It’s been nearly a decade since a drive down Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard was no big deal for Latanya Byrd. And it never will be again.
It was July 16, 2013. Latanya’s 27-year old niece, Samara Banks, her four sons, and her sister were walking home on Roosevelt Boulevard from a family get-together.
“These two cars came up and they just hit them so hard,” Byrd said.
The cars, street racing at nearly 40 miles an hour over the speed limit,.
“It’s just crazy, this road,” Byrd said. “And no matter how many times people die on this Roosevelt Boulevard … the drivers, they don’t pay attention to the speed.”
To this day Byrd blames not just the two speeding drivers, but the design of Roosevelt Boulevard itself, which allows cars to travel at high speeds, and for the worst to happen, even with cars that are not racing.
“Roosevelt Boulevard, you know, was designed a long time ago,” Byrd said. “As times change, you know, the population increased in that area.”
But as the neighborhood grew around the 12-lane boulevard, the ways for people to cross it did not.
This is one of the most dangerous streets in Philadelphia, a city that, according to preliminary data from the Philadelphia Police Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, saw 59 pedestrians killed by vehicles in 2022 – a 40% jump from the year before.
And, experts say, such deaths are preventable.
Beth Osborne, who runs the non-profit Transportation for America, says Philadelphia mirrors a national trend when it comes to pedestrian deaths. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, more than 7,500 pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2022, the highest number in 40 years. That’s an average of 20 people a day.
Osborne said, “It turns out when we build things unsafe for pedestrians, we build them unsafe for everybody. There’s really nobody winning in this system.”
And there are racial disparities in traffic fatalities. One study by Harvard University and Boston University found Black Americans are more than twice as likely, for each mile walked, to be struck and killed by a vehicle as are white pedestrians.
“These are populations that are more likely to need to walk for lack of access to a reliable automobile,” said Osborne. “You also, in those neighborhoods, tend to have roadways that were built to get people through them quickly and not necessarily take care of the folks in the neighborhood.”
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that pedestrian fatalities as a whole rose 77% from 2010-2021, after decreasing in the three decades before.
Axelrod asked, “What has happened in the last decade?”
“We can look at the turning point at 2009, and that’s around the time smartphones were becoming very popular,” Osborne replied.
“It’s also the time that we saw cars [and trucks] getting much bigger,” Osborne added. “And when they crash into particularly a person that’s not protected by more steel, then it’s going to be more deadly.”
But more than the design of vehicles, Osborne blames the design of our roads themselves for the alarming rise in pedestrian fatalities. “We build our roadways to move vehicles, and we often make no space on them for anyone outside of a vehicle,” she said.
Throw in speed limits she says are too high, in areas where there’s a lot of foot traffic, and you’ve got a recipe for tragedy. “Speed is so central to what generates mistakes and what makes them deadly,” she said.
Osborne took Axelrod to an intersection in Langley Park, Maryland, to show how decades of design prioritized drivers at the peril of pedestrians.
“The traffic speeds are high,” she said. “The crossing distances for someone walking is long. They have these features like what we’re standing next to, called a slip lane, that allows the cars to take a right turn very, very fast. The communication to the driver is, ‘Don’t slow down, but stop at an instant if there’s a person there.’ We can totally do better. These are not hard things to change.”
John Barth is trying to do better for his city. He’s on the city council in Indianapolis, where he’s trying to implement an approach called “complete streets.”
“You have family homes and families living within very close proximity to the street, but despite that, this is built 100% for cars, not for people,” he said. “Having bike lanes, having bump outs, having streets that have been on a street ‘diet’ so there’s fewer lanes, those are the changes that will, over time, send clear signals to drivers that you need to think about the neighborhood and the pedestrians around you.”
With a record 40 pedestrian fatalities in Indianapolis last year, Barth says the time for change is now. “The status quo is not acceptable,” he said. “A single pedestrian dying in any given year is not acceptable.”
In a neighborhood near Butler University on the city’s north side, Barth says city planners’ awareness of pedestrians translates to safer streets. “You can see there’s space between the sidewalk and the street,” he said. “So, pedestrians feel safe when they’re walking. They have a buffer between them and the [traffic]. In the middle of the street, you have an island that is a signal to drivers that you should be driving slowly.”
Axelrod asked, “You point out these islands in the middle. Does that sort of subconsciously tell the driver to slow down, in addition to the speed limit sign?”
“Yeah. So even if they’re not thinking about it, that is forcing them to constrain their driving, because there is something that’s visually telling them you can’t speed here,” Barth replied.
In Philadelphia, they’re hoping new approaches will work as well. In 2020 speed cameras were introduced on Roosevelt Boulevard, and crashes have dropped 36%.
The city has also pledged $78 million from the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan to make the boulevard safer.
Too late to save Latanya Byrd’s family from heartbreak. But hopefully, it will save many others.
“You know, my family didn’t die in vain,” Byrd said, adding, “Something has to be done.”
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
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