The title of this post contradicts many articles citing improvements in traffic safety since the 1950s. Yes, fatalities per vehicle miles traveled has declined drastically since people drive more and cars have become safer for their occupants due to seat belts and airbags. Yes, total U.S. fatalities have dropped from around 50,000 per year in the 1960s to around 35,000 per year recently. But underneath the multi-decade graphs of declining aggregate roadway crashes, there are some alarming trends.
Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities by year
As a man who has experienced American roads as a pedestrian and cyclist daily for the past 8 years, our streets have never felt less safe. My observations are backed up with evidence. Pedestrian and bicycle deaths have hit quarter-century highs, and motor vehicle deaths increased by 8%, the largest percent increase in 50 years, in 2015. Pedestrian and cyclist crashes are making up a larger proportion of overall roadway fatalities. Whenever a small annual dip in crashes occurs, pundits laud over it and call it amazing progress. Meanwhile, the U.S. has double the roadway fatality rate of any other developed country.
So the stats not only show a growing danger to pedestrians and bikes, but streets feel more dangerous now compared to five years ago. Why? Here are my anecdotal, purely unscientific observations.
SUVs. If you drive an SUV, you have never been more protected from the world and other cars on the road. You’re basically driving a tank. While cycling, I’ll often see convoys of 4, 5 or 6 SUVs in a row pass me. This market segment has exploded in the past few years. By 2022, 84% of GM vehicles sold will be SUVs/trucks. As a pedestrian and cyclist, it’s nearly impossible to look over an SUV to see other parts of the roadway. They block the view of everything in front of them. These things are tall, with bumpers sometimes a full foot or two higher than a sedan. This means if an SUV strikes a pedestrian or cyclist even at low speed, the injury will be to vital organs and not just to a person’s legs. It seems researchers agree:
“Pedestrian crashes have become both deadlier and more frequent. The increase has been mostly in urban or suburban areas, away from intersections, on busy main roads and in the dark. Crashes are increasingly likely to involve SUVs and high-horsepower vehicles.” – Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Anecdotally, it seems SUVs travel faster than sedans, even on local roads. A combination of feeling more protected from other traffic and being higher than other traffic may play a role in this. Also, the amount of power newer SUVs have is incredible. A Streetsblog reader writes:
Add in the increasing horsepower of cars and SUVs. A Volvo hybrid SUV has 400hp. Going 0-60 in 5 seconds — you just barely touch the pedal — is a recipe for pedestrian deaths. Most SUVs have very high bumpers, so kids are going under the car when struck, not onto the hood. And now they come with Bull Bars, which have to be even more deadly to pedestrians.
Dashboard gadgets. Even the lowest end car now has an in-dash control panel that’s basically an iPad. I’ve driven in cars with these and they often make the simplest task like changing the radio station a byzantine endeavor filled with deep menus and unlimited options. Dash navigation maps are useful but also take attention away from the road. Memorizing routes and using a mental map of the city is no longer needed. Just look at the map in front of you while you drive. I’ve seen people glued to their navigation map for trips even in their own city, even for trips less than 2 miles, and even on routes they’ve driven on hundreds of times before. Car makers are including more gadgets in their vehicles because they sell cars, not because they make driving safer.
Smartphone use while driving. This has exploded in the past few years. Even in states where handheld devices are banned, I see people using them on local streets where enforcement is unlikely. Here in Florida, I often see people outright texting or talking directly on their cell while making maneuvers in heavy traffic that require attention. Even hands-free devices pose a safety risk, and these devices are used even by people aware of the danger of distracted driving. It seems distracted driving is becoming more culturally accepted as more devices and apps vie for our attention.
Marijuana use. Despite your politics on the matter, I don’t see how driving while using a substance known to influence one’s mental state could have a positive effect on roadway safety. Studies on the topic have shown some evidence that marijuana use increases the risk of crashes. I’ve smelled an increase in marijuana use as I cycle by cars as well. I’ve known people who think nothing of smoking a joint before getting behind the wheel. This is becoming more common as recreational, non-medical marijuana use becomes more culturally accepted.
