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America’s Progress on Street Safety Is Pathetic

The United States was one of the worst performers among developed nations on decreasing traffic fatalities over the last decade. Image: International Transport Forum

Most countries ranked by the International Transport Forum reduced traffic fatalities at least twice as much as the United States between 2000 and 2012. Graph: International Transport Forum (Click to enlarge)

A new report from the International Transport Forum shows America is only falling farther behind all of its peer nations on street safety [PDF].

The traffic fatality rate in the United States (10.7 per 100,000 people) is nearly four times higher than in the United Kingdom (2.8 per 100,000) and close to double that of Canada (5.8). To put that in perspective, if America had the same traffic fatality rate as the U.K., around 25,000 fewer people would be killed every year.

America’s street safety record puts it near the bottom of the ITF’s ranking of 35 countries, far behind most other developed nations.

Image: International Transport Forum

Graph: International Transport Forum (Click to enlarge)

Traffic deaths have generally been declining in America, but not nearly as fast as in other countries. From 2000 to 2012, the U.S. managed to lower traffic death rates just 20 percent. Even Australia, another laggard that ITF grouped among nations with the “least success” reducing traffic deaths, still managed to cut fatalities 28.5 percent. Meanwhile, high performers Denmark, Spain, and Portugal all reduced fatality rates 65 percent or more over the same period.

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Removing Center Lines Reduced Speeding on London Streets

Traffic speeds slowed after London removed center lines. Image: Transport for London

Traffic speeds slowed after London resurfaced three streets and didn’t restore center lines, even though resurfacing alone was shown to increase average speeds. Graphic: Transport for London

On some streets, getting drivers to stop speeding might be as easy as eliminating a few stripes. That’s the finding from a new study from Transport for London [PDF].

On Seven Sisters Road, average speeds fell about 7 miles per hour after centerlines were removed. Image: Transport for London

On Seven Sisters Road, average speeds fell after center lines were removed. Photos: Transport for London

TfL recently examined the effect of eliminating center lines on three London streets. The agency found it slowed average driving speeds between 5 and 9 miles per hour, after taking into account the effect of resurfacing. (All three streets were also repaved, which has been shown to increase driving speeds.)

The experiment was performed last year on three 30 mph roads that had just been resurfaced, where center lines were not repainted. A fourth street was resurfaced and had its center lines painted back to serve as a control.

Researchers found that drivers slowed down on all the three streets without center lines. On Seven Sisters Road, for example, after the resurfacing, northbound speeds dropped 2.5 mph and southbound speeds fell 4.1 mph.

Those changes appear to understate the impact of removing the center lines. When TfL observed traffic on the control street, motorist speeds had increased an average of 4.5 mph. Apparently, the smoother road surface encouraged drivers to pick up the speed, making the reductions on the three other streets more impressive.

Researchers suggested that the uncertainty caused by the removal of center lines makes drivers more cautious:

A theory is that centre lines and hatching can provide a psychological sense of confidence to drivers that no vehicles will encroach on ‘their’ side of the road. There can also be a tendency for some drivers to position their vehicles close to a white line regardless of the traffic conditions, believing it is their ‘right’ to be in this position. Centre line removal introduces an element of uncertainty which is reflected in lower speeds.

When it comes to center lines, TfL notes, “most traffic engineers prescribe them by default without questioning the necessity.” London appears to be reevaluating this assumption after a 2009 directive from Mayor Boris Johnson to eliminate as much clutter from the roadways as possible.

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People in Low-Income Areas More Likely to Be Killed While Walking

Who is most at risk of being hit by a car?

Image: Governing

Pedestrian fatality rates are highest in low-income neighborhoods. Image: Governing

People on foot make up a growing proportion of people killed in traffic — 15 percent in 2012, up from 11 percent in 2007. Children, seniors, and people of color account for a disproportionate share of the victims.

So do people living in low-income areas, according to a new analysis by Governing. A review of pedestrian deaths from 2008 to 2012 revealed that the fatality rate is twice as high in America’s poorest neighborhoods as in higher-income neighborhoods.

Governing’s Mike Maciag writes that efforts to improve walkability have often been centered in downtown areas and commercial districts while poor people, priced out of those neighborhoods, are moving into less walkable suburbs:

Bridging the Gap, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, conducted field research assessing a sample of street segments in 154 communities in 2010. In high-income areas, 89 percent of streets had sidewalks, while only 49 percent did in low-income areas. Marked crosswalks were found in 13 percent of high-income areas, compared to just 7 percent of streets in low-income communities. The study found similar disparities for street lighting and traffic calming devices.

To some degree, people living in poor neighborhoods may be more at risk of being hit while walking because they walk more than people who can afford cars. But low-income neighborhoods are also more burdened by the legacy of car-centric street design than affluent neighborhoods. “Historically, many could not fend off construction of highways and major arterial roadways the way wealthier communities did,” Maciag writes.

