NC cities need to become more pedestrian friendly

Pedestrians use a crossing on Blount Street on their way to the The Moore Square Bus Terminal in downtown Raleigh during the afternoon rush hour on Tuesday August 21, 2012 in Raleigh, N.C.
Pedestrians use a crossing on Blount Street on their way to the The Moore Square Bus Terminal in downtown Raleigh during the afternoon rush hour on Tuesday August 21, 2012 in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

State employees walking to work in downtown Raleigh are dodging vehicles so often the Office of State Human Resources last week launched a pedestrian safety initiative called WalkSmartNC. It’s a statewide program, but it’s beginning with an online survey of Raleigh pedestrians to determine where walkers are most at risk and how drivers and people on foot can avoid collisions.

Pedestrian safety needs more attention. In North Carolina, pedestrian deaths rose 13.4 percent last year to 228. Since 2009, the state toll has risen 54 percent. In the U.S., 6,227 pedestrians were killed last year, the highest total n 28 years.

Why the numbers are going up isn’t certain. Likely there’s a smartphone effect — more distracted driving and distracted walking. Some drivers may rely too much on new anti-collision sensors. A better economy may have more people out walking at night.

Whatever the reasons overall, it’s clear what’s contributing to the problem in urban areas — street designs that favor motor vehicles over walkers. Consider these factors that are familiar to anyone who walks in downtown Raleigh or on its busy streets elsewhere.

Sidewalks are too narrow. On weekend nights in downtown Raleigh, pedestrian step into the street to get past groups waiting outside restaurants or tables blocking the sidewalk. Roadways are too wide. Crossing Capital Boulevard can be a scramble over eight lanes. Mid-block crosswalks are too scarce. Cars enter and leave parking garages by crossing sidewalks. Construction projects eliminate sidewalks.

People are so wedded to their cars they’re blind to how much they’ve surrendered to make way for them. In Raleigh, it’s considered natural that the downtown is split by wide, one-way streets — McDowell and Dawson — where traffic surges to 40 and 50 m.p.h. as cars and big trucks race down a line of synchronized traffic lights.

A press release announcing the WalkSmart program, said state Parking Director Susan Weiss encourages “employees to use sidewalks or marked crosswalks to get from parking areas to offices, where they are less vulnerable to fast-moving traffic.” That’s good advice, but why are employees walking in downtown “vulnerable to fast-moving traffic”? Traffic shouldn’t be racing through downtown. It should go around downtown.

In his book “Walkable City,” city planner Jeff Speck writes that safety is one of four keys to making a city walkable and that means more than traffic lights and street markings: “Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy.”

The design problems are compounded by drivers’ errors. Many drivers stop their cars in the crosswalk. Others don’t appear to understand that pedestrians have the right of way when cars turn on to streets where pedestrians are crossing.

The neglect of pedestrians is pronounced in North Carolina. Walk Score, a website that ranks cities of over 200,000 population by pedestrian friendliness, rates New York No. 1 with a score of 89.2 and gives low grades to Charlotte (25.9), Raleigh (30.1) and Durham (29.1). Of the 14 cities with the lowest scores, six are in North Carolina.

Downtown areas are seeing a revival, but that trend will be stunted unless cities take the next step and put pedestrians ahead of vehicles. People want walkable cities. Narrow the streets. Widen the sidewalks. Make room for walkers.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com