Killed by Design

Smart Growth America has released the 2014 update to its Dangerous by Design report. Like its predecessor, the report digs into the data of where and how pedestrian fatalities are occurring across the United States. It notes the same conflicting trends described here, that pedestrian fatalities are increasing while total roadway fatalities are in decline. In other words, it has become safer to ride in a car but more dangerous to walk.

In its piece on the report, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog observes that the majority of the cities found most dangerous are in the South or Southwest. The Wonkblog post reasons that:

What they have in common, though, isn’t necessarily climate; it’s car-dependence. Nearly all of these cities have grown up in the age of the automobile, at a post-World War II time when we focused less on designing places for pedestrians because society had broadly acquired the luxury of driving instead.

Contrast these cities with Boston (ranked 50th out of the 50 largest metros), New York (48th), Chicago (44th) or even Washington (35th), more compact, older cities that were first plotted and built in the 19th century, or even earlier. Those cities — although they’ve long since sprawled at their edges, as well — are more likely to have smaller blocks, tight street grids and narrower roads originally meant for people on foot or slower traffic (by, well, horse). Urban planners tend to talk about these places as being more “human-scaled” precisely because they were built with pedestrians rather than cars in mind.

Analyzing the report’s Georgia data supports this position. “Between 2003 and 2012, 1,564 people were killed while walking in Georgia, representing 10.6% of the 14,748 traffic-related fatalities in the state during this period.” These figures made Georgia the fifth most dangerous state for pedestrians over that time period. The report also found that 56.9% of the Georgia deaths occurred on arterial roads, which are often designed with an eye toward vehicle speed rather than pedestrian safety.

Almost 75% of the pedestrian deaths occurred on roadways with a speed limit of 40 mph or higher, whereas only 4% occurred on streets with a posted speed limit under 30 mph and just 0.2% on streets with a speed limit of 20 mph or lower. When cars hit people, speed kills.

The report identifies a number of strategies that GDOT and other state departments of transportation can use to address what SGA deems this “national epidemic” of pedestrian fatalities.

  • Adopt a Complete Streets policy and comprehensive implementation plan;
  • Emphasize walking and bicycling in the Strategic Highway Safety Plan;
  • Maximize the use of all federal funding programs for walking and bicycling projects;
  • Reform methods for evaluating roadway performance to account for the needs of all;
  • Use practical design and Context Sensitive Solutions;
  • Update design policies and standards;
  • Map existing infrastructure, including facilities under local jurisdiction, to identify gaps in the walking and bicycling network;
  • Gather good data;
  • Reform policy for establishing speed limits to provide local control; and
  • Encourage collaboration across transportation, public health and law enforcement agencies.

Georgia checked the first item off this list when it adopted its Complete Streets policy. But given the ongoing high rate of pedestrian fatalities and its failure to meets its fatality-reduction goal, Georgia should implement the rest of these policies as well.

SunRail Shines

The initial 31-mile segment of the SunRail commuter rail line opened in central Florida last week. Projected to have 4,300 daily boardings, nearly 10,500 riders swamped the line on its first day of service. A second segment is already in the works, extending the line to the north and south, and a connection to the Orlando airport is also under discussion.

The line cost $615 million to construct, with half coming from a federal New Starts grant, the state contributing a quarter, and local governments funding the balance. The SunRail line operates on tracks purchased by the Florida Department of Transportation from CSX. Under the purchase agreement, CSX can pay to continue freight service on the line but, to ensure the reliability of SunRail service, Florida DOT has full control over dispatch and maintenance operations on the track.

This type of state investment in passenger rail is possible because Florida DOT has a source of funding for rail investment. Florida allocates a portion of its Federal Highway Trust Fund, State Highway Trust Fund, and state Documentary Stamp Tax receipts toward rail projects. Together, these revenue streams provided $1.8 billion for rail investment in the state between 2010 and 2014. These funds are split between Florida’s passenger rail program, which received about $960 million, and $740 million for Florida’s Strategic Intermodal System Program (which funds both freight and passenger rail projects).

This level of state funding for rail infrastructure differs dramatically from Georgia, which lacks an on-going mechanism for state investment in rail. Instead, Georgia’s rail program is funded primarily through year-by-year allocations from the General Assembly. Although the amount of this allocation increased by $300,000 last year, GDOT’s $7.2 million allocation for intermodal projects in FY14 is approximately 2% of what its neighbor to the south has available.

GDOT is currently in the process of revising its 2009 State Rail Plan. The previous document provided a useful compendium of data and identified key projects needed to improve Georgia’s freight and passenger rail systems.  But the plan provided little guidance on how Georgia could move forward with funding these projects.

SunRail’s success is the most recent example of states around the country reaping the benefits of their investment in rail infrastructure.  For Georgia to follow suit it will need to free up money for such projects. Thus, the next version of Georgia’s State Rail Plan must move beyond identifying and analyzing potential projects, and being laying the groundwork for how to pay for them.

Fixing the Right Problem

The AJC recently ran an interesting editorial by Robert Dallas, former director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and vice chairman of the Dunwoody Planning Commission. Discussing transportation funding challenges at both the national and state levels, Mr. Dallas reasons:

If immediate congestion relief is the only metric by which investments are considered, that will come at the expense of alternative transportation options needed for 21st century job growth.

Value is the metric that cuts through all transportation modes — those transportation investments that improve our communities, support better employment opportunities and make our streets safer.

It is encouraging to hear Mr. Dallas address the congestion canard. Congestion is an issue when it prevents us from getting where we need to go.  But when we don’t have to venture onto the roads the amount of congestion is irrelevant. Thus, the real problem for metro Atlanta to address is not the amount of congestion but the the region’s lack of access and transportation choices.

Mr. Dallas is also correct that spending money to solve the wrong problem is particularly costly in a time of limited funding. Ensuring metro Atlanta’s future success requires investing in “value” projects that get people to their destinations quickly and safely, and abandoning projects engineered for the sole purpose of increasing the throughput of our roads.