More pedestrians died during the COVID-19 pandemic despite fewer cars driving on American roads, according to author and consultant Angie Schmitt.
“Usually when driving miles decline, so do traffic deaths, but we actually saw the opposite happen during the pandemic,” Schmitt said at a Newton Free Library event on Thursday. “The last two years it has actually gotten a lot worse. Pedestrian deaths are up more than 15 percent.”
Schmitt, who wrote Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, discussed the pedestrian safety crisis at the virtual event. Schmitt is also the founder of 3MPH Planning + Consulting, a firm focused on pedestrian safety.
In her presentation, Schmitt said that this recent increase in pedestrian fatalities in America is largely due to systemic failures and inequalities. Marginalized groups nationwide face disproportionately high pedestrian fatality rates, she said.
“Many of our problems are connected to this inequality and racism we have in our society,” she said. “Black and Native American populations are almost twice as likely to be killed while walking.”
Citing a study done on traffic safety in the State of Minnesota, Schmitt said that a lack of roadway infrastructure and resources greatly contributes to increased pedestrian fatality rates in tribal lands and reservations.
“In these reservations, there’s very heavy foot traffic, but there’s almost no accommodations—there’s no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no traffic lights,” she said. “This could partly explain why we see such high pedestrian fatality rates among native folks.”
Schmitt said that many people on the reservation were concerned about traffic safety in their community, but the state Department of Transportation did not share their concerns.
“When they spoke with the state Department of Transportation folks, they almost never brought up pedestrian safety, and even when the researchers pressed them on it, they defaulted to behavioral explanations for these pedestrian fatalities,” she said. “They were kind of blaming the victims.”
Scmitt said that the Department of Transportation’s hesitancy to implement simple pedestrian safety solutions greatly contributes to the increased fatalities.
“In 67 percent of pedestrian fatalities, there’s not a sidewalk present,” She said. “So we’ve done a lot of victim blaming when in a majority of cases, we haven’t even provided the basic safety infrastructure that pedestrians need.”
Pedestrian safety measures do not need to be super expensive or difficult to implement, according to Schmitt. She said there are numerous effective and low-cost design solutions that can help make our roads safer.
“In New York City, they added hard center lines and leading pedestrian intervals to thousands of intersections, and they reported a 35 to 40 percent reduction in pedestrian injuries,” she said. “These are cheap, they’re really effective, and there’s nothing stopping us from adding a lot of these everywhere.”
The key, according to Schmitt, isn’t a large-scale, silver-bullet idea, but rather prioritizing simple solutions that will improve pedestrians’ everyday lives.
“We don’t lack design solutions, we just lack the will to implement them,” she said. “We lack a focus on small, quality-of-life details that make or break the experience and safety of walking.”