The Battle Over Unshared Street Space In U.S. Cities

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A cyclist and pedestrian attempt to cross busy San Pedro Avenue before vehicles arrive. Photo by Scott Ball.

People used to freak out over traffic deaths. When cars first began to appear on city streets, traffic fatalities were extremely rare. The probability of someone dying from a car crash was 1 in 2.1 million. Ten people could be killed by being hit by an asteroid before someone would die from an auto accident.

Figure 1 -  growth in auto ownership and fatalitiesIn 1900, there was one auto for every 9,500 people. Automobiles were considered expensive “toys,” and pedestrians and transit dominated the use of the public space of the city street. According to historian Peter D. Norton, “Boys of 10, 12 or 14 would be selling newspapers, delivering telegrams, and running errands.”

By 1930, because of Henry Ford’s Model T, there was one car for every five people. In a matter of a couple of decades, cars filled the streets and increasing conflicts with pedestrians led to a sharp rise in auto fatalities. Sadly, many of the victims were children.

Pedestrians cross the busy intersection of Audubon Drive and San Pedro Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.

Pedestrians cross the intersection of Audubon Drive and San Pedro Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.

The public responded in outrage. Editorials and political cartoons of the day used terms like “vampire driver,” “death driver,” and “speed demons.” Drivers were accused of being infected with “motor madness” or “motor rabies.”

Cities began to control the use of automobiles. In 1923, according to Norton, 42,000 Cincinnati residents signed a petition for a ballot initiative requiring cars to have a governor limiting them to 25 miles per hour. Local auto dealers organized in opposition, and the measure failed.

Figure 2 - Cincinnati adThe auto industry realized that it needed a campaign to reframe the car safety issue. Among other actions, “jaywalking” was invented, made illegal, and thereby put the blame of traffic fatalities on pedestrians. This campaign has taken many forms over the decades and has been extremely successful in making auto fatalities a non-issue.

Today in the U.S., traffic fatalities are the number one cause of death. Traffic fatalities per capita are twice the Canadian rate. And, Canada’s rate is as much as twice that of other industrialized countries. According to an AAA study, the total cost of traffic crashes is more than three times the cost of congestion – $299.5 billion for traffic crashes as compared to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s estimate of $97.7 billion for congestion. To date, fatalities from traffic accidents are more than twice the number of American soldiers killed in all wars.

Figure 3 - fatalities by war and carsRecently, there has been a move internationally and in some U.S. cities termed “Vision Zero” to work toward reducing, if not eliminating, traffic fatalities. New York City, for example, has developed a Vision Zero Action Plan that notes, “No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.” As part of the work being done in New York, a comparison is made between New York City and some of the worst U.S. cities for traffic fatalities. The resulting chart shows San Antonio is the most dangerous of the cities examined.

FIGURE 4 - NYC vs SAWith many planning initiatives under way in San Antonio, traffic fatalities should surely be one of the issues addressed by these efforts.

*Featured/top image: A cyclist and pedestrian attempt to cross busy San Pedro Avenue before vehicles arrive. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue

The Case for Funding Pedestrian and Cycling Safety

Bringing Vision Zero (Pedestrian Deaths) to San Antonio

25 Mph Speed Limit Would End Pedestrian Fatalities

7 thoughts on “The Battle Over Unshared Street Space In U.S. Cities

  1. Just what SA needs: Another “negative superlative” to add to our reputation for leading in obesity, teen pregnancy, high school drop-outs, multiple teen pregnancy, diabesity, voter turn-out, illiteracy, etc. To SA’s credit, some of those are past “accolades” and the rates have improved in a positive direction. But why are SA’s drivers so bad? Are our streets so deadly because of DUI? Distracted driving? Disregard/unfamiliarity with laws and rules of the road? Inadequate drivers ed? It sure feels like one big free-for-all out there to me — speeding, running red lights & stop signs, failing to yield, crossing solid line to change lanes, no turn indicator, ignoring lanes, pulling into traffic and changing lanes despite speed of oncoming vehicles requiring them to brake, etc. etc. etc. etc.

  2. Just yesterday, when pausing in the outer lane because of a man and a small girl legally walking (they had a walk signal and the right-of-way) in the crosswalk where I planned to make a right turn, the driver behind me honked his horn and then sped around me so fast he couldn’t have had time to check to see if it was dangerous to do so or not. A week ago, a man “threw me the finger” because I honked as he pulled into my lane too fast and too close to me–dangerous because the cars in the lane were stopping and my speed for stopping was based on that of the car in front of me and the driver cutting in put me in danger of not being able to stop fast enough. It’s ridiculous how drivers act as if the world belongs only to them and no one else. No wonder this city has such a bad reputation for pedestrian accidents, much less its horrible record related to cars hitting (and often killing) bicyclists and motorcyclists.

  3. I hate to mention the “C” word, but in California, the pedestrian rules. If a person steps into a roadway, whether at a corner or jaywalking, drivers hit the brakes. They just know that a human hasn’t a chance against a moving ton of metal.
    I have been horrified by how unaware of pedestrians SA’s drivers are. They are regarded with the same attention as a traffic cone! I remember seeing a disabled person attempting to cross San Pedro with a “WALK” light and drivers were buzzing around her like a piece of debris in the road. A crosswalk means nothing to most drivers, as they usually stop IN the crosswalk for red lights rather than leaving the crosswalk open. Yeah, this ain’t a pedestrian town so the “might is right” attitude of drivers reigns. And what’s with people zipping thru parking lots? There are lots of people walking around there. Slow down, folks. Driving the correct speed will only add a few seconds to your oh-so-important trip.

  4. Number of deaths for leading causes of death (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):
    •Heart disease: 611,105
    •Cancer: 584,881
    •Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
    •Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
    •Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
    •Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767
    •Diabetes: 75,578
    •Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979
    •Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112
    •Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149

  5. Great article, although depressing… David, have you been to LA? Their transportation system is just as poor as ours and everyone drives a car. Yet, their rate is a lot better than SA’s…

  6. The most important message in this article is we should not accept traffic fatalities and injuries as inevitable or acceptable. The are preventable, and Vision Zero is absolutely attainable. The U.S. military has proven so, they have eliminated traffic fatalities on military installations across the nation. There has not been a traffic fatality on a military installation in San Antonio in at least 13 years. The drivers that drive on Ft. Sam Houston, Lackland and Randolph also drive on San Antonio streets. Maybe the problem is not drivers, but the system.

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