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Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

The Nashville Tennesseean reports stark numbers on auto crashes involving pedestrians:

Pedestrian accidents are on the rise in Metro Nashville, where hundreds are hit, hurt or killed by vehicles each year. The number of pedestrian accidents has gone up nearly every year since 2004 — a grim statistic in a city already known as one of the least-pedestrian-friendly places in the country. Seventy-three people died trying to cross or walk along Nashville streets from January 2004 to August 2009, according to Metro police records. More than 1,600 pedestrians have been hit.

I previously said that Nashville is potentially the next boomtown of the New South. It has been growing its population at a clip not even the best performing Midwest peer metro can match. Its music industry is booming. Corporate headquarters such as Nissan USA are coming. A brand new symphony hall downtown houses an orchestra working its way up the league tables. Nashville is setting a new aspiration level for itself.

A lot of what is driving growth in Nashville is the same as what is driving growth elsewhere in the South. Tennessee is an aggressively pro-business, right to work state with low costs and low taxes (and cheap electricity thanks to the TVA). Tennessee does not have an income tax and the city of Nashville can’t raise property taxes without a vote.

Yet a lot of this low cost environment has been purchased with bare bones public infrastructure. Nashville is the least pedestrian friendly major city I’ve visited – worse than any Midwest city. I keep coming back to this picture I took in my buddy’s subdivision there. (This location is just inside the Nashville city limits abutting Williamson County).

How is it that a brand new subdivision with all brick homes doesn’t have sidewalks on both sides of the street? The cheapest vinyl village in the Indianapolis area is required to have that these days. This says something extremely powerful about the values of Nashville, the values that created the stats above. It’s not just that there aren’t safe pedestrian facilities. This type of infrastructure inculcates a mindset about pedestrians in the psyche of the people. You see this plain as day, for example, when, among the “causes” of pedestrian accidents, the paper lists “walking in dark clothes on a dark night”. That was not, last I checked, a valid reason to run someone over. While it can certainly contribute to a lack of visibility, this type of rationale comes straight from the mode of thinking that suggests women who wear slutty outfits are asking to be raped. It’s “blame the victim first”.

In a real sense, Nashville has decided to shift costs from development and taxes to its citizens via another route. Rather than pay to create a safer pedestrian environment, it has decided to expose its citizens to increased risk of injury or death, resulting in the very real costs – personal and financial – coming from all those crashes.

On the other hand, we have more or less unlimited risks that we are exposed to every day. Many of us willingly take a chance by, for example, dashing across the street mid-block in front of a cab just save a couple of seconds. It isn’t feasible to eliminate all risk and many of us would not want to live in a society that did so as it might be excessively stifling.

Also, should Nashville retrofit all of its streets and change the culture, it might find that its economic growth declines as companies and people seek out cheaper locations elsewhere. This would cut off the supply of taxes, making further investment prohibitive. We see this in the Midwest where many cities that once had great infrastructures are seeing them crumble into dust as they can’t afford to maintain them. I believe it is critical to sustain the economic growth engines of our communities. That expansion of jobs, residents, and tax base is what provides the resources to make more investments. The richer we get, the more we can afford. You can’t kill the golden goose, so there’s a tricky balance to maintain.

There are choices and tradeoffs to be made. And a lot of it comes down to values. But from what I’ve seen as we go through time, things that were viewed as ordinary and acceptable risks years ago are no longer considered so today as we’ve gotten more prosperous and thus more demanding as a society. Once workers dying on a job site was routine. Eleven people died building the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930′s. That was probably considered quite safe for its day. If even one person dies on a job site today, it’s treated as a major incident. It used to be that horribly polluted air and water were simply the price of progress. No longer – at least not in America. This has been recognized and supported even by free market advocates like Friedrich Hayek, who said, “There is no reason why the volume of these pure [government] service activities should not increase with the general growth of wealth.”

It strikes me that the “Nashville Way” is on the wrong side of history. Efficient low cost government and taxes are likely to be permanent advantages. Purchasing those low costs by exposing pedestrians to above average risk of injury or death rather than through genuine efficiency does not seem like a long term winning strategy, however.

