It is to be lamented that in a nation like America, where great futuristic innovations originate and first see the light of the sky, many deaths occur annually at the hands of the unsafe street and traffic design. While other nations with road fatalities on par with America a decade earlier have improved significantly through design interventions and policy-making, the issue has become only starker in America. This assessment sadly proved truer even during the pandemic, where the number of traffic casualties went up despite plummeting everywhere else around the world. 

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 A Car Crashing to Roslindale Building_© Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff.

Deaths in the Streets of America: A Figure

According to WHO, car accidents are responsible for approximately 1.3 million deaths annually. In the United States alone, 42 915 traffic fatalities are estimated to have occurred in 2021, a sharp rise of 10.5 per cent compared to 2020. It is also the highest annual percentage increase ever in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), road accidents are the leading cause of death in people aged five to 29, more than half of which involve the vulnerable road-using groups on American streets, like pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. Children, young adults, and neuro-divergent people also fall into this category. 

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 Accident Prone Road Designed for Fast Moving Automobiles_© Dallas Morning News

While the primary impact of these road accidents is the untimely demise of countless individuals despite being preventable, they also add to considerable economic loss to individuals, families, and the nation. Along with the high financial cost of treating injuries, the injured lose track of their work and lose productivity at work as well. Their caretakers might have to take time off other income-generating activities, which in this case is replaced by a period of grief in case of death. The vehicular loss also adds to the overall devastation caused by the accidents.

Inequality in Street Design

Mass mobility has been unquestionably threatened, especially with layers of mobility between different socio-economic classes and unmistakable disparity and inequality evident in American street design. It has been reported that people of colour, aged 65 or older, uninsured, or from a low-income household are much more likely to be at risk of being killed in a car accident and thus, it can be concluded, as unfair as it might sound, that the burden of the bad street design still is disproportionately borne by the disadvantaged and undeserving population who, if anything, deserve protection from our end. This disparity was seen exacerbated during the pandemic, with adults and people walking in low-income households struck and killed at much higher rates than the rest of the population. 

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Homelessness in American Streets_© Rogelio V. Solis.

The question becomes even more pressing with the Low-income communities’ limited access to safe recreational and walking areas, and the need for sidewalks marked crosswalks and street designs in the low-income neighbourhoods that make it difficult to exercise safer pedestrian as well as vehicular movement. To add a cherry on top, these neighbourhoods are connected to contain major arterial roads built for high speeds and higher traffic volumes at intersections more often than not, which further escalates the danger in movement through the streets. This racial and economic inequality is engrained in the reality of American streets. 

Root of Evil

It has been rightfully claimed by the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jenifer Homendy, “Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought” in the light of fatal road accidents that have been increasing in haunting figures in recent decade in America. It is common knowledge that much of the American street safety hazards can be attributed to the fact that American streets primarily cater to the movement of cars instead of people. This culture is baked into state transportation departments deeply rooted in the era of Interstate Highway Construction. As the safety within the cars increased with the provision of safer car frames, usage of seatbelts, and standard-issue airbags, the priority shifted significantly away from the pedestrian experience. As a result, the safety of the people outside the cars remained unanswered.  

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Automobile Oriented American Road Design_© CNBC

The street design of American cities plays a significant role in the disturbing statistics of road fatalities occurring annually. As most accidents occur in the streets with fast-moving vehicles and poor pedestrian infrastructure, it has become imperative to design with pedestrian safety in mind and incorporate the bare minimum pedestrian infrastructures in the urban design processes. When the streets are only catered to the fast-moving vehicles, they are not catering to every user of the roads, but to a certain group such that the streets are not designed for everyone in the community, and people end up having to traverse a road despite its safety hazards.  

Call to Action

While the American Foreign Service workers survive war zones, they end up losing lives on the roads of the nation’s capital. With innovations being born every day in America that makes human life easier by the day, it is now maybe time to shift focus towards something as basic but also something as significant as pedestrian and vehicular safety in the great American streets, which is changing American society that has moved from automobile dominated street to the street vibrant with pedestrians, cyclists, and bikers. The streets also need to be rejuvenated to adapt to the emerging principle of universal accessibility that addresses both the physical and the socio-economic mobility within the urban fabric and thus, with a sense of urgency; the American streets need to be remodelled to suit better the current need and nature of human mobility within cities where the vulnerable and the disadvantaged are also taken into account. 

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 Highline New York, