Florida’s Complete Streets Law Saved Thousands of Lives, and That Wasn’t Enough

A new study highlights the successes and shortcomings of the state's 1984 law that mandated consideration of walking and biking routes in transportation projects.

Photo:  Weinstein Legal
Photo: Weinstein Legal

Florida epitomizes Sun Belt autosprawl and all its attendant dangers for people on foot. The state routinely ranks among the deadliest for walking.

But it could have been worse, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Florida adopted a statewide complete streets policy in 1984. The law stated that routes for biking and walking must be considered in road construction projects, with a few limited exceptions. It also charged the state with developing a statewide “integrated system of bicycle and pedestrian ways.”

The law, now 34 years old, did not transform car-centric transportation planning in Florida, and the state’s streets remain unacceptably dangerous for walking. But even this incremental step saved lives, according University of Georgia researcher Jamila Porter.

Porter and her team compared changes in Florida’s pedestrian fatality rate to national trends, as well as to other Sun Belt states without complete streets policies. They found that pedestrian deaths fell faster in Florida after the complete streets law was adopted than they would have if the state had tracked trends in peer states or the U.S. as a whole. The difference added up to between 3,500 and 4,000 lives saved over a 30-year period.

While Florida’s per capita pedestrian fatality rate fell 60 percent, from 6.36 fatalities per 100,000 people to 2.56, it remains among the most dangerous in the nation for walking. In 2015, only Delaware had a higher rate.

In interviews with 10 Florida DOT officials, each with at least 15 years of experience, Porter and her team also highlight how the law was not sufficient on its own to change the cars-first culture at the agency. While infrastructure for walking and biking was tacked on to projects, the state still focused on moving motor vehicles, not creating safe bike and pedestrian networks.

“We did well what we thought we knew to do well. We provided a 5-foot sidewalk… that was it. Or we provided a bit of bike lane,” said one staffer. But the state was still “consumed with the requirements — that we have adequate capacity for cars on roadways — and part of that was based on the ability of a car to get from location A to B in a timely manner and fast.”

Other state policies worked against the goals of the complete streets law. One staffer pointed out that Florida still places too much emphasis on metrics of motor vehicle throughput, like level of service, that undermine pedestrian safety. Some said that while the state’s policies were better than most, Florida should have made more progress.

  • Brandon

    Is the goals and culture at the Florida DOT worse than other states though?
    Is the main factor that Florida has more percentage of its development post 1945?

  • S.P. Miller

    Your first question is an interesting one, one that I don’t think that Streetsblog has explicitly come out to say that their DOT’s culture is significantly worse than any other Sunbelt state. I also haven’t come across it on other transportation blogs.

    As far as your second question, it can’t just be explained by the recentness of development, as you could still compare FL to place like AZ, and it still is worse.
    As is the case with most things, it is probably very complicated, but their continued emphasis on moving cars very quickly and the lack of multimodal facilities most likely play the biggest roles.

  • Stephen Simac

    I had first hand experience “working” with Broward county and FL state traffic engineers in the 70’s and 80’s. As a member of the state advisory board on bicycle and pedestrian safety, (headed by Dan Burden) we helped get the complete streets bill passed, mostly ignored by officials. The goals and culture of FDOT were and are probably similar to most other state and federal “transportation” (read motor vehicle traffic). It was the fastest growing state or among them since the 1970’s with suburbs and exurbs accounting for most of the growth in housing, with some condominium development along the coasts. I believe that more people walk and bicycle in Florida year round than in AZ, because the weather is far more pleasant for being outdoors in the summers, and probably the same in winters. I think this accounts for California’s high rates as well. The driver culture in Florida, like most of the south was and still is hostile or aggressive to non-motorists, combined with high numbers of confused tourists, recent immigrants, elderly drivers and impaired and distracted drivers has as much to do with the high death rates as road design. I think Louisiana has the highest cyclist kill rate per mile traveled.

  • Alan

    As someone who works with Florida DOT and having worked with other DOT’s I dont think they are worse at all. It’s largely a factor of rapid growth, lots of older people and tourists, and very poor transit. It’s largely a car culture as historically there has never been the density to support much transit. Now that the density is here people are very slow to adapt. If anything I would say the larget obstacle is a car dependent populace who have experienced traffic congestion increase with development and demand that any improvements not slow down traffic.

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