will include new kinds of pedestrian crossing signals and technology,” said Oyler.

Oyler added that protected crosswalks are also part of the plan. What is a protected crosswalk? Oyler tells FOX13 it can act as a safe place for pedestrians to wait for traffic to slow down before fully crossing a street.

“It involves generally some kind of beacon or signal that can actually alert drivers that somebody is trying to cross,” said Oyler. “Rather than trying to cross six open lanes of traffic and having to wait for a gap in traffic that wide, somebody can get to the safe refuge space in the middle, halfway cross, then cross again when it’s safe.”

Oyler said the project is going to take time. It is currently in the right-of-way process, with construction expected to begin within 12-18 months.

If you want to read the full Dangerous by Design report, you can read it here.