The Best Tool for Reducing Traffic Deaths? More Transit!

More transit trips = less traffic deaths. Fairly intuitive, but the relationship is still pretty striking. Graph: APTA
More transit trips = less traffic deaths. Fairly intuitive, but the relationship is still pretty striking. Graph: APTA

Mass transit = massive safety.

A new analysis of traffic fatalities by the American Public Transit Association found that cities with the most transit trips per capita had roadway death rates that were roughly half those of cities that rely too much on the car.

“Public transit is an effective and we believe essential solution to helping communities move toward zero deaths on the road,” APTA CEO Paul Skoutelas told reporters in a briefing on the report [PDF] on Wednesday.

For example, Boston — which ranks near the top in per capita transit trips — has a traffic death rate of about 2.3 per 100,000 people, while Birmingham, Alabama, which is near the bottom for transit ridership, has a death rate of 18.53 per 100,000, or eight times higher.

The report shows that it doesn’t take much to make a big difference in safety. Cities such as Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, with more than 50 annual transit trips per capita, have death rates that are roughly half those of cities whose residents average 20 annual trips or fewer, APTA reports.

Transit is not only safer for the obvious reason — trains and buses are safer than cars — but because communities built around transit tend to have safer walking and biking amenities, fewer parking lots and safer street design. Such features, as well as higher population density, make it easier for people to make shorter car trips, or avoid them all together — reducing their overall exposure to crashes.

Good transit also encourages many high-risk drivers — teenagers, older adults or drunks — to stay off the roads. And policies such as raising the driving age or tightening penalties for drunk driving work better when there are viable travel alternatives, APTA says.

“Public transportation provides us a choice, a choice not to drink and drive… A choice that can really save our lives,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, a board member at the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters in the briefing.

Nonetheless, national traffic safety agencies have not latched onto transit to help keep people safe, even as deaths have soared in recent years — partly because of some long-standing institutional practices that obscure the benefits of transit. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration measures traffic safety progress on a per-million-miles-traveled basis. Such a metric obscures the safety benefits of simply reducing driving overall in favor of transit.

The U.S. has made great strides in reducing traffic deaths per million miles driven over the last few decades, with advances like air bags and greater recognition of the dangers of drunk driving. At the same time, much of the safety gains have been eroded by increases in miles driven. In terms of traffic fatalities per capita, American traffic safety outcomes have been falling behind peer nations, many of which have made much more substantial investments in transit.

Graph: APTA
Graph: APTA

“This has been a long overlooked and undervalued strategy,” Leah Shahum, director of the Vision Zero Network, said on the briefing call.

APTA hopes the study will encourage increased transit funding. But the group also calls on cities and institutions to develop incentives — such as discounted fares — and disincentives, such as charging for parking by the day, to encourage drivers to switch to transit.

Cities can also plan better, encouraging residential development in areas well served by public transit.

  • Southeasterner

    How does an R2 of 0.2676 conclude anything? I’m willing to bet I could get a better correlation between traffic fatalities and number of backyard urban chickens.

  • SFnative74

    Was thinking the same thing. There are cities with very few transit trips that are just as safe or safer as the 5 cities with the most transit trips. Weak correlation…

  • Nic_J

    What are the stats for the other tools that reduce traffic deaths? While the headline may be true, it would be good to see how the other tools pan out using the same analysis.

  • MT

    What I see is that there are no cities with high transit trips that are also high in traffic fatalities.

    Cities with low transit trips can be high or low on fatalities, so there are other factors that can make a city safe without transit. But a city with high transit rates will not be high in fatalities. That’s worth noticing.

  • Joe R.

    My guess is speed limits are way down on the list. In order of effectiveness, I would think it’s as follows:

    1) Density of vehicles on the road
    2) Training level of the average driver
    3) Type of vehicle being driven (i.e. SUVs are a lot more dangerous than subcompacts)
    4) Infrastructure and whether or not it’s designed to avoid conflicts
    5) Enforcement and sensibility of rules (motorists are more likely to obey rules if those rules really are designed to improve safety, and not just for revenue)

    Included in #5, and to some extent in #4, is the speed vehicles travel on roads. If the roads are sensibly designed and drivers are well trained, they won’t want to go at a higher speed than is safe or sensible for the situation.

  • bumpasaurus

    I love public transit but APTA really likes to grasp at straws sometimes to promote their product (to be fair, there is some more interesting discussion in the full paper). This is not a robust analysis — think about it: If you added a bunch of bus service to Birmingham, would it lower fatality rates for people who didn’t switch to the bus? Maybe a little bit, but the roads would still be designed poorly and too many trips would be taken by car.

    The best tools for reducing traffic deaths are those that lower speeds and VMTs. More transit can help with the latter (although, it would take a lot of transit to reduce VMTs at night, when driving is most dangerous…) but not especially the former.

  • John Lindstrom

    Please do a graph including major European cities too. I assume this graph is strictly USA.

  • bolwerk

    Walkability? 😉

  • Joe R.

    Walkability is a byproduct of all the things on my list. Even if you don’t expressly plan for walkability, if you do all the things I mention in an area then it will be quite walkable.

  • Janet Nelson

    The design of cities and suburbs has contributed to the ‘must drive’ situation in the US. Also the assumption that public transit is dangerous and filled with disreputable people doesn’t help. The auto insurance companies even have TV ads making the use of public trans seem to be the resort of poor desperate people. And of course there’s the auto industry itself, counting on people going into debt to buy, feed and water their cars. $$

  • This article is based on research from my 2016 report, “A Hidden Traffic Safety Solution” (https://bit.ly/2DS23z6 ). I’ve continued research on this subject, so readers interested in learning more about factors that affect traffic risk and new traffic safety strategies should read my recent report, “A New Traffic Safety Paradigm” (www.vtpi.org/ntsp.pdf ). I hope you like it!

  • Eddie Wren

    This APTA article on the whole is very good, however it does perpetuate one dangerously pervasive myth. It states that: “The U.S. has made great strides in reducing traffic deaths per million miles driven over the last few decades…” which by comparison with other developed nations is simply not accurate.

    See: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/2018/07/09/international-road-safety-annual-report-2018-the-usa-does-very-badly-again/

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