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New Report Maps the Gap Between Pedestrian Risks and Federal Safety Aid

12:28 PM EST on November 9, 2009

dangerous.pngThe top 10 most dangerous cities for pedestrians. (Chart: Dangerous by Design report)

If the equivalent of one jumbo jet full of Americans died every month, the resulting public outcry would be deafening. Or would it?

Anne Canby, the former Delaware transportation secretary who heads the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP), raised that question today as her organization helped unveil a new report on the nation's pedestrian safety outlook. In fact, Canby said, nearly 5,000 U.S. pedestrians die every year in traffic crashes -- but the resulting public health risk has yet to register as an urgent national issue.

The report released today, a joint effort by STPP and Transportation for America (T4A), ranks the nation's most dangerous cities for pedestrians and bicyclists according to a "danger index" that factors in the number of residents who walk to work.

The top 10 most dangerous areas (viewable above) were all located in the south. Florida has the dubious distinction of hosting the top four riskiest cities, though the study's authors noted that the state's large percentage of retirees were not disproportionally represented in fatality data.

The rankings are likely to be troubling for residents of the most dangerous cities, but the report's rundown of federal safety spending paints just as lackluster a picture.

Since the 2005 transportation bill took effect, according to the report, U.S. cities with populations greater than 1 million have spent an average of $1.39 per person in federal money on pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Under the 1998 transportation bill, the same U.S. cities spent just $0.82 per person in federal money -- a rise that today's report deems "a vast improvement" but Canby finds lacking.

"Safety for pedestrians has not really advanced a great deal over this period," Canby told reporters today, adding that walking and biking have yet to be "regarded as full forms of transportation."

Pedestrian and bicycle safety is often funded through Transportation Enhancements (TE), a program that sets aside 10 percent of each state's aid from Washington for green transport. But as Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported last month, TE took a disproportionate hit when congressional inaction forced the cancellation of $8.7 billion in state DOT contract authority.

The authors of today's report delved deeper into that trend and found that most state officials sit on their hands when it comes to spending available bicycle and pedestrian money, both for safety and better infrastructure:

[M]ost states have not fully utilized these funds, obligating (i.e., actually spending) only 80.4 percent of the nearly $9.4 billion made available through the Transportation Enhancements program since 1992, and only 35 percent of the Safe Routes to Schools program since 2005. This leaves federal funds, which could be dedicated to improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety, effectively unspent. This is not for lack of local need or interest in such projects, by and large, but rather a reflection of state DOTs' priorities. ...

Worse still, the large amount of unspent funds in those programs make them a prime target for meeting federal [cancellation] requirements ... In FY 2008 alone, states returned over $98.5 million in TE funds to the federal government through rescis- sions, equivalent to a 12 percent reduction in the 2008 apportionment of TE funds.

Using Federal Highway Administration records, the report's authors found an average of 1.5 percent of federal transportation spending is focused on pedestrian and bicycle safety, while pedestrians alone account for 11.5 percent of traffic fatalities.

"We're worried that this is only going to get worse," Dr. Linda Degutis, associate professor of emergency medicine and public health at Yale University, told reporters today. "We've not seen a significant decline in injuries or deaths of pedestrians."

What can be done to remedy the whopping safety funding gap? Requiring that federal safety money be spent in an amount proportional to the risk facing pedestrians would be a place to start, but the report focuses on the advantages of a national "complete streets" policy that would tell transportation planners to accommodate all road users.

In its statement on the STPP/T4A report, the National Complete Streets Coalition urges adoption of that national policy, which is part of the six-year, $500 billion national infrastructure bill that's currently stalled in the House.

But preventing the cannibalizing of TE funds when it comes time for state officials to trim their budgets is likely to require nothing short of a cultural upheaval in many areas. The more that local residents speak up about the need to spend available federal money on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure -- as well as on air quality improvements, also disproportionately hit this year -- the better.

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