Phoenix Trying to Get a Handle on Pedestrian Deaths

Being a pedestrian in Phoenix is dangerous business. This is a place that comes by its reputation as a car-friendly city honestly. Phoenix pedestrians account for just 2 percent of collisions, but 42 percent of fatalities. That’s the fourth-highest share of overall traffic deaths in the country, behind three cities with much more walking — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Pedestrians in Phoenix account for a grossly disproportionate share of fatal crashes. Image: City of Phoenix

But Phoenix city officials are beginning to reassess the position of pedestrians in the transportation hierarchy, taking steps to help protect the city’s most vulnerable road users. The city’s goals are lofty: a 10 percent reduction in pedestrian deaths each year, with zero by 2020.

The actual pedestrian safety ideas the city is pursuing, however, are not nearly as bold as what officials are doing in, say, Chicago, which has also set the goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths. Phoenix’s pedestrian safety plans rely heavily on education — both of pedestrians (especially the school-aged) and of motorists, not so much on changes to street design.

One of Phoenix’s main tools to improve the safety of walking is a special style of traffic signal developed by engineers in neighboring Tucson. Phoenix is installing “High Intensity Activated Crosswalks,” or HAWKs, as they’re called, at some of the intersections that are most dangerous to pedestrians but might not warrant a full traffic signal, said Kerry Wilcoxon of Phoenix’s Traffic Department. The HAWKs are activated when the pedestrian presses the signal, giving vehicles a yellow and then a red light and pedestrians a clear path through the roadway.

But downtown advocate Sean D. Sweat, a representative of the Central City Village Planning Commission, says the city could be doing a lot more.

“To me, HAWKs are a bandaid to a more fundamental problem with the street,” he said. “I don’t think they — our streets transportation department, our City Hall — right now actually gets it. They talk the talk, but we’re not seeing it on the ground.”

A two-stage crosswalk in Phoenix. This is one tool local planners are using to reduce pedestrian fatalities. Photo: ##

City officials acknowledge the current built environment is very challenging for pedestrians, and they have taken some steps to redesign streets for greater safety. Phoenix has installed a number of pedestrian islands for people walking across wide streets. Local officials have also completed a small number of road diets, adding bike lanes to arterial roads, and in some cases removing travel lanes. In addition, the city of Phoenix is preparing Complete Streets legislation, according to Wilcoxon.

“We’re trying to address pedestrian safety just like we address automobile safety,” Wilcoxon said.

Still, Sweat was surprised and disappointed when recent streetscape projects, which entirely rebuilt some roads, failed to incorporate bike lanes, or parallel parking, which could shield pedestrians. Sweat says the city needs to start turning over vehicle lanes to cyclists to make the streets safer and less highway-like. But he says the powers that be in Phoenix are frustratingly conservative when it comes to transportation.

“Trying to get them to even consider bike lanes has totally fallen on deaf ears,” he said. “All they do is talk about vehicular capacity. They have no stomach for considering in their capacity models bikes and pedestrians, and they have no stomach for actually inconveniencing the drivers whatsoever.”

For the past eight years, Phoenix has participated in an FHWA program designed for cities that have high rates of pedestrian crashes: the Pedestrian Peer Exchange Group. City officials say this collaboration with other high-crash cities provided the impetus for their pedestrian safety efforts.

7 thoughts on Phoenix Trying to Get a Handle on Pedestrian Deaths

  1. Small point, but seriously, that chart made by the City of Phoenix looks like it was made in 1985. Hopefully that’s because all their money is going toward actual pedestrian improvements and not graphic design.

  2. More substantively, this effort is obviously better than nothing, but you don’t change culture without changing design, so I suspect most of the “education” aspects of this plan will be fruitless.

  3. Phoenix is almost entirely flat with amazing weather for at least half the year — could be a world-class cycling city if segregated infrastructure was created on the city’s freeway-like local roads.

  4. @Andrew – A couple that come to mind are Central between Camelback and Bethany Home where a third travel lane was removed and a bike lane added in each direction.  That was beneficial for cars too as Central is two lanes each direction north of Bethany Home and south of Camelback, previously creating choke points.  Jefferson/Washington from I-10 to 1st Avenue had two travel lanes removed for the light rail and a bike lane was added to the local access roads (which are an absolute joy to ride home on).  There was supposed to be one on 32nd Street between Roosevelt and McDowell, but nothing’s been done there as of about 3 months ago.  3rd and 5th Avenues long ago turned from 5-lane 2-way streets to 3-lane one-way streets with parallel parking and a bike lane. I don’t keep up much with west or north Phoenix simply because it’s outside my commute, but as far as a road diet is concerned, roads like Shea, Camelback, Indian School, Bell, 44th Street, 24th Street, 16th Street, 7th Street/Avenue and Lincoln haven’t been touched.  I’ve ventured over to/on those streets either out of necessity or to check them when I’ve been in the area and gotten off as quickly as I could because I felt perilously in danger on my bike there (and I qualify as a “fearless” bicyclist).

  5. Angie,
    Good article, thanks for your interest and for the discussion.  By the way when I was growing up in the burbs of Cleveland, I always thought the city was glamorous.  To answer some of the questions brought up by your readers here you go:

    Fnu Lnu – In 2011 there were 34 pedestrians killed on the streets here in Phoenix.  We don’t have year to date 2012 numbers.

    Andrew Boone – Phoenix installed true road diets on three road segments of note, 40th Street between McDowell and Camelback Roads, 15th Avenue between Thomas and Northern and on Central Ave between Camelback and Bethany Home Road.  There are many other locations where we have used edge stripes to narrow a lane of travel without removing a lane of travel.

    James – Phoenix is a great place to bike.  In most areas we have limited opportunities to separate bike facilities but we are always looking at new routes.

    Shane – You have a good point about the car culture here.  It is changing but slowly.  We now have a full time bike coordinator and a bicycle initiatives subcommittee.  We have one of the largest bike to school programs in the country and are continuing to fill in the gaps in our infrastructure but it is tough to change 4800 miles of pre-existing infrastructure over night.
    The education is also difficult since we can only easily get to school kids and don’t have much in the way of adult educational outreach.

    Shane – I am not sure about the chart comments, it may be just how the image came across but we still use pie charts and bar graphs to get the points across to people but I have a pretty talented staff here and would always be interested in new ways to communicate to people.

    Any other questions, please feel free to contact me directly here in Phoenix at 602-262-4613 or


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