Why Are We Still Afraid of Our Streets?

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A cyclist rides in the bike lane on Saint Mary's Street.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A cyclist rides in the bike lane alongside a vehicle on St. Mary's Street.

Every kid in San Antonio should have access to safe facilities for walking or riding a bike around their community. In many neighborhoods, this is not a reality. The true cost of neglecting these modes will be passed on to children, who lose the ability to safely navigate their communities. 

Failure to provide access to safe facilities is more than just a transportation problem: it’s a failure to encourage the vital learning experiences that come from moments of exploration and self-sufficiency. Riding a bike or walking allows kids to interact with the world in a way that cannot be replicated in a car. It’s healthy. It’s cost effective. It’s social. It’s environmentally friendly. It seems like an easy idea to get behind, so why are we still afraid of our streets?  

The story is familiar. For decades, transportation policy has favored increasing capacity and speed on roadways to accommodate suburban expansion. Powerful automotive industry connections in Washington ensured that billions and billions of federal dollars were spent on infrastructure projects and economic incentives for gasoline. This would ultimately entrench the automobile as king. 

Safe facilities for walking and riding did not keep up at the same rate, especially in urban areas where alternative transportation is most effective. As a result, cyclists and pedestrians had few options other than trying to share roads that did not prioritize their safety. Instead of using road design and speed limits to reduce crash frequency, automakers and regulators settled on using vehicle safety features to reduce crash severity. This approach only addressed the symptoms of the high crash rates, not the causes. 

As a result, crash frequency has remained high and frequent car crashes have been absorbed as the cost of doing business. Last year in Bexar County alone there were almost 50,000 crashes. That’s about 135 per day. The vehicle safety features do work, and many of these crashes do not result in serious injuries for the occupants. Modern cars are like rolling bunkers, with seatbelts, crumple zones, airbags, roll bars and more designed to protect their occupants at all costs. This has helped create the myth of car “safety.”  But, the relative safety of riding in a vehicle has blinded us to the dangers created for people on the street. 

Put another way, all the safety features in the world do very little to protect anyone outside the car, and the statistics bear this out. In 2018, pedestrians and cyclists accounted for 68 of the 215 traffic fatalities in the greater San Antonio area. That outsized percentage speaks to the lack of infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians. The Severe Pedestrian Injury Area (SPIA) Report produced by Vision Zero SA notes that about a third of severe pedestrian injury in San Antonio happens on only 1 percent of roadway. This signifies road design that is inherently unsafe for anyone outside a car. 

The high share of fatalities also speaks to the general vulnerability of humans in the path of a moving vehicle. Drivers need to understand this vulnerability and be aware of the great power imbalance that exists when they’re behind the wheel. Most people wouldn’t point a loaded gun at someone, but speeding through a neighborhood to avoid a busy intersection can be just as dangerous. Motorists have a huge burden to operate their vehicles responsibly. The consequences of their actions are greater, based solely on their vehicle’s size and speed. 

But if people are scared to be outside, what will they do instead? Geography and the built environment have a huge impact on how we lead our day-to-day lives. Parents lament the screen time, isolation, and sedentary lifestyles that have become a growing concern, but what ways are we providing for children to safely access the outdoors on their own? If we value parking places more than safe transportation spaces, we cannot be surprised when our children lose the self-sufficiency, socialization, and curiosity that come from exploring on bike or on foot.    

There is a huge cost to society when we deprive children, or anyone for that matter, of the ability to feel safe while walking and biking. The collateral damage of the current, car-centric approach has been the death of streets as public spaces. Without people in public spaces, there is no community. The socialization and development that occurs when kids (and adults) interact is vital. Waving to your neighbor while walking to school or riding to the playground with a friend add to the texture of life. You hear the birds. You smell the taco trucks. You see a friend. The benefits of time outside for kids and young adults are well-documented. Safe and accessible bike and pedestrian facilities are vital to encouraging these experiences.  

Thoughtful road design, protected bike facilities, sidewalks, and lower speed limits are key to protecting cyclists, pedestrians, and other vulnerable road users. Safe facilities enable kids to grow and learn through exploring and participating in the community. Without safe facilities, the convenience of car drivers will continue to take priority over the health and well-being of all residents. 

When a city decides to prioritize safe facilities, they’re demonstrating that they understand the true value of these experiences for their children. Infrastructure, however, is not a magic bullet. Driver courtesy also plays a huge part in establishing a friendly climate for pedestrians and cyclists. Simple driving behaviors like following speed limits, giving three feet to cyclists and looking twice for pedestrians will dramatically reduce crashes. Be safe out there everyone. 

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