More on Pedestrian Safety

I Almost Got Killed

More Nashville

Impressions of Nashville
Nashville: Next Boomtown of the New South?

20 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Nashville

20 Responses to “Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style”

  1. Saint Louis Urban Workshop says:

    I think that you're wise to point out the trade-offs inherent in many safety decisions, but pedestrian deaths aren't simply a new-found sensibility. Pedestrians are dying because roads are increasingly made for cars. The two-lane roads of the 1950's are six-lane behemoths through densely populated neighborhoods. We continue to trade safety (and other quality-of-life values) for speed and car convenience.

  2. Darrin Thompson says:

    As Deming's #1 fanboi, I have to see the parallel to typical management practice in business. My saftey record stinks, I need better people.

  3. Michael Pereckas says:

    Brick houses but no sidewalks? That's what I think of as the (apparent) American ideal. Ideally, people seem to want a big house, full of the nicest things, and, outside, as soon as you reach the property line, you'd want a squalid wasteland that not a penny was spent on. After all, you have to share that with other people. Why spend a cent on something you have to share with other people? Other people don't deserve nice things you have to pay taxes to build. Better to deprive yourself of nice public spaces then pay to build them but have to share them with other people.

  4. Graeme says:

    Good pedestrian policies don't actually cost that much. The difference in total cost to developers and DOT's for sidewalks is quite small, when all is said and done.

  5. Steve says:

    I bet very few of the pedestrian deaths happened in neighborhoods like the one shown in the picture. Six-lane arterials where cars go 45mph and then turn abruptly into parking lots are where people die.

    I'm not disagreeing with the article — it's nice for neighborhood streets to have sidewalks, and sidewalks do make walking seem more like a viable choice, and more pedestrians do mean more pedestrian safety.

    But the real way to make streets safer is to make them slower, and the way to do that is to keep the streets small and narrow. And that runs against the pro-business values bringing Nashville its growth.

  6. Crocodileguy says:

    Does Indianapolis now have a sidewalk ordinance? A year ago they were the only city in the state without one, just a potential nitpick on your Nashville criticism.

    @ Steve: Please. Not every street can be two narrow lanes–that just isn't feasible or practical. Not every part of the city needs to be the same "walkable mixed-use/residential" oasis that planning literature has been fetishizing over the past decade or so. Speed also doesn't kill–people and their negligence kill. Bad design can kill.

    A 6-lane arterial can be safe for pedestrians if the sidewalks and setbacks are wide enough; it's all about scale. That said, most 6-lane arterials do not exist inside dense, pedestrian-crowded city centers, and certainly not at high speeds.

    For a city to function well and provide mobility to its residents, a balance must be achieved between slow, narrow neighborhood streets and wider, faster connecting arterials, and their implemented designs must reflect the local context. Also think about pedestrian phasing–should pedestrians have their own signal cycle and should diagonal crosswalk travel be permitted? What about midblock, signalized crosswalks? Street furniture and other hardscaping? Curb/gutter design? Pavement materials? Parking lanes?

    It is far too simplistic to assert that all streets need to be narrower and slower to be safe…because any road grossly over capacity will have an increase in vehicular accidents, and other negative externalities such as environmental pollution and economic costs incurred due to travel delay.

    Slow/narrow streets are also a huge pain for fire trucks and other emergency responders.

  7. cdc guy says:

    Crocodile Guy, yes, Indianapolis has a sidewalk ordinance. Because it's a zoning ordinance, it can only be applied forward to new development, rezonings, and variances.

    I agree with your arterial argument in general, especially about the mixed-use/walkable fetish. I'd take issue with one part: the Mile Square of downtown Indy is full of 5 and 6 lane arterials: Illinois, Capitol, West, Ohio, New York, Michigan, Delaware, Penn, Washington, Georgia.