Low-income neighborhoods that struggle with high crime rates may have the added problem of what former DC and Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein has called “a broken windows effect,” whereby reckless driving and violent crime exacerbate each other. In places where violent crime rates are higher, the thinking goes, motorists are also less likely to observe the law, putting pedestrians at risk.

Add to that the evidence that drivers are less likely to slow down or stop for people of color and you have a recipe for gross inequity on our streets.

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TA Vision Zero Report: NYPD Traffic Enforcement Up, But Wildly Uneven

NYPD precincts that had the largest year-to-year increase in speeding enforcement are shaded green, with those that had the biggest decreases in red. Image: Transportation Alternatives

NYPD precincts that had the largest year-to-year increase in speeding enforcement are shaded green, with those that had the biggest decreases in red. Graphic: Transportation Alternatives

NYPD increased enforcement of dangerous traffic violations during the first six months of the city’s Vision Zero initiative, but enforcement varied drastically from precinct to precinct, with some issuing fewer summonses than last year.

In “Report Card: Six Months of Vision Zero Traffic Enforcement” [PDF], Transportation Alternatives analyzed NYPD summons data from January through June. TA found that, department-wide, speeding summonses increased 32 percent compared to the first six months of 2013, and tickets for failure to yield to pedestrians increased 153 percent.

Yet there is little consistency across precinct lines. For example, speeding enforcement almost doubled in Harlem’s 26th Precinct, but officers in the adjacent 30th Precinct, in Washington Heights, issued half as many speeding tickets as in 2013.

Along deadly Queens Boulevard, the 110th Precinct cited 860 drivers for failure to yield, while the neighboring 108th Precinct issued just 237 failure to yield summonses. TA writes:

The inconsistency is stark enough to undermine positive enforcement efforts…

In order to more effectively deter drivers from dangerous behavior, the NYPD must coordinate enforcement citywide so the likelihood of punishment for reckless driving is consistent no matter where a driver is in the city.

To achieve this, TA recommends NYPD create an executive officer for each borough command, who would “have sole responsibility for coordinating traffic operations”; educate officers on the life-saving impact of enforcement by hearing from traffic violence victims; and emphasize to officers the most dangerous traffic violations, while tracking those summonses at TrafficStat meetings.

One of the report’s great contributions is the presentation of precinct-by-precinct summons data, making it easy for people to see how traffic enforcement is changing in their neighborhood, and allowing them to compare enforcement where they live to other areas. This is the kind of thing NYPD should be posting online. Instead, the department only puts up the most recent month of summons data in PDF files, and no summons or crash data is posted on its precinct pages

More reports will follow: TA plans to release an analysis of the first 12 months of Vision Zero enforcement early next year.

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Study: People Living Near Biking and Walking Paths Get More Exercise

Walking and biking activity increased for people living near new facilities, in three U.K. communities examined. Connect2 is the name of the nonprofit group that helped install the infrastructure. Image: American Journal of Public Health

New bike/ped infrastructure in three UK communities (labeled “Connect2″ — the name of the nonprofit group that helped install the infrastructure) led to more physical activity. Graph: American Journal of Public Health

People who live near safe, high-quality biking and walking infrastructure tend to get more exercise than people who don’t, according to a study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers surveyed randomly selected adults before and after new bike/ped infrastructure was built in three communities in the U.K. Two of the selected communities opened bike and pedestrian bridges with well-connected “feeder” infrastructure. The other community upgraded “an informal riverside footpath” into a boardwalk during the study period.

Over three years, about 1,500 people responded to annual surveys about their walking and biking habits as well as other exercise behavior. During the first year of the survey — before the bike/ped improvements had been completed — there was no difference in biking and walking levels between people living close to the project areas and people living farther away. But by the final survey year, after the new infrastructure had been built, a disparity began to emerge.

Researchers found that people living within 0.6 miles of a protected bikeway got about 45 minutes more exercise biking and walking per week than people living 2.5 miles away. For every kilometer (0.6 miles) closer respondents lived to the infrastructure improvement, they exercised roughly 15 minutes more per week. People without access to a car were most likely to exercise more in response to the infrastructure improvements.

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What’s the Best Way to Make Biking Mainstream in a Car-Centric City?

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Researchers forecast that a combination of protected bike lanes on arterial streets and “self-explaining” traffic calming on residential streets (the orange line) could vault bike mode share in Auckland from 2 percent to 35 percent — far more than the city’s current bike plan (the red line).

How can you turn a car-dependent city into a place where most people feel safe cycling for transportation?

Researchers in Auckland, New Zealand, created a predictive model to assess how different policies affect cycling rates over several years. In a paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives [PDF], they concluded that a combination of protected bike lanes on all wide arterial roads plus traffic calming measures on neighborhood side streets would have a far greater impact on bike mode share than Auckland’s current bike plan.

