Aahhh. Hear all that peace and quiet? Nothing but the buzz of cicadas and snoozing desert rats. It's the sound of June in the dusty old pueblo. The college kids are gone. Snowbirds, too. And the tourons are detouring to the high country. It's safe to be on the streets again.
Or not. The past few weeks brought the release of two rather alarming reports that give pause to those of us who walk, bike, or travel by any means other than driving a 5,000-pound death machine. The National Complete Streets Coalition published "Dangerous by Design 2014," a review of how much it sucks to be a pedestrian in this country and what can be done about that. And Tucson's own Living Streets Alliance—count them among the smart, conscientious folks seeking solutions—released a survey on the rash of bicycle crashes caused by the new streetcar tracks.
Let's start with walkers—it is, after all, the alpha mode of transportation. From 2003 to 2012, about 47,000 pedestrians were killed by vehicles on U.S. streets. That's 16 times the number that died in all those splashy natural disasters that get so much ink (and suck up so many federal dollars). About 676,000 people were injured, many in permanent, life-altering ways. And the tragic punch line: Pedestrian bloodshed is increasing, despite a reduction in overall traffic fatalities. Our society invests effectively in making cars safer, but relatively little in making people safe from cars.
Arizona ranks among the top 10 states in the coalition's Pedestrian Danger Index. Tucson and Phoenix are about double the national average in pedestrian-automotive mayhem. In 2013, Tucson reached a record high in pedestrian fatalities.
Why? My curmudgeonly perspective leads me to conclude that it's a perfectly predictable side effect of a culture that exalts autos über alles. Now, rather than just reciting my cynical mantra, I can quote this excellent report: When it comes to transportation design, "too often the needs of people and communities have been secondary concerns or left out of the process entirely."
The same could be said for bicycles. The Living Streets Alliance survey collated data from 86 self-reported bicycle crashes resulting directly from interactions with the new streetcar tracks—a "small fraction" of the number that actually occurred. The results are disturbing—only 4 percent did not result in injury, while 26 percent resulted in serious injuries that included broken bones and trips to the hospital.
This, too, was utterly predictable. I commute along sections of the streetcar route and saw right away that the new construction introduced numerous pinch points and hazards that greatly amp up danger to bicyclists. In a transportation system that's already largely devoid of margin for error for bicycles (most "bike lanes" are a pathetic joke), adding hazards like this inevitably results in more business for the emergency room.
Experts say that solutions lie in infrastructure, enforcement and education. I'm all for the first item, but the solution-seekers will tell you that lining up money ain't easy, especially when the vast majority of transportation dollars are poured into the bottomless tar pit of the ongoing petroleum apocalypse.
Nevertheless, if we really want to improve safety, we must build systems that separate bicycles and pedestrians from cars as much as possible. Those fancy red-light crosswalks are a great start, and it sure is fun to make all the cars stop. Problem is they don't all stop. Just the other day, I was crossing Speedway with five lanes sitting still, but in lane six a BMW blew by me so fast it was like the cartoons where all your clothes come off in the whirlwind. It's OK, I understand—his life is sooo much more important than mine, because he's in a car.
Enforcement too often amounts to blaming the victim, rather than a ticket for Mr. BMW. Unless there's a DUI involved, drivers rarely pay any significant penalty. It's just part of the overall mentality—when Tucson's pedestrian fatality record was reported in the local daily, the first half of the story was devoted to the details of why silly pedestrians get what they deserve. And the numerous comments posted by ignorant, intolerant, selfish drivers provided a perfect explication of why so many people get run down.
And here's the typical educational summary: "There are laws to protect bicyclists and pedestrians, but out on the street, the only ones that matter are the laws of physics, so walk and bike at your own risk." Well, here's my public service announcement: "SLOW THE FUCK DOWN AND WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING, PEOPLE!" Show a little respect for human life—peel your eyes away from whatever stupid gadget you're gazing at, before you kill somebody.