Fatality Numbers vs. Safety

On Streetsblog, they’re waving New York’s relatively high pedestrian fatality rate as evidence the streets are unsafe and much more can be done. The region’s pedestrian death rate is the 13th worst in the nation, about the same as Houston, which is supposed to be evidence of unsafe streets.

John Adams points out that in Britain, the pedestrian fatality rate today is one third what it was in 1922. The roads are much less safe than they were then, when they were narrow and traffic was slow, but there are so few pedestrians today that cars rarely hit them. As a result, looking at absolute death rates means nothing.

Even the Transportation for America study that Streetsblog links to doesn’t fully correct for it. It scales fatality rates based on the pedestrian commute share, which is better than nothing, but still fails to account the huge volumes of people in New York and other walkable cities who take mass transit to work but still walk a lot for their other trips. The proof is in the pudding: the study says Cleveland is the second safest metro area in the US for pedestrians, behind Boston and ahead of New York.

New York has a lot of street safety issues, but it’s still light years ahead of the rest of the US, except for small pockets in Boston, San Francisco, and other compact, walkable cities. The same is true for Manhattan within New York. Ignore complaints that the community board comprising the Upper East Side has the third highest pedestrian fatality count; it also has the third highest population, trailing two outer-urban CBs with fewer pedestrians. At this stage input-based measures such as traffic speed, sidewalk width, stoplight phasing, and the presence of a good street wall and trees are much better than any skewed output-based statistic.

As a corollary, bike lane opponents who complain about the large number of cyclist injuries on protected bike lanes are just as wrong (see here and scroll for comments). There are more cyclists on 9th Avenue than on pre-bike lane Prospect Park West; of course more will be injured. Counterintuitive claims about how bike lanes are less safe than mixed traffic are fun, but they aren’t true.

7 comments

  1. Joseph E

    The real tragedy is that no one is keeping reliable statistics of the number of walking and biking trips in this country. And the statistics on injuries are patchy as well, which makes it difficult to find out the real injury rate per trip or per mile for walking or biking.

  2. Tom West

    “[in 1922] there are so few pedestrians that cars rarely hit them”
    Surely you mean there were so few cars that they rarely hit pedestrians?

    The word “rate” here is misleading…. I assumed it was deaths per thousand people per year (the most sensible way of measuring deaths from anything), but from what you’re saying it’s deaths per year. I agree that’s a stupid measure. If you have access to the annual number of pedestrian deaths by city, could you produce a table with the annual number of deaths divided by the population?

    • Alon Levy

      No, I mean there are fewer pedestrians today.

      The rate I refer to in the first three paragraphs is an actual rate. In the fourth and fifth paragraphs it’s an absolute number. If you want a table of rates per metro area, the T4A study I link to includes it, as well as the metro area ped commute mode share.

  3. Charlie

    I’m not sure it really works logically to look at pedestrian safety in isolation. I’d throw out there that what you’d want to know would be the total number of all transit-related fatalities, then to examine the proportions of each relative to the total population. In that scenario, we might see that although Dallas has a slightly lower rate of pedestrian fatalities than NYC, deaths of drivers and passengers in car crashes are far higher than in NYC, indicating that NY residents are overall “safer” when in transit since their walking trips are replacing, not supplementing, more dangerous driving trips (I’ll bet this is true).

    Correcting for pedestrian share strongly hints at this but doesn’t answer it directly, and doesn’t get at the nagging question of how a pedestrian safety improvement which increases pedestrian deaths by greatly inducing foot traffic (outweighing the per capita safety gains) produces a “safer” outcome than before.

  4. Nathanael

    There’s something very specific I’d like to see about pedestrian fatality rates in New York.

    I bet practically all of them happen on the wide thoroughfares or the quasi-expressways, not on the side streets. On the Avenues in Manhattan, not the cross streets.

    Huge multilane streets just make it very hard to have pedestrian safety.

    • Alon Levy

      I actually think the avenues in Manhattan are pretty good. The pedestrians get green for enough time to cross, the stoplight phasing is simple, and because cars get a green wave on the one-way avenues, in the off-peak it’s completely safe to cross on red. They’re really wide, but because the buildings are tall and have no setbacks, they don’t look out of scale.

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