I like Florida. I really do. But each time I visit — usually the southwest part of the state, in and around Naples and Fort Myers — I inevitably leave with a sunburn, sand in my ears and the lingering feeling that pedestrian safety is an afterthought in the Sunshine State.
You see, one of my favorite Florida activities is gawking at ostentatious coastal real estate. And southwest Florida doesn't disappoint with its abundance of flamboyant and occasionally beautiful properties that are (mostly) viewable from the street. Yet navigating these residential streets by foot isn't always easy given that the sidewalks lining them, if they exist at all, often start then disappear, start then disappear. There's no continuity or consistency. Designated crosswalks are few and far between.
Walking in Florida is like being in some strange video game highlighting poor pedestrian infrastructure — can you make it to end of the block without being forced to walk in the street or trample through someone's front yard? Can you cross this tangle of busy and extra-wide roads without becoming yet another sad statistic?
There's a discernible element of danger to being a pedestrian in Florida — save for places like Sanibel Island, god bless it — and the data-driven numbers prove it.
Per Smart Growth America's Dangerous by Design 2019 report, Florida again overwhelmingly ranks as the riskiest state to walk, claiming the lives of 5,433 pedestrians from 2008 through 2017 with an annual average of 2.73 fatalities per 100,000 people.
With Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana and Mississippi rounding out the top five deadliest states, an estimated 49,430 pedestrians were killed on the streets of America during that 10-year period.
Only two non-Floridian cities — Jackson, Mississippi and Bakersfield, California — crack the top 10 of the most perilous American metro areas to get around sans car.
Orlando's Baldwin Park neighborhood: Where the sidewalk inexplicably ends. (Photo: Brett VA/Flickr)
Sunny cities designed for cars, not people
While overall nationwide traffic fatalities have decreased in recent years, pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, and many major metro areas are becoming less — not more — safe for people who opt to hoof it by choice or by necessity.
Per Smart Growth America, pedestrian deaths have climbed 35 percent in the last decade even though Americans aren't necessarily walking more. And these fatalities disproportionately involve people of color, people walking in underserved areas and senior citizens.
As for which metro area in Florida is the most dangerous for pedestrians, that dubious distinction goes to Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, where there are 2.82 annual pedestrian fatalities for every 100,000 people. No less than 656 pedestrian deaths were reported in Orlando and environs from 2008 through 2017.
The last time Dangerous by Design was published in early 2017, Orlando held the number three most dangerous spot while the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area, which has fallen to the eighth spot in this year's report, ranked number one. So while still egregiously pedestrian-unfriendly, it would seem things are slightly less dicey than they once were in and around Fort Myers.
It should be mentioned that the theme park-packed City Beautiful, seemingly unable to shake its "grim and longstanding reputation as the nation's riskiest place to walk along roads" to quote the Orlando Sentinel, ranked number one in all other past reports: 2019, 2011 and 2014.
As the Sentinel explains, "despite myriad fixes made in Central Florida to reduce a heavy toll along post-World War II roads designed exclusively for the convenience of driving, the area's notoriety as a deadly place to walk worsened markedly even in a state that on the whole is the most dangerous."
"In addition to transportation issues, we also have to work on land-development patterns," Orlando transportation director Billy Hattaway noted during a press briefing, noting the abundance of wide, subdivision-lined arterial roads outside the city's urban core that are particularly treacherous to pedestrians.
Orlando and Fort Myers aside, all of the other Florida metro areas appearing in the top 10 also ranked at the top of the list in the 2017 report, although there has been some shifting around: Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach (2), Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville (3), Sarasota-Bradenton (4), Lakeland-Winter Haven (5), Jacksonville (6) and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater (9). Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach ranks as the 14th deadliest metro area in the U.S. for pedestrians, a slight but encouraging drop from its previous 11th place position.