Backup cams and autonomous driving features. Features like lane change warning sensors, back up cams and other autonomous features claim to reduce or eliminate human driver error. On the other hand, I’m seeing an increase in the number of people who don’t turn their heads when they back up and completely miss people and objects behind them. Becoming overly reliant on convenience features tends to make drivers lazy and even less attentive. As autonomous driving features become common, expect more people to cede control of their vehicles and their attention to technology. Instead of technology serving people, people are becoming dependent on technology even for basic tasks, like driving their car in reverse. That’s not to say AI and autonomous vehicles will be a disaster, but all new technology has a burden of proof because, by nature, it is unproven and untested in real world conditions over a long period of time. And as the evidence of recent U.S. crash increases shows, tech features & gadgets car makers use to sell more cars aren’t showing a safety benefit.
Many of these issues are undermining the complete streets and traffic calming work that’s being done across the country. Vision Zero is showing local benefits, but national trends are pointing downward. In 2018, the state of U.S. roadway safety seems like a race between municipalities and regional agencies implementing roadway redesigns & enforcement, and car makers and cultural factors pushing speed, distraction and more aggressive vehicle designs.
This is my eighth year car free. I sold my car on a whim while living in Baltimore in 2010 after a busted water cooler led to an expensive repair on my Prius. Well, it wasn’t exactly on a whim. I was getting fat after college and realized my sedentary life and car commute were playing a role. I also had an expensive car payment and started adding up the cost: Even a fuel efficient Prius was becoming a financial albatross around my neck.
Selling the car was a leap of faith. Luckily, my friend Nate Evans, who worked with me at Baltimore DOT at the time, stepped in and gave me one of his mountain bikes the day after I sold the car. Over the course of my first year, I went from nearly passing out after 1/4 of a mile ride to doing a 3 day, 150 mile trek through the Allegheny Trail.
I expected to buy a car after I moved to Dallas, but it just never happened. Just as inertia keeps people from changing their driving habits, I found another type of inertia. Living without a car isn’t always convenient, but the financial, environmental and personal costs of car ownership weighed more heavily in my calculations every time I was almost ready to buy one. A began to realize a certain amount of inconvenience was good for the soul as well. As Amazon drones air drop toilet paper with 10 minute turn around times in the near future, inconvenience is becoming a rare commodity.
Other people have described being car free far more eloquently than I. Everything they say is true. Even aside from the environmental arguments, I wish more people had the option to experience the health and financial benefits of living without a car, at least for a little while. While there is a freedom in driving, there’s another freedom in knowing that you’re not mandated to own an expensive piece of machinery in order to participate in American life. Unfortunately, most of our cities and neighborhoods don’t allow this choice. I’m not an ideologue by any means, and I probably will own a car again, but I firmly believe that creating cities that at least allow for a broad choice of transportation options is better than creating infrastructurally coercive places that limit citizens to the most expensive and least efficient mode of travel.
With that said, here’s a whimsical post from 2011 from my old blog, Car Free Baltimore, after my first year of being car less.
It’s been one year since I sold my car and began this experiment. Setting out on my expedition, my goals were to experience Baltimore outside the confines of 1000 pounds of metal, educate myself on the issues and barriers of living without a car in the U.S., and sculpt my body into the likeness of a Roman God.
I’ve accomplished all three. Let me break it down for you.
The first week: There is nothing to eat in the house. The nearest supermarket is 7 blocks away. I go outside to start my car and the cold reality of being without one slaps me in the face. Hard. Because I am 15 pounds overweight, I wobble the 7 blocks to pick up some noodle salad. My feet hurt and I complain to my girlfriend. I consider buying back the car I just sold for $2,000 more than I just sold it for.
The second and third week: It’s July 2010. Heat wave, and not the dry kind. Between sweating on a bus and sweating on a bike, I begin taking my bike to work. 5 miles round trip. It’s a mountain bike on city streets with tires that could fit on an F150. Sort of like driving a tank on an Indie Car track. I learn a new meaning of the word “sweat”. This is when things got real.
The end of the first month: I learn that the Metro and Light Rail systems actually go places. Some of these places are useful. I also learn the delicate intricacies of eye contact protocol on MTA. The hard way.
The second month: Druid Hill Park has a lake and actual grass? The places I was afraid to go from watching the news don’t seem that bad when I begin riding my bike there.
The fourth month: It becomes painfully clear that, decades ago, the people who designed some of these city streets I walk and bike on every day never actually walked or biked on these streets. I also begin to snub my nose at people who call themselves “car free” but who bum rides off of their friends all the time. I begin refusing rides. Have I become Arthur Rimbaud?