    Your suggestion of separate pedestrian cycles, including diagonal crossings, is a good one to study for use during "normal business hours" and downtown special events.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As a Nashville resident, here's a response I recently made to the only one of the many nearly-militant, anti-car, bike-commuter worshippers on another blog (take it for what it's worth):
    "I’d like to present a sincere, alternate response to all those who continually generalize that the discipline of commuting is a viable option for any able-bodied/minded citizen across the USA. I live in an area that is marginally vehicle-friendly, let alone bicycle-friendly, even for the occasional/recreational cyclist. If you disagree, you might call it a ‘rant’; if you agree, you probably live here.
    You see, 16+ years ago, before moving to the Nashville area, I used to really enjoy riding any of my bikes when I lived in the relatively flat and gentle rolling (at worst) terrain of the metropolitan Chicago area (although there often exists a nearly-omnipresent, omni-directional breezy environment that can challenge pedestrians, let alone cyclists).
    There were many straight, wide roads, generous shoulders, good regulatory lighting, tons of low-speed roads in a comprehensive grid pattern to allow a cyclist to traverse miles and miles on generally peaceful residential roads from one end of Cook county to the other, only crossing the busier, higher-speed secondary roads. Generally, the biggest obstacles were avoiding road debris, sewer-grilles, and potholes. Practically a cyclist’s dream (outside of the windy conditions), even though the only verifiable bicycle-consciousness, at least at that time, was that there-used-to-be-a-Schwinn-factory-somewhere-once-upon-a-time.
    Here, however, I can hardly go more than a mile without encountering (literally simultaneously): “dramatic” terrain including continual limited-sight (blind) curves, no-shoulder narrow roads w/steep drop-off ditches (severe enough to ensure injury or damage) filled with all kinds of obnoxious vegetation, loose dogs, not to mention the increasing number of distracted (at best, and actually bicycle-aggressive, at worst) definitely-not-bicycle-conscious-vehicle-operators-of-all-types that continually exhibit difficulty just maintaining lane discipline on a good day.
    In fact, I've even had a driver pull out of a residential driveway on my right (from a dead stop nearly in front of me) AS I WAS CROSSING THEIR PATH IN PLAIN VIEW (no kidding) while I was driving, at posted speed, a clean, all-white Ford Explorer with my headlights ON (I learned this marginal extra safety edge when I rode a motorcycle), on a flat, straight, unobscured-line-of-sight, 30mph residential road during ideal daytime conditions. Just this one experience alone continues to drop my jaw mentally and is nearly enough to completely dumbfound my sensibilities to the point that I don't ride much (bicycles or motorcycles) ‘round here.
    Had there been on-coming traffic (that would have prevented my self-preserving swerve), or had I been on a bicycle or motorcycle, I’m absolutely convinced that just this one encounter had all the potential to keep my spoked-wheel interest to only include a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
    Nearly all non-interstate paved roads down here that actually possess any kind of intermittent (only), un-obstacled minimal shoulder and reasonable line-of-sight, are all 45+mph and only connect to the afore-mentioned nightmare-type residential roads and drivers. All roads here that have bicycle-lane markings and signage have no connected-loop provisions and only connect to bicycle-abhorrent environments."

  9. Affordable says:

    This is a situation that the coming economic problems can, perhaps ironically, only improve. It'll be easier to dodge the cars when there's a lot less of them.

    BB

  10. sitephocus says:

    The issue isn't lack of sidewalks in the suburban area, which is what the photo you've included with the post, but of that of a suburban mindset in an urban area. The majority of the accidents in the area were in urban areas that do indeed have sidewalks (with many coming on Broadway, the most pedestrian trafficked street in town.) Individuals in cars automatically assume they have the right of way and rarely are looking for individuals crossing in a crosswalk, especially when making turns on red. Trust me, I've slapped many cars to let them know they've cut me off.

    I have to question the need to provide sidewalks in an area such as your friend's neighborhood. Is there anything to walk to? Why provide them when people are choosing suburban, auto-oriented areas where you rarely see pedestrians anyway? Who wants to walk in suburbia for anything more than exercise? It's pretty difficult to walk to the store, or anything else for that matter.