In addition to considering how many total pedestrians were killed over the last decade as well as the number of annual pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, Dangerous by Design also includes a Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) that "measures how deadly it is for people to walk based on the number of people struck and killed by drivers while walking, controlling for the number of people that live in that state or metro area and the share of people who walk to work."
When considering each city's PDI, Sarasota-Bradenton experienced the most dramatic increase, shooting up 86.4 percent to a PDI of 234.6 — a steeper increase than any other city as noted by the Miami Herald.
Celebration, Florida, was designed with narrow streets to lower the risk of pedestrian harm. (Photo: Brett VA/Flickr)
Looking beyond fatality-heavy Florida
Outside of Florida, Bakersfield, California, moved up the list from 12th to seventh deadliest metro area for pedestrians while Memphis dropped from ninth place to 11th. Also appearing in the top 20: Baton Rouge (12); Birmingham, Alabama (13); Greenville-Anderson-Maudlin, South Carolina (15); McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas (16); Albuquerque (17); Detroit-Warren-Dearborn (18); Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway (19) and Augusta, Georgia (20).
Houston, Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario in California are three metro areas that have exited the top 20 since Dangerous by Design was last published.
The fact that teeny-tiny Delaware ranks as the third deadliest state for pedestrians is interesting in that it shows a state doesn't necessarily need to be stuffed with pedestrian-deadly cities — as is the case with Florida — to have a high PDI. In fact, the one time Delaware appears on the city rankings is for Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, which ranks 65th with a PDI of 46.8.
As for the safest cities for pedestrians out of the 100 largest metro areas (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau), they include Provo-Orem, Utah; Madison, Wisconsin; Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Massachusetts; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Syracuse, New York; Springfield, Massachusetts; Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue and New York City.
The 10 states with the lowest PDIs are overwhelmingly concentrated in New England and the sparsely populated West and Midwest: Vermont, Alaska, Iowa, Wyoming, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Maine.
Dangerous by Design also includes an interactive map allowing users to identify the deadliest streets in their own town or city using data pulled from the National Highway Transportation Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).
Fort Myers-Cape Coral has ranked as the most dangerous metro area for pedestrians in the past. (Photo: Tyler Small/Flickr)
The American South: Not an ideal place to be an (older) pedestrian
With the exception of Motor City itself, Detroit, there's a glaring similarity between the 20 deadliest metro areas for pedestrians.
They're all located — if not in Florida — in the Southeast or Southwest (predominately the former), with most falling within the Sun Belt, a region that's experienced substantial population growth in recent years and is home to a large number people over the age of 50, a segment of the population that, as mentioned, is at high risk of being killed while walking along roads.
Those over the age of 75 are especially vulnerable, experiencing fatality rates nearly twice as high as the national average.
The postwar suburbs—especially in areas that are low-income—are more likely to lack the good bones of a street grid, narrow lanes, safe crosswalks that aren’t too far apart, and slow vehicle speeds. – @emikoatherton#DangerousByDesign pic.twitter.com/Rp9RUj4h8i— Smart Growth America (@SmartGrowthUSA) January 24, 2019
Elaborates the report:
Part of the reason for this may be because much of the growth in these places occurred in the age, and the development scale of, the automobile. Previous research by Smart Growth America found that in general, the most sprawling metropolitan areas with wider roads and longer blocks typically cluster in the southern states. Furthermore, academic research has consistently linked these sprawling growth patterns to higher rates of both traffic-related deaths for people walking and traffic-related deaths overall.
Unfortunately, overhauling road design can take decades without the political will to prioritize safety improvements. Although some of these states, including Florida (through their state DOT), have committed to statewide Complete Streets policies, they still have a long way to go to translate those policies into practice.
Walking: Even more lethal depending on age or race
As my colleague — and MNN boomer authority — Lloyd Alter detailed in 2017, there are several reasons why the simple act of walking along or crossing a street can be so deadly for senior citizens. Within this age group — particularly those who are 75 or older — there may be mobility issues as well as limitations to a person's hearing or vision. Often, elderly pedestrians rely on assistive devices to get around, which many sidewalks simply aren't design to accommodate.