The fifth and sixth months: Where before a 1 mile bike ride would have me kneeling over and weeping on the side of the road, now I can make my commute without batting an eyelash. Or something. I also get lean. 15lbs gone and then some. I become an aerodynamic bat out of hell with a taste for bad metaphors and peanut butter sandwiches.
The seventh month: It gets cold and dark. I question being car free, my existence, and the nature of the human soul. Also, what ever happened to Soul Asylum?
The eight month: As long as I dress like I’m base jumping off of K2, cycling in the winter isn’t that bad.
The ninth month: I buy a new street bike. My cycling range increases dramatically. I fly by cars stopped in traffic. I could tell they’re thinking, “That guy has it figured out. What am I doing with my life?”
The tenth month: Cars now seem like an overkill. That lady driving around the Safeway parking lot in the truck designed for hunting wild African elephants? I laugh at her.
The eleventh month: If my calculations are correct, so far I’ve saved $5,000 by getting rid of my car. This should be enough for at least 2 nights in Vegas.
The twelfth month: The thought of living in a place which would require me to own a car ever again gives me chills. Imagine being beholden to a 2,000 pound piece of metal which sucks 15% of your income every month, makes you pudgy, and does bad things to the environment. On the other hand, those new Challengers look nice, don’t they?
So, if I have one bit of wisdom after my year without a car, it is this: Don’t spit while you’re cycling, because no matter how cool you think you look, you’ll always get a dabble of saliva on your shoulder.
Stay tuned for my next blog, “Shoe Free Baltimore”, where, you guessed it; I’ll be going without shoes in an effort to experience the urban lifestyle just as the cavemen did hundreds of years ago.
I recently took the new Brightline train between Miami and West Palm Beach. Touted as America’s first privately funded high-speed rail service, its first phase currently serves downtown Miami, downtown Ft. Lauderdale and downtown West Palm Beach. Expansion plans for Orlando and Tampa are in the works. Being that I’m car free and wanted to visit West Palm Beach for the first time, I rode my bike to the Metro, got off at the Government Center station, then made the short bike ride to the brand new Miami Central Station.
My bike on a Brightline train
The first things I noticed were the bike share kiosks, Lyft drop off areas and the expansiveness of the project. Multi-modal connections, retail and housing are being built at the same time as rail service. This helps leverage the infrastructure investment by creating a neighborhood where people are more likely to ride the service. The second thing I noticed was the quality of the station itself. It’s bright, easy to navigate, and the lounges almost rival European high speed rail stations.
The train service itself is comfortable, with in-seat drinks and food service, wifi and enough electric outlets to power a small house. Staff checked my bike in for free (I believe there will be a fee for this in the future, though). The station in West Palm Beach is located between their historic downtown and City Place, so it was convenient to hop off the train and ride around town.
Miami Brightline Station
Because the service is more inter-city rail than commuter rail, its usefulness for commuters may be limited to people who live and work around the downtowns of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm. With adjacent development happening as part of Brightline service and new high rises going up throughout all three downtowns, this commuter market will grow in coming years. I could imagine someone living in downtown WPB, working in downtown Miami and using the service every day to avoid I-95 traffic. The price of monthly Brightline passes will need to be competitive to make this commuting option a reality, though.
Since Brightline is entirely privately funded, they made sure to create a product with long term ridership in mind. Here are a few things public transit agencies could learn from the project:
Building stations and development together. This is more difficult for the public sector to do because of fragmented property ownership and the number of stakeholders involved in public sector projects, but it should be a priority. Transit ridership is falling even in cities that are expanding their rail networks. When I see huge expanses of surface parking adjacent to stations, it’s not difficult to figure out why. Because driving and ride sharing is so convenient, transit service has to be even more so to compete with them. This means building neighborhoods centered around transit. Development supports the transit. Transit supports the development.
Clean facilities, on-time service. Research has shown once transit riders stop taking a service due to poor service, it’s very difficult to get them back on it. Transit service is ultimately a product, and its customer base shouldn’t be taken for granted with poor quality facilities or avoidable delays.
Multi-modal connections. Brightline doesn’t think about their stations as just drop off areas, but as multi-modal hubs. A Lyft pick up area and bike share kiosks are right outside the front door of their Miami station. Thinking about the second leg of the trip create a seamless experience and encourages ridership.
Good station locations. Again, light rail and commuter rail station locations are often limited by property ownership, right of way issues and other factors, but Brightline placing their stations downtown makes all the difference in attracting new riders who wouldn’t be willing to ride at a less convenient location.