Only 19 percent of Auckland residents say they currently consider cycling to be “always or mostly safe.” The city’s bike commute mode share stands at 2 percent. While the region has set out to achieve a 35 percent combined biking and walking mode share by 2040 (the walk commute rate is currently 5.5 percent), its actual policies are not that ambitious. The Auckland bike plan calls mainly for un-protected lanes and off-street paths.

Using prior studies, travel surveys, interviews, and historical data, the researchers created a model designed to factor in the complex interactions between bicycling rates and traffic speeds, motor vehicle volumes, street design, the number of cyclists on the road, the number of actual injuries, and subjective perceptions of safety.

Then they plugged four different policy scenarios into their model: the current Auckland bike plan; redesigning residential streets for slow speeds; adding protected bike lanes on all arterial streets; and combining residential traffic calming with bike lanes on arterials. Only the combination scenario had the power to achieve Auckland’s bicycling goals, according to the model.

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The Secrets of Successful Transit Projects — Revealed!

Green Line Trax at Gallivan Plaza

The Trax light rail system in Salt Lake City has the hallmarks of high-ridership transit. Photo: CountyLemonade/Flickr

All across America, cities are investing in new transit lines. Which of these routes will make the biggest impact by attracting large numbers of new riders? A landmark report from a team of researchers with the University of California at Berkeley identifies the factors that set successful transit investments apart from the rest.

The secret sauce is fairly simple, when you get down to it: Place a transit line where it will connect a lot of people to a lot of jobs and give it as much grade-separated right-of-way as possible, and it will attract a lot of riders.

What makes the work of the Berkeley researchers, led by Daniel G. Chatman, remarkable is that it compiles decades of real-world data to predict how many people will ride a given transit route. Their conclusions should bolster efforts to maximize the effectiveness of new transit investments.

The report authors examined 140-plus factors to build these ridership models, based on data collected from 55 “fixed guideway” transit projects, including rail and bus rapid transit routes, built in 18 metropolitan areas between 1974 and 2008.

They found the success of a transit project is almost synonymous with whether it serves areas that are dense in both jobs and population and have expensive parking — in short, lively urban neighborhoods. In the report’s model, the combination of these factors explains fully 62 percent of the ridership difference between transit projects.

Surprisingly, the only design factor that seemed to have a significant effect on ridership was whether the route is grade-separated (in a tunnel or on a viaduct). In isolation, transit speed, frequency, or reliability did not have significant impacts, but the great advantage of grade-separated routes is that they can run quickly and reliably through high-density areas.

While it may seem like common sense to put transit routes where they will connect people to jobs, agencies don’t always choose the best routes — often opting for expedience over effectiveness. Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner commuter rail service, for instance, very closely parallels a newly widened I-15, and many stations are located in low-density industrial or residential areas. Ridership has fallen short of expectations.

Elsewhere in Salt Lake City, the authors identify the University/Medical Center Trax light rail route as a good example of a high-ridership transit project. It connects major high-wage job centers — notably the university, its hospital, and downtown — and also many leisure destinations like museums, sports stadiums, the state fair park, concert halls, and nearly half of the region’s hotel rooms. Locals have embraced light rail as an alternative to costly parking, as well: Parking demand on the growing University of Utah campus has fallen 30 percent since the route opened. The route carries 78 percent more riders than initially projected.

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FHWA: Bike-Ped Investments Pay Off By Cutting Traffic and Improving Health

Marin County rebuilt an old railroad tunnel and created a 1.1-mile non-motorized path, expanding transit access and increasing biking by 95 percent. Photo: ##http://parisi-associates.com/projects/non-motorized-transportation-pilot-program/##Parisi Associates##

Marin County rebuilt an old railroad tunnel and created a 1.1-mile walking and biking path, improving access to transit and increasing biking 95 percent on the road leading to the tunnel. Photo: Parisi Associates

Nine years after launching a program to measure the impact of bike and pedestrian investments in four communities, the Federal Highway Administration credits the program with increasing walking trips by nearly a quarter and biking trips by nearly half, while averting 85 million miles of driving since its inception.

In 2005, the FHWA’s Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) set aside $100 million for pedestrian and bicycle programs in four communities: Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; and the Minneapolis region in Minnesota.

Each community had $25 million to spend over four years, with most of the funding going toward on-street and off-street infrastructure. According to a progress report released this week, about $11 million of that remains unspent, though the communities also attracted $59 million in additional funds from other federal, state, local, and private sources.

“The main takeaway is, we’ve now answered indisputably that if you build a wisely-designed, safe system for walking and biking within the context of a community that is aware of and inspired by fact that it is becoming a more walkable, bikeable place, you can achieve dramatic mode shift with modest investment,” said Marianne Fowler of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and an architect of the pilot program.