  11. Marty Vanags says:

    I think this points to the car culture we have become. Almost all design issues in urban or suburban planning is done with the car in mind. Issues regarding congestion, site planning, parking, orientation all are done with how people are going to get to a commercial location. It is never done with the idea that people could possibly get to a location without sidewalks or on public transportation.

  12. Lynn Stevens says:

    Crocodileguy: There's an additional issue that most streets are engineered above the standard required for the posted speed limit, so motorists sense the ability to safely (for them) speed.

  13. Crocodileguy says:

    @cdc:

    Well, I did use the word "most," but point taken. That said, I can't think of many times I was driving greater than 30mph in downtown Indy.

    One great thing about Indy that many cities do not do is that pedestrians don't always have to hit a button to get a walk signal–that's excellent pedestrian-friendly design, and something Carmel needs to emulate.

    BTW–when was the sidewalk ordinance implemented? Could you direct me to the portion of the city code, please? Thank you so much.

  14. Crocodileguy says:

    Woops, just found the answer to my own question, July 1st, 2008 for the sidewalk ordinance. So relatively recent.

    @Lynn Stevens:

    I wholeheartedly agree that this is a major issue. In the Indianapolis area, I find Carmel to be the biggest offender in this regard, making wide boulevard-style streets and then posting a 30mph speed limit along them–ridiculous. That's intentional revenue generation at its worst.

    It's also the reason I mentioned textured pavements and other design features in the OP.

    Say a street needs to be wide enough to safely accommodate 4 travel lanes, bike lanes, left turn space, and on-street parking. This clearly has the potential to be so wide as to induce speeding…but what if the following design features were implemented?

    1. Landscaped, curbed median with left turn pockets at appropriate intervals
    2. 1' of textured pavement along median curbs and between travel lanes/bike lanes
    3. Textured pavement for parking lanes
    4. Curb/sidewalk bumpouts at intersections to facilitate pedestrian crossings
    5. Textured crosswalks

    These features all would contribute to a lower average vehicular speed.

    One thing Los Angeles has in many areas are engineered gutters at intersections that force cars to slow down to avoid "bottoming out." High clearance vehicles like emergency responders are not affected by these.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    You don't need streets to be very narrow to avoid killing pedestrians. In Manhattan, the two-way streets and most avenues are 100' wide, which typically results in 4 travel lanes and 2 parking lanes. However, pedestrians are safe, for two separate reasons:

    1. On the north-south avenues, traffic lights are optimized. The one-way avenues let taxis run down a one-way avenue without hitting a red light for 40 blocks. Conversely, when the light is red, pedestrians can cross at multiple parallel crosswalks; often this means that an entire block will have no cars on it, making street crossing safer.

    2. On the east-west streets, traffic lights are not optimized, leading to gridlock during the daytime. The east-west buses are notorious for being marginally faster than walking. This ensures pedestrians have little to fear from cars.

    In addition, the straight streets allow pedestrians to see far ahead. On one-way streets, it makes crossing safe even when the pedestrian light is red; there is only one direction cars can come from then, which affords great visibility.

  16. cdc guy says:

    I agree with Alon about this: one way arterials in a downtown are actually safer for pedestrians than two-ways, and optimized (in the Midwest we call it "synchronized") traffic signals on arterials also make crossing (including jaywalking) safer.

    What makes crossing unsafe in cities is right-turn-on-red. I lived in Philadelphia when the law was changed to allow RTOR; the city immediately posted "No Turn on Red" signs everywhere in the urban core and around the universities. Bad for cars, good for people.

    crocodile guy has recited the US catalog of traffic-calming, with one omission: narrow the travel lanes a foot or so. 12' or wider lanes encourage speeding. 10-11' lanes require more attention.

    And finally, it's surprising no one has mentioned phones. Distracted driving is a much bigger issue since almost all drivers have cell phones. Where once a swerving or under-speed driver would have been assumed "impaired", most often now he/she is "inattentive" due to talking or texting.