Finally, station design. Rail stations used to be majestic structures and the centerpieces of cities. While Brightline doesn’t quite match the architecture of, say, Detroit’s Michigan Central, they do a good job of creating transparent, colorful stations that interact well their surrounding neighborhoods. Payment kiosks and boarding areas are also logically placed with good internal wayfinding. Customer experience at departure and arrival is just as important as the trains themselves.
I wouldn’t call Brightline “high-speed” rail like their marketing materials tout. Service was interrupted on the way back from West Palm Beach due to train traffic, and several at-grade crossings slowed service down to a crawl, but as the nation’s first privately funded passenger rail service, this first phase of service does a very good job. It also serves as a model for future public sector transit expansions in an increasingly competitive market. While Brightline isn’t competing with Uber or Lyft because of the large distances between stations, other commuter rail and light rail projects are competing with them. This means public sector transit projects need to up their game and not take riders for granted anymore – just like Brightline is doing.
Car Free America has been on hiatus, but now it’s back. I relocated for work this past winter and I’m now car free in Miami. How does it compare to Dallas? Here’s my run down:
I find myself using Miami’s metro for useful trips way more than I used Dallas’ DART service. It helps that it serves big box stores, urban neighborhoods like Brickell, and a slew of new TODs. More station-area development projects are in the works and Metro has plans to upgrade their entire rail fleet. While DART is a much more extensive system and the largest light rail network in the country, its size can work against it. Traveling from Plano to the DFW airport took nearly an hour and a half, and other cross town trips outside of downtown require bus-rail connections due to the sheer size of the metro, adding to travel times. I don’t blame DART, though. I blame the unchecked sprawl that has engulfed the region due to land use decisions made before I was born. Trying to serve an area with transit the size of a small European country is a challenge. This leads me to a point about urban growth…
Miami is considered a big city, but its urban footprint is smaller and more accessible than many big metros. Thank the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. This is an underrated benefit when trying to get around without a car. Even if a destination is beyond biking or transit distance, it’s still probably not too far to Uber. The Miami metro is about 15 miles east to west. DFW is about 65. This means many transit and biking trip times can be comparable driving, since longer trips make alternative modes less time advantageous. I’m sure this difference also impacts commute times by car, but luckily I haven’t commuted by car in awhile so I can’t speak from first hand experience.
Florida’s high-speed rail (though not that high-speed) has just opened,providing rail service to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach with future expansion plans for Orlando and Tampa. I’m sure commuters will use it and it beats sitting in traffic on I-95. This service has been great for weekend excursions north, plus the new stations are right downtown and a quick bike ride to nearby attractions. What makes this project different is the combination of housing, retail and offices being built around Brightline stations at the same time rail service begins. Building neighborhoods and transit together leverages both investments.
A few years ago FDOT and Miami-Dade County went on a roundabout building spree. I’ve seen more of these in Miami than in all my time in Dallas or Baltimore. Personally, I’m a fan. They slow traffic, make intersections look nicer and are way better than 4 way stops while cycling. As long as traffic yields at the legs, floating through a roundabout beats having to stop at a stop sign.
One of many Miami Roundabouts
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention biking to the beach. The City of Miami Beach just installed a full network of green bike lanes from downtown Miami across Venetian Way. While protected lanes are the gold standard, the city worked with the right-of-way they had and built a pretty solid network. Cycling around Miami Beach is a joy, especially being a fan of Art Deco architecture.
The scenery. The ocean. The palm trees. The unique architecture and eclectic neighborhoods. I’ve traveled all over the country and no place rewards getting out of a vehicle like Miami.
I was going to complain about the afternoon rain, but then I remembered how it cools things off and usually only lasts for about half an hour. Rain gear helps, but it’s not completely effective in a south Florida downpour. A big part of cycling is unsheltering your mind and body from constant protection from the weather. I won’t even complain about the humidity because I’m weird and actually like to sweat.
Like every other metro, we need more protected bike lanes. Since Miami is relatively compact, a protected bike lane network can serve a big percentage of the population and a lot of neighborhoods without having to be too extensive. Many neighborhood streets are already bikeable, but just need to be connected by a protected network on collectors and arterials.
Overall, Miami definitely is possible without a car. Many predict I will soon cave in and buy a Porsche, but many have made those predictions before and were wrong. But the ultimate challenge is yet to come; hurricane season.