Making Roads Safer for Everyone
A DISCUSSION OFNew Rules for Old Roads
While I might quibble with a few of the details of “New Rules for Old Roads” (Issues, Winter 2021), by Megan S. Ryerson, Carrie S. Long, Joshua H. Davidson, and Camille M. Boggan, I agree with the basic premise: the way we measure safety for pedestrians and bicyclists is inadequate and ineffective compared with a proactive approach.
For example, pedestrian safety research has consistently found that people walking are more likely to be killed on higher-speed, multilane roadways than in other environments. High Injury Networks tend to show that these roadway types are also problematic for bicyclists and motorists. Yet instead of proactively addressing known risky road types, in many cases transportation professionals wait for, as the authors note, a certain number of injuries a year or overwhelming demand in order to justify inconveniencing drivers with countermeasures that result in delay. Even when changes are made, they often occur at spot locations, rather than throughout a system.
Yet, making spot changes to a system without addressing the root cause of the problem only kicks the can down the road. Additionally, from an outside perspective, prioritizing the people already protected in climate-controlled metal boxes over those who are unprotected—particularly when the former disproportionately cause harm via air and noise pollution and injury, and the latter may be unable to drive, whether due to age, ability, income, or choice—seems questionable at best. The premise of prioritizing the driver is thick with inequity, yet it is the backbone of our current system.
The authors argue that part of the problem is a lack of consistent metrics to adequately measure the experiences of people walking and bicycling, and I welcome their data-driven examination of stress measures for bicyclists in various environments. This kind of research can augment crash data analysis and guide the design of user-responsive roadway environments and countermeasures, such as the protected bike lanes measured in the study, before additional crashes occur. At the same time, we should avoid creating rigorous requirements for research to change standards when that rigor was not met when creating the initial standard. There is power in simply asking people about the types of facilities they want for walking and bicycling and where they feel safe and unsafe, and then believing and prioritizing those perspectives, which are often consistent between studies. People inherently want safe, comfortable, and convenient access, and are clear about where those needs are met or not.
Additionally, more recent efforts to examine safety systemically, promoted by the Federal Highway Administration and aided by research from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, have developed methods to analyze patterns in crash data that can allow for more holistic safety solutions. These efforts identify combinations of features that tend to be associated with crashes, allowing cities to proactively address them with retrofits or countermeasures before additional crashes occur.
Ultimately, the nation needs new design standards that reduce the need for studies for each city or roadway. Through incorporating biometric, stated preference, near miss, and crash studies into a systemic effort, we can identify high-risk road types and create metrics and design standards to ensure that high-risk roadways are transformed to be safe and comfortable for all users over time.
Assistant Research Professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning
Arizona State University
Owner, Safe Streets Research & Consulting