How cities can put the brakes on traffic fatalities

Wed, 2015-08-12 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Cities around the world are getting better at many things, but safety on the roads is not one of them. Already, 1.24 million people are killed on roads worldwide each year. And as cities grow larger and more people inhabit them, traffic fatalities could become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030.

But the dire forecast is not inevitable. Research shows some approaches are making a dent in the problem. And innovative solutions are springing up to make streets even safer.

The case for transit
One of the most effective ways to curb road fatalities is to get more cars off of them. Transit can be a strong vehicle for accomplishing that. Cities Safer by Design, a resource guide published by EMBARQ, part of the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, looked at the differences in traffic fatalities between cities that have strong transit systems and those that do not. The difference was substantial.

On a per-capita basis, there are more than seven times as many traffic fatalities in Atlanta, Georgia, as there are in Tokyo, which is a very dense, but transit-oriented city. In fact, of the cities EMBARQ studied, only Stockholm, which has extensive bus service, three metro lines and regional and intercity rail, had a lower traffic fatality rate than Tokyo.

Best to start early
While it’s harder to make a transit transformation in cities that are already well-developed, there is a great opportunity for cities that are just beginning their growth spurts. As living standards improve, one of the first things people want are cars.

Fortaleza, Brazil, for example, has a traffic fatality rate that is more than 20 times higher than that of Tokyo. The city has a population of 2.5 million and just launched its first metropolitan rail service in 2012. Making an early investment in transit can pay off down the road.

Drivers need to slow down
Vibrant cities also result in more pedestrians and the report finds that traffic planning must take that into account. Without effective planning, the things that draw pedestrians – active business districts and lively retail cores – also draw cars and the combination can be deadly.

EMBARQ finds that mixed-use developments certainly help, since they allow people to live closer to where they actually want to be. But slowing cars down also makes a significant difference. It finds that even reducing traffic speeds from 40 to 30 kilometers – roughly 25 to 20 miles per hour – could reduce pedestrian fatalities by nearly two-thirds.

It suggests that cities plan smaller block sizes; larger blocks just give drivers more room to build speed. Other traffic calming devices, such as speed humps, chicanes and chokers can reduce injuries by half.

It also says cities need to pay special attention to areas that have large elderly populations. These communities also have disproportionately high numbers of pedestrians. Some cities have focused efforts on helping them more effectively watch out for cars. Council Advisor Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre worked with Ontario to make more of its crosswalks audible.

Letting cars and bicycles co-exist
Getting more people on bicycles is another way to get more vehicles off the road, but that effort is not without its own consequences. Driver education is key and new technology is helping some police make their enforcement strategy more “show” than “tell.”

Using a new system from Codaxus, police officers on bicycles can use sonar to determine exactly how close a car passed, strengthening efforts to enforce a three-foot safety zone. Police in Chattanooga, Tennessee are using the system now and say motorists they stop don’t really understand how large of a buffer they’re supposed to leave. Officers use the system as an educational tool. A camera records the pass, allowing police to play back the close encounter to show drivers what it felt like from the cyclist’s perspective.

Innovation is key
Finally, EMBARQ says cities cannot be afraid of data. They likely collect a tremendous amount of data already that could help them use their limited resources to have the biggest impact on safety. Analyzing incident reports, for instance, could tell cities which intersections pose the most serious problems, allowing staff to address those first.

It’s an approach Boston is embracing. The city’s new Chief of Streets came from its civic innovation team. Chris Osgood will be working to improve collaboration between the city’s public works and transportation departments, all while working with public, private and academic partners to explore new ways of using data and technology.

More cities will have to follow. EMBARQ says there are 1 billion cars on the world’s roads today. We’re on track to reach 2.5 billion by 2050.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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