Earlier this year, architectural designer and founder of Segregation by Design, Adam Paul Susaneck, published an article in The New York Times in which he mentioned different studies with a common denominator: the urban design of American cities is partly to blame for the alarming number of hit-and-runs and their racial disparities.
An estimated 19 pedestrians per day, on average, were hit by cars in the United States during 2022. It is worth noting that during 2021 pedestrian fatalities reached a 40-year all-time high.
While these fatalities increased significantly in all settings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rates of Hispanic and African-American pedestrian fatalities were significantly higher than those of white pedestrians.
A study published in 2022 by Harvard and Boston University shed more light on this phenomenon by studying the distance travelled by different racial groups when driving, walking or cycling. They found that African-American people were more than twice as likely to be hit by a vehicle per mile walked than white pedestrians. For African-American cyclists, the risk of mortality per mile was 4.5 times higher than for white cyclists.
Susaneck believes that city design is partly responsible for these worrisome disparities. Pedestrian and cyclist injuries tend to be concentrated in poorer neighbourhoods that have a higher proportion of African-American and Hispanic residents. These neighbourhoods have a common history of underinvestment in basic road safety measures, such as streetlights, zebra crossings and pavements, and overinvestment in automotive infrastructure designed to speed up the passage of people who do not live there.
Recent research from the University of North Carolina found that inner-city neighbourhoods targeted for neighbourhood clearance in the mid-century saw residences and businesses destroyed to allow for new arterial roads and highways to be built. The study proved a profound statistical association with increased pedestrian fatalities.
According to the study, decades of civic neglect, collapsing property values and the flight of white citizens further affected pedestrian safety. The maintenance of pavements in many cities is up to the owners, but they were wearing out along with the empty buildings, so a walk down the street to a bus stop or a shop became a dangerous journey.
In this regard, a study of road conditions in Florida found that the probability of a crash involving a pedestrian was three times higher per mile on roads without pavements.
The US can reverse the trend of rising traffic fatalities, a trend that disproportionately affects Hispanic and African-American communities, by investing in safer road design: narrowing streets, reducing the amount of space devoted to cars, enforcing speed limits, and planting trees to provide visual cues for drivers to slow down. Although these interventions may seem simplistic compared to the scale of the problem, other countries have shown that they do work. Urban planners should recognise that everyone must be able to walk or ride a bicycle in their neighbourhood without fearing for their lives.
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