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Pedestrian safety ranges widely in Western cities, but overall situation is grim – and getting worse

Pedestrian street signs
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP Images
Pedestrian street signs

A new report paints a disturbing picture of the growing dangers faced by pedestrians across the country – and cities in the West run the gamut.

In 2022, the most recent complete year of federal data, vehicles struck and killed 7,522 pedestrians. That’s the highest figure in four decades, and a 75% jump since 2010, according to the advocacy group Smart Growth America. The group also ranked cities nationwide in terms of pedestrian safety using data from 2018 through 2022. Albuquerque and Tucson were the second and third worst, with 4.8 and 4.2 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents respectively over the five-year period. Heidi Simon, Smart Growth’s director of thriving communities, suggested one possible contributing factor in the region.

“As cities developed out West, they were largely being developed after a time when cars were already introduced into the transportation system,” she said. “And so as roads were being designed and built, they were being done so with that as a priority.”

Some metro areas in the West performed relatively well, with Provo-Orem in Utah at the bottom of the list with a rate of 0.7 pedestrian deaths for every 100,000 people, more than seven times the rate of chart-topping Memphis. Boise and Ogden had rates just over 1 death per 100,000.

The report also noted yawning racial disparities in pedestrian deaths, with Native Americans more than four times more likely to be killed than non-Hispanic whites.

“That is just horribly unacceptable,” Simon said. “I will also say that the fatality rate for Native Americans is increasing faster than some of the other populations if you look back at previous reports that we did. And so not only is it a horrendous situation, but it is not getting any better.”

She suggested several possible factors behind the disparity, such as historic underinvestment in Native communities and a prioritization of those passing through those communities over those who live in them.

She pointed to efforts to reduce vehicle speeds and improve pedestrian crossings, lighting, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure as steps cities can take to make pedestrians and other vulnerable road users safer. She noted that making walking and biking safer can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase business for local shops.

“It's a great way to get regular physical activity, which improves not only any number of physical health indicators, but also mental well-being as well as social and community engagement,” she added. “You meet your neighbors, you get to be involved in your community, and that helps to reduce the social isolation epidemic that's been described by the Surgeon General.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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