  17. Septly says:

    Crocodile guy, actually Indianapolis long had a sidewalk ordinance before the one passed on in 2008. However, the original ordinance only applied to new single-family development (in other words new subdivisions). The amended ordinance applies to virtually all zoned areas (for new development, variances, and redevelopments) and increases the required width of the sidewalk, increases the right-of-way, and conforms to ADA requirements.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate you bringing attention to the lack of sidewalks in new sub divisions around Nashville. The city and its surrounding areas need to make sure developers are putting sidewalks down. It adds attractiveness and higher property values for a neighborhood. I hope city planners and developers start listening.

    Nashville may be one of the worst for pedestrians in the Midwest but it is far better than South Eastern cities like Charlotte and Atlanta who have experienced greater growth in the suburban sprawling, no sidewalk neighborhoods.

    Check out Lenox Village a mixed use development in Nashville next time you are in town. It is located down by your buddies neighborhood on the edge of Davidson County just before you reach Williamson County. I think it is one of the nicest new developments in the Nashville area. I think you will be pleased based on your disdain for one sided sidewalk neighborhoods.

    On a side note Nashville is doing something I have not heard other Mid-West cities are doing by passing a law where developers can receive incentives for leaving older trees up and building new communities around them rather than clear cutting. They are also required to plant a tree on the street or in front yards every 40 feet in new home communities. This goes a long way in increasing the friendliness and beauty of new neighborhoods.

    Lastly, Nashville is not a city considered to be in the Sunbelt. It is just North of the line. The Sunbelt line only extends into Southern Tennessee.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate you bringing attention to the lack of sidewalks in new sub divisions around Nashville. The city and its surrounding areas need to make sure developers are putting sidewalks down. It adds attractiveness and higher property values for a neighborhood. I hope city planners and developers start listening.

    Nashville may be one of the worst for pedestrians in the Midwest but it is far better than South Eastern cities like Charlotte and Atlanta who have experienced greater growth in the suburban sprawling, no sidewalk neighborhoods.

    Check out Lenox Village a mixed use development in Nashville next time you are in town. It is located down by your buddies neighborhood on the edge of Davidson County just before you reach Williamson County. I think it is one of the nicest new developments in the Nashville area. I think you will be pleased based on your disdain for one sided sidewalk neighborhoods.

    On a side note Nashville is doing something I have not heard other Mid-West cities are doing by passing a law where developers can receive incentives for leaving older trees up and building new communities around them rather than clear cutting. They are also required to plant a tree on the street or in front yards every 40 feet in new home communities. This goes a long way in increasing the friendliness and beauty of new neighborhoods.

    Lastly, Nashville is not a city considered to be in the Sunbelt. It is just North of the line. The Sunbelt line only extends into Southern Tennessee.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate you bringing attention to the lack of sidewalks in new sub divisions around Nashville. The city and its surrounding areas need to make sure developers are putting sidewalks down. It adds attractiveness and higher property values for a neighborhood. I hope city planners and developers start listening.

    Nashville may be one of the worst for pedestrians in the Midwest but it is far better than South Eastern cities like Charlotte and Atlanta who have experienced greater growth in the suburban sprawling, no sidewalk neighborhoods.

    Check out Lenox Village a mixed use development in Nashville next time you are in town. It is located down by your buddies neighborhood on the edge of Davidson County just before you reach Williamson County. I think it is one of the nicest new developments in the Nashville area. I think you will be pleased based on your disdain for one sided sidewalk neighborhoods.

    On a side note Nashville is doing something I have not heard other Mid-West cities are doing by passing a law where developers can receive incentives for leaving older trees up and building new communities around them rather than clear cutting. They are also required to plant a tree on the street or in front yards every 40 feet in new home communities. This goes a long way in increasing the friendliness and beauty of new neighborhoods.

    Lastly, Nashville is not a city considered to be in the Sunbelt. It is just North of the line. The Sunbelt line only extends into Southern Tennessee.

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