Dangerous by Design? Why Planning for People, Not Cars Creates Safer Roads

Dangerous by Design? Why Planning for People, Not Cars Creates Safer Roads

This post is by Ryan Benton.

The 2018 Dangerous by Design Smart Growth report shows that Baton Rouge ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country for pedestrians.

This report makes clear that our infrastructure is not providing the safe active transportation options that Baton Rouge residents want and need. It is designed for moving cars quickly from one place to another and not for moving people safely and comfortably regardless of the mode of transportation they choose. As a result, many of our roads are not safe for pedestrians, cyclists, or public transit users.

There are important efforts underway in East Baton Rouge, such as the Parish-wide bike and pedestrian master plan, the Government St. road diet, and newly approved transportation funding that will support implementation of additional Complete Streets features.  However, this is still a difficult problem to solve. Like so many other American cities that have grown rapidly in the post-war era, Baton Rouge is a sprawling city. Most of our major arterial roads extend out from downtown like fingers. Many have several lanes of fast-moving traffic and disconnected developments spurring off of them. Poor connectivity and fast-moving traffic make it difficult, dangerous, and at the very least, unpleasant, to get around without a car in Baton Rouge.  There aren't a lot of areas in town, especially in those developed more recently, where you can walk or bike from one destination to the next. In most of the city, you need to get in a car to get somewhere safely.

Despite these challenges, there are things we can do to improve the safety of our roads and make Baton Rouge more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly.

Prioritize People in Road Design

Baton Rouge has a strong car culture, but the people who rely on walking and biking for transportation, and those who prefer active modes of transportation matter.  We should always be designing our roadways for people, not cars. Safety for pedestrians comes down to street design. If the primary street design objective is to move cars quickly, then our streets will likely have several, straight, wide, fast-moving lanes, with few crossings. If the goal is to move people safely from one place to another, the streets may look very different. They will be designed to allow pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars to all safely share the street.  Car lanes are fewer and narrower; there are sidewalks and protected bike lanes; trees provide shade; and traffic features such as bulb-outs signal drivers to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings.

Elements such green space, parks and other public spaces can also help improve road safety and walkability for pedestrians and bicyclists. More pedestrians in public spaces can encourage drivers to be more careful and more mindful. Urban parks, playgrounds, plazas, squares and courtyards can all help prioritize people in road design. Even without the space or the budget to add new parks or public squares to existing spaces, communities can use tactical urbanism to create semi-formal public spaces like pocket parks and pop-up parks that can serve the same purpose of increasing safety for pedestrians.

Provide Options for Movement

Giving people options via modes of transportation that are all equally accessible and safe is critical to making cities more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. Providing safe access to public transport, biking infrastructure and streets designed for walking all help reduce the number of cars on the road and decrease the number of fatalities.

Simply adding sidewalks, connecting gaps in sidewalks, or improving sidewalk design can go a long way toward increasing safety for pedestrians.  Adding buffers like landscape strips, trees, bike lanes or on-street parking can provide physical barriers between pedestrians and roadways, allowing people to walk much more safely. If a sidewalk is directly against the curb of the road, pedestrians may only be six inches from a lane of cars going 40 miles an hour. A buffer that creates space between the sidewalk and the road provides a much safer and more comfortable environment for pedestrians.

Biking infrastructure, such as dedicated bike lanes, bike parking, dedicated bicycle signals and bike sharing services also make biking safer and more convenient and decrease the number of cars on the road. Safe access to public transportation for all types of users is also critical for attracting riders of choice and serving those who rely on public transportation for their daily needs.  

Support Demands for Safe Streets

Demand for safe transportation choices from people who live in the community will drive change.

It’s important to have local leaders who are in tune with the dangers of poor planning when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian safety and will make improving road safety a priority. But demand needs to come from the grassroots, from the people who live in these communities and want to be able to walk or bike safely in their neighborhoods.

Ultimately, pedestrian deaths are avoidable in almost all cases. No one should get hit by a car, ever. But this is not primarily a car problem or people problem -- it’s a planning problem.  

You have to plan for safety. You have to prioritize it. You have to embrace a  Vision Zero approach that seeks to eliminate all pedestrian fatalities. Even one pedestrian death due to dangerous roads is too many.

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