And as Lloyd points out, the fast-developing Sun Belt, especially Florida, is chock-full of wide roads specifically designed for fast speeds. Statistically, the faster a car is traveling, the more grievous the resulting injuries will be. The difference between 20 and 40 miles-per-hour is dramatic: When a car traveling at 20 mph strikes a pedestrian, there's a good — about 90 percent — chance they'll survive. Only 1 in 10 pedestrians, however, survive after being struck a car moving at 40 mph.
City and state leaders need to adopt a new mindset when approaching street design. (Photo: John Brosz/Filckr)
As Dangerous by Design notes, older Americans are also more likely to be struck and killed at an intersection or while using a crosswalk than younger pedestrians. And it doesn't help that the popularity of larger vehicles such as SUVs and pick-up trucks, which are two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash than smaller vehicles, continues to soar amongst consumers. It's not an "accident" as the report clarifies, as the term "undermines the urgency of this crisis."
Looking at race and ethnicity, those identifying as American Indian or Alaskan Native are the most prone to pedestrian fatalities followed by African-American and Hispanic or Latino populations. Residents identifying as white/non-Hispanic or Asian and Pacific Islander are the least at risk.
There are several reasons as to why African-American pedestrians in particular are disproportionately killed by cars. One can be traced back to urban "renewal" projects of the 1950s and '60s when historic black neighborhoods were, if not razed altogether, severed by the construction of new interstates and highways, making what remained of these neighborhoods more difficult to safely navigate. (Miami, Denver, Detroit, Tulsa and Charolette, North Carolina, are just a few examples of where this has happened.)
And as Dangerous by Design details, implicit bias is also believed to play a role in why walking is statistically so much more perilous for black pedestrians: "Research by the University of Nevada has shown that drivers are significantly more likely to yield to a White pedestrian in a crosswalk than to a Black or African American pedestrian."
There is no available data to better understand the household incomes of individual pedestrians killed by cars. Data, however, shows these deaths occur at a much higher rate in low-income communities compared to more affluent areas, which are more likely to have features like marked crosswalks and sidewalks.
Of the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S., Provo, Utah, is the least dangerous for pedestrians. (Photo: Michael Jolley/Flickr)
A safer path forward?
In addition to showcasing several communities that have banded together to help take the precariousness out of the simple act of walking along or crossing the street, Dangerous by Design outlines various concrete steps policy makers and other leaders can take to reduce pedestrian deaths, starting with the prioritization of public safety over traffic flow and zeroing in on projects that benefit groups that are disproportionately impacted by pedestrian fatalities.
Ultimately, Smart Growth America stresses, the most crucial change needs to happen on the federal level. And along with other urban planning and public safety advocacy groups, Smart Growth America is looking to the newly elected Democratic-majority Congress to spur that change.
A lot of coverage of pedestrian fatalities treats them as unavoidable, inevitable; a cost of modern life. We disagree. No loss of life is acceptable. Crashes are preventable and we have solutions. #DangerousByDesign https://t.co/2Gm7cxhvhY pic.twitter.com/d8aXE3AJK3— Smart Growth America (@SmartGrowthUSA) January 24, 2019
"We continue to design streets that are dangerous for all people, not just because we keep repeating the same mistakes, but because our federal policies, standards, and funding mechanisms that have been in place for decades produce dangerous roads that prioritize high speeds for cars over safety for all people."
The report concludes: "We call on federal policymakers to step up and establish safety as a higher priority. We call for binding, enforceable requirements for states to work toward reducing — and eventually eliminating — deaths and serious injuries on our roadways. We call for funding dedicated to safer street projects that specifically serve the needs of all people walking, particularly older adults, people of color, and low-income communities."
"The time for complacency has passed. We must treat this crisis as if our lives, and the lives of our friends, families, and neighbors, depend on it. Because the reality is, they do."