Phoenix Dithers on Traffic Safety While People Die

In a city where streets are dreadful for pedestrians, the victims of dangerous walking conditions are mostly poor people, and public officials aren't responsive to the risks they face.

Drivers kill someone walking on Phoenix streets about every three days. But the city has been slow to respond. Photo: Chris English/Wikimedia
Drivers kill someone walking on Phoenix streets about every three days. But the city has been slow to respond. Photo: Chris English/Wikimedia

Traffic collisions claim a shocking number of lives in Phoenix.

Earlier this spring, 10 pedestrians were killed across metro Phoenix in a single week.

Phoenix had the third-highest per-capita pedestrian fatality rate of any major U.S. city in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But that hasn’t prompted city leaders to take action.

Phoenix approved a complete streets policy in 2014 that has proven toothless. Under Mayor Greg Stanton, who announced this week he’s leaving the position to run for Congress, city officials have sat on their hands without translating statements about designing streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders into tangible changes. Since the policy was enacted, drivers have killed 300 pedestrians across the metro region.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, local advocates mounted a campaign to put more weight behind the city’s complete streets policies. Volunteers on the city’s Complete Streets Advisory Board have drafted more detailed guidance, with specifications drawn from the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide.

The new guidelines state, for instance, that all streets not in residential or industrial areas should have bike lanes by default, and that street corners should be designed with tight curves to slow turning motorists. By getting the City Council’s official endorsement of these guidelines, advocates hope to increase pressure on Phoenix’s recalcitrant Streets Transportation Department to change its ways.

But the City Council, which had previously promised to take up the issue, recently took the measure off its agenda, with the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee declining to take up the new design standards until at least August.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Conor Descheemaker, a local resident who helped create the guide.

Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, said the city’s reluctance to change its street design practices will cost people their lives. “We know how to solve this. We know how to make roads safer. For every day that they choose to delay were putting people’s lives at risk,” she said. “The Phoenix City Council is choosing to ignore this blatantly.”

The City Council is facing pressure from the Streets Transportation Department, which has proposed 10 changes to the document that Descheemaker describes as “antithetical to the purpose of complete streets.”

The agency objects, for example, to a passage that directs them to implement street designs that align with the posted the speed limit.

Those changes eviscerate the “entire intent” of the complete streets policy, said Descheemaker.

Descheemaker and other members of the advisory board say the guidelines have also been getting pushback from influential local developers who build sprawling subdivisions. While developers participated in the 18-month process of developing the guidelines, some objected to requirements that streets be laid out in a walkable grid, instead of the disconnected style of suburban cul-de-sacs.

Advocates like advisory board member Sean Sweat also see a pattern of discrimination against low-income residents. Because streets are so dreadful for pedestrians in Phoenix, the victims of dangerous walking conditions are mostly poor people. City officials aren’t responsive to the risks they face.

“So many just drive everywhere,” Sweat said. “When someone dies walking, I don’t think they empathize as much with them.”

  • Southeasterner

    As bad as Houston is it is nowhere near as bad as Phoenix. It’s scary being a pedestrian there and travelling with a toddler and grandparent in a “walk-able” neighborhood was one of the most stressful experiences I have ever had walking in a city. It’s all arterial roads with no crossings and in many cases no sidewalks! You are literally forced to walk in 6 lanes of high speed traffic. The strange thing is a couple hours North in Flagstaff the walking and biking environment is one of the best experiences I have had in an American city.

  • exit2lef

    Six-lane arterials are common in Phoenix. So are sidewalks (although often not detached as they should be). Without excusing the city government’s foot-dragging on this issue, the statement “in many cases no sidewalks” is simply false.

  • goodgnus

    Meanwhile City Health gave Phoenix a “GOLD MEDAL” for Complete Streets. WTF.

  • LazyReader

    Phoenix is a lot like most of the Sunbelt cities.

    It was built to accommodate vehicular traffic only. As much as I like autos, six,eight lane intersections like those in Vegas, Virginia Beach,Vegas. But it wasn’t built like those cities because they were designed past the peak of the 20th century. So Grid like cities like New York, Portland, Baltimore. The result is even if there’s sidewalks in Phoenix, good luck finding a place to walk to without dying in the heat first. No street trees for shade because they’d all die in the drought. Palm tree’s provide the least amount of shade………..need 50 gallons of water per day in the summer. Emory Oak, native to Arizona is attractive,
    provides plenty of shade.
    But that wont change the fact Phoenix is an ugly city. Phoenix is a bloated tangle of tasteless architecture that never seems to stop ballooning outward. Phoenix nightlife is so
    barren you can stagger across at midnight and find absolutely nothing. And rare attempts to put celebrity architecture in Phoenix fail namely because the materials they use are plastic and chemical based and roast in the intense heat. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1b4952a6e234f44b6e0e356dac6fa9ec6486de5cfc2e276b95b15bcc71daf9fb.png

  • Southeasterner

    I should have clarified a bit better. Their are sidewalks they just tend to end for no apparent reason on one side of the road and don’t provide any options for crossing the street to where their is a sidewalk…forcing you as a pedestrian to walk in the street or cross to the other side with no signals or markings and traffic flying through at 35+ mph. Try doing that with an 80+ year old.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@33.4704598,-112.0693728,3a,75y,345.64h,79.18t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1skazwOin-5jhdLxwy6nTf5w!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  • exit2lef

    That stretch of 3rd Street is the exception, not the rule, but I do see how it would be a problem to navigate at any age. The city does have a plan to tame 3rd Street with bike lanes and other improvements. Like the complete streets design guidelines mentioned in the original post, the 3rd Street project is taking far longer than it should.

  • exit2lef

    If there was just a single sentence saying that “city officials and developer representatives declined to comment,” I’d know that at least an effort was made to learn their positions. Instead, I’m left wondering why I’m hearing only one side of the story on an important issue.

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