Explaining why traffic deaths are up 46% since 2009

In 2016, 5,987 American pedestrians were killed. Why so many?

Distraction behind the wheel, texting while walking and even marijuana legalization have all been tagged as potential culprits in past research.

In addition, a new study released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows an 81% increase in single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs between 2009 and 2016, based on federal records…

The USA Today Network is investigating the phenomenon of rising pedestrian fatalities, an urban problem primarily plaguing either cities with high poverty rates or warm-weather spots such as Florida and Arizona. Our analysis so far has found that African Americans are killed at a disproportionate rate compared with their population nationwide.

Nationally, more pedestrians die in collisions when they are jaywalking along busy arterial roads. More of those fatalities also occur at night and involve males. Many of these crashes also involve alcohol, though federal safety researchers say that does not explain the increase. In 2016, pedestrians accounted for 16% of traffic deaths; in 2007, that figure was just 11%, according to NHTSA.

I am a little surprised to see that increased driving is not cited here. While driving dipped during the economic crisis, it is up to record levels in recent years.

While the emphasis here is on the upward trend in recent years, the numbers overall are a reminder of the consequences of such a strong emphasis on driving in American society. Roadways are built primarily for cars. Even when there is infrastructure for pedestrians and other non motor vehicles, it can be daunting to not be a car. Countering this could require extensive marketing campaigns; this article discusses efforts in several large cities. But, a significant change in favor of non-vehicles would truly require not just publicity but redesign and the reshaping of lifestyles.

 

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)

Supercommuters up 15.4%, or 0.4 million, between 2005 and 2016

A small and rising number of Americans commute more than ninety minutes a day:

While super commuters still represent a small share of the overall workforce, their long commutes have become increasingly common over the past decade. In 2005, there were about 3.1 million super commuters, roughly 2.4 percent of all commuters. By 2016, that share had increased by 15.9 percent to 2.8 percent of all commuters, or about 4 million workers. In some parts of the country the problem is much worse; in Stockton, where James lives, 10 percent of commuters travel more than 90 minutes to work each day.

The rising number of super commuters underscores a general trend towards longer commutes. The share of commuters traveling 24 minutes or less to work each day has decreased to 55 percent of all commuters in 2016 from 59 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of commuters traveling 25 minutes or more has increased to 45 percent in 2016, compared to 41 percent in 2005. The share of commuters traveling an hour or more to work each day increased 16.1 percent to 9.2 percent in 2016 from 7.9 percent in 2005.

I understand that this article is geared around showing differences in commuting over time. And the data can back that up: supercommuting is up and more Americans have longer commutes.

At the same time, this may be overselling the data:

  1. The changes over 11 years are relatively small. The article talks about percentage changes but the absolute numbers are small. This is the difference between supercommuting is up 15% versus saying it is up 0.4 million.
  2. Given that this data is based on samples of the US population, is a 4% change statistically significant? Is an increase from 2.4 million supercommuters to 2.8 supercommuters substantively significant?
  3. What are the trends between 2005 and 2016? Both of these measurement points are with a more robust economy. Driving was down after the housing bubble burst – was supercommuting affected by this? Is the trend line steady in an upward direction over the last 11 years or is it up and down?

From a broader view, this is not that much change. (There may still be shock value in reminding the public that 2.8% of all commuters are really willing to go far each day.)

Pneumatic road tubes to count traffic, check speed

Here are the secrets of “those weird black tubes in the road”:

Here’s a good description of the actual operation of the tube setup from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

“Pneumatic road tube sensors send a burst of air pressure along a rubber tube when a vehicle’s tires pass over the tube. The pressure pulse closes an air switch, producing an electrical signal that is transmitted to a counter or analysis software. The pneumatic road tube sensor is portable, using lead-acid, gel, or other rechargeable batteries as a power source.”…

A single pneumatic road tube is most commonly used to simply count the number of cars on the road, as well as time the gaps between individual vehicles.

If two pneumatic road tubes are set up spaced slightly apart, the counter can track the number of axles a vehicle has to better determine each individual vehicle’s class, the direction of traffic and the speed at which vehicles are moving.

A relatively simple device to figure out how many vehicles are on the road. These traffic counts are then very helpful for additional decisions like traffic control, widening or adding to roads, and even thinking about new roadways.

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

Forget smart cars; we should at least have smart traffic lights everywhere

Getting to the point where most or all American drivers have safe and reliable driverless cars will take time. In the meantime, why don’t we have smart traffic lights or at least every traffic light operating with sensors?

There are several intersections near my house and work that clearly do not have sensors. You pull up in your vehicle and regardless of time of day or how many others want to go the same way as you do, you will wait a full light cycle. Some of these lights are one to one and a half minutes long. Sometimes this makes sense: one road clearly has more cars. Yet, often this full period passes with few to no cars going through the light.

But, let’s go further. I’ve also run into situations where the sensors might just be too sensitive. This occurs particularly between 9 PM and 5 AM when traffic is light on major roads. A single vehicle wanting to turn onto the major road can stop traffic. If you have a few of these on a single trip, this can be frustrating. Why not have coordinated light signals along major corridors? Cities and suburbs do not necessarily have to go to full-blown smart systems that hope to coordinate all traffic; even just doing this on a few main roads with significant amounts of traffic could help ease congestion.

Perhaps one issue is cost: what municipalities or other governments (depending on who has jurisdiction over the road) want to spend money on sensors and devices? One of the supposed benefits of driverless cars is that they will allow for more flowing traffic through coordination across vehicles. However, in that scenario the cost of less congestion is pushed to the car owners who have to purchase such a vehicle. Sensors at major intersections or at all intersections would not require anything or much from drivers. Yet, I bet you could make an argument that putting money into better intersections will be a cost savings in the long run with less time spent in traffic.

What could kill the McMansion, SUV, and suburban way of life: $10 a gallon gas

One of the ways that the American suburban way of life of single-family homes and driving could come to an end is really expensive oil. Here is one prediction of the fallout:

For decades, we’ve lived — and driven — in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gasoline, and therefore, low-cost transportation. Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when — not if — gas hits $10 a gallon, not because of taxes, but because we will use up the planet’s petroleum…

Highways

Rush-hour on Interstate 95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive. But the highways are riddled with potholes as the price of asphalt — made from petroleum — quintuples, making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales. With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

Homes/offices

With home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves, which are also in short supply. Office buildings, by law, will be allowed to heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months. Sweaters become a fashion rage…

Around town

Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips. Because farmers are so dependent on oil (for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices skyrocket. Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat. Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages. Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace SUVs. Kids take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by mom. Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit. Small town taxes rise, encouraging further migration. Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.

If gasoline was indeed $10 or more a gallon, I imagine a lot would change. Perhaps even more so if there was a sudden spike to that price range instead of a gradual increase that would provide time for people and communities to adjust. Even with significantly higher gas prices, some would be very reluctant to give up the American lifestyle organized around driving.

One question to ask in this scenario is how quickly society could adjust. The American suburbs have been decades in the making. How quickly could they be dismantled? It is common now to hear social scientists, policymakers, and others discussing resilient cities and communities. Could the country adjust if the suburbs became unsustainable due to high gas prices? (According to this one prediction, we should all have bicycles on hand and hope we live close enough to mass transit lines.)

A second question: if the American government has spent many resources in support of the suburban way of life (such as socialized mortgages), would the various government actors try to sustain suburbia in the face of such a threat? Just because living in suburbia might be tougher does not necessarily mean Americans will stop wanting to live there.