Columbia reconfigured a key commuter intersection to making walking and biking easier and safer, resulting in a 51 percent jump in walking rates and a 98 percent jump in biking at that location. In Marin County, the reconstruction of the 1,100-foot Cal Park railroad tunnel and construction of a 1.1-mile walking and biking path provided direct access to commuter ferry service to downtown San Francisco and reduced bicycling time between the cities of San Rafael and Larkspur by 15 minutes. Biking along the corridor increased 95 percent, and a second phase of the project is still to come.

The program helped jump-start the Nice Ride bike-share system in Minneapolis, which grew to 170 stations and 1,556 bicycles by 2013, with 305,000 annual trips. And in Sheboygan County, the ReBike program distributed bicycles to more than 700 people and a new 1.7-mile multi-use path was built, following portions of an abandoned rail corridor through the heart of the city of Sheboygan. “Sixty percent of the population of Sheboygan County lives in close proximity to that corridor,” said Fowler. “And the trail gives them access to almost anything in Sheboygan.”

FHWA could see the impact: At locations where better infrastructure was installed, walking increased 56 percent and biking soared 115 percent. Using a peer-reviewed model, FHWA also estimated changes in walking and biking throughout the four communities. The program led to a 22.8 percent increase in walking trips and a 48.3 percent increase in biking trips. Without the interventions, residents would have driven 85 million more miles since the program launched, according to FHWA.

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WaPo Is Wrong: Head Injuries Are Down, Not Up, in Bike-Share Cities

Image: Washington Post headline, at 1:39 p.m. Friday, showed a headline that said, incorrectly, that bike sharing cities saw an increase in head injuries. Image: Washington Post

The Washington Post ran a headline today erroneously claiming that cyclist head injuries increased in bike-share cities, when in fact head injuries declined more in bike-share cities than in cities without bike-share.

A Washington Post headline proclaimed today that cyclist head injuries have increased in cities with bike-share systems, based on a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. But University of British Columbia public health professor Kay Ann Teschke is challenging that conclusion, pointing out that the data cited by the WaPo actually leads to the opposite conclusion: In cities with bike-share systems, head injuries and injuries of all kinds have gone down.

“The message that bike-share is increasing head injuries is not true,” Teschke told Streetsblog. “The tone of the article suggests that head injuries go up. Really what is happening is that head injuries went down, non-head injuries went down, but non-head injuries went down more.”

The study was based on injury data from trauma center databases and registries in American and Canadian cities, collected over the same time period from both bike-share cities and control cities. A press release for the study said the “risk of head injury among cyclists increased 14 percent after implementation of bike-share programs in several major cities.” But to put the finding in plainer language, what the researchers actually show is that head injuries as a proportion of overall cyclist injuries rose from 42 percent to 50 percent in five cities after the implementation of bike-share.

As for the overall safety of cyclists following the introduction of bike-share, Teschke says the data in the article actually show that total head injuries fell more in the five cities that implemented bike-share than in the control group. Head injuries just didn’t fall as much as total injuries.

The AJPH article’s authors make cautious assertions that their research might build the case for helmet requirements with bike-share. The Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein, meanwhile, wasn’t cautious at all:

A few weeks ago, in honor of annual Bike to Work day, I asked a simple question about why those terrific bike share programs don’t provide helmets to riders. There were a lot of understandable reasons — hygiene, cost, liability — but one thing all the cities I checked seem to argue is that bike share programs are very safe, much safer than, say, crusing around on your own bicycle. Their evidence was anecdotal, based on the tiny number of reports of injuries to cyclists who have taken millions of bike share trips nationwide.

Well, it looks like they are wrong.

A look at the raw data doesn’t support Bernstein’s gloating at all.

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Pew Survey: Liberals Want Walkability, Conservatives Want a Big Lawn

Image: Pew Research Center

Image: Pew Research Center

Americans are increasingly sorted along ideological lines. There is less diversity of opinion among the people we associate with, in the media we consume, and even where we want to live. That’s according to a new report from Pew Research Center studying political polarization in the United States.

Image: Pew Research Center

Image: Pew Research Center

Perhaps most interestingly, the report found stark differences in preference for city versus rural living among people from different sides of the political aisle. People identified as the most consistently liberal were far more likely to say they prefer living in walkable place, while the most conservative people overwhelmingly said they preferred to live in a rural area or a small town.

The dynamic reinforces Nate Silver’s observation after the 2012 elections: “if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”

Among those who identified as most conservative, 75 percent reported they’d prefer to live in a place where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.” Only 22 percent said they’re prefer to live in a place where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.”

The situation was reversed for the most liberal class of respondents. Among this group, 77 percent said they preferred a smaller house, closer to neighborhood amenities. Only 22 percent would opt for the larger, more isolated house, Pew found. The proportions were roughly reversed for conservatives.

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