Photo by Mitchell Kmetz on Unsplash
Billy Brewster was 15 years old, a happy kid. He loved lawnmowers. He was also autistic. One Saturday night last fall, he was wandering his suburban neighborhood in northeast Austin when a car drove into him at a dangerous blind curve in the road. He didn’t survive.
Unfortunately, Billy’s death was neither an isolated incident nor an “accident.” Drivers kill or seriously injure more than 70 people a year on Austin’s roads—nationwide, about 18 pedestrians die every day in traffic crashes—and the design of our roads plays a critical role in what is, by all accounts, a public health crisis. East Yager Lane, where Billy was killed, is about 30 feet wide, and the speed limit is 45 miles per hour. There are no sidewalks.
Traffic fatalities are also deeply inequitable. Black people are nearly twice as likely to be killed by cars while walking than white people, and the fatality rate for Native Americans is nearly five times higher. Lower-income metro areas also have a higher rate of pedestrian crash injuries and fatalities.
The reasons are many: Non-white and low-income Americans are less likely to have access to a private vehicle (which is more expensive to purchase, feed, and maintain) and more often have no choice but to walk for their daily needs. At the same time, streets in neighborhoods of color and low-income neighborhoods are more car-oriented—with more and wider lanes, fewer crosswalks, fewer trees and poorly maintained or nonexistent sidewalks—owing to a legacy of underinvestment . Plus, urban transit systems have historically excluded communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
In light of this stark reality, Austin’s recent decision to reduce speed limits across the city could not have come at a more appropriate time. At an Austin City Council meeting in June where the spotlight was on reallocating police funding toward other services like mental health and homelessness relief, the Texas capital’s legislative body also approved an ordinance reducing speed limits on all neighborhood and most downtown streets from 30 to 25 miles per hour (mph) and reducing limits on most major city-owned roads by at least five mph, with a maximum speed limit of 40 mph. The city is rolling out the changes with new signage and public awareness campaigns this summer and fall.
While a reduction of five mph might not seem like much to a driver, it has a significant impact on pedestrian safety. A car is roughly seven times as likely to severely injure a pedestrian when traveling at 35 mph than when traveling at 25. Boston’s recent widespread reduction in speed limits from 30 to 25 mph resulted in a nearly 30-percent reduction in the likelihood that drivers exceeded 35 mph on the city’s streets.
Austin’s broad changes follow on the heels of the 2019 Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and 2018 Pedestrian Safety Action Plan , which highlight that nearly 70 percent of the city’s traffic injuries occur on just 8 percent of its roads. Black, Hispanic, and low-income Austinites are overrepresented among victims, with crashes more likely to occur in their neighborhoods.
The city’s progressive reputation belies an entrenched legacy of exclusionary zoning and racially prejudiced planning practices , which has caused race to be a predictor of income, as is the case nationwide. But now, Austin is one of only a few auto-oriented Sun Belt cities bucking the trend of holding speed limits steady—or even increasing them, as Los Angeles has been doing.
Pressured by community transportation advocates, Austin launched a city-funded Vision Zero campaign in 2016, with the ambitious goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2025. Since then, it’s been spending $30 million in bond money to improve the most dangerous intersections with better crosswalks, sidewalks and bump-outs to make crossings shorter. But traffic deaths still rose in 2019 to 86—this could be partially attributed to the boom in SUV purchases —and a recent study ranked Austin more dangerous for pedestrians than larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. The speed-limit reductions will no doubt help bring traffic deaths down, though another major factor needs to be addressed, as well: street design .
Abundant research has shown clearly that people drive faster on wider streets . Conversely, the safest streets—for people walking, rolling, riding a bicycle, or driving—are those that make drivers feel most uncomfortable . Yet the conventional approach to street safety has been to widen streets and remove all edge obstacles—in other words, barriers that can protect pedestrians like Billy from two-ton steel monsters. And, of course, we continue to insist on adding automobile lanes to our city thoroughfares (or “ stroads ,” as these nasty, uncomfortable street-road hybrids are better called) and freeways, even as they are proven not to reduce congestion.
West 2nd Street in Austin, Easter weekend 2020. Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash
To address the many issues that plague our cities—health crises, drastic inequity, environmental degradation—we need to do the opposite. We need to narrow our streets , design them for pedestrians and people on bicycles first, and cultivate compact neighborhoods and micro-mobility infrastructure that make it easier for people to get around without a private car. As part of the new ordinance, Austin is planning to re-stripe some streets to narrow the lanes and add more bicycle and pedestrian space.
Implementing better street design can start quickly. Just look at the widespread, well-received implementation of “slow” or “healthy streets” programs in response to the pandemic, as cities, including Austin , have quickly converted thousands of miles of streets to prioritize walking and rolling over driving. We need to make more concerted efforts to center communities of color in our decision-making processes , but tactically improving our streets for pedestrians and cyclists produces significant short-term equity benefits: COVID-19 has impacted people of color and low-income people, who are more likely to work service-industry or “essential” jobs and who have fewer fallbacks during economic downturns, the most. It can also build broad public support for permanent changes.
If we play our cards right, pandemic-era healthy streets are just the beginning of a new surge of momentum for a safer, healthier and more equitable transportation system. And the recent sweep of people into local politics on the issue of police budgets is a promising change. Yes, there’s much more work to be done, in Austin and around the country. But for a state that is notorious for its road building and traffic deaths —though that could be changing —Austin’s move to reduce speed limits across the board is a bold first step. Stories like Billy’s demand it.
Cover image by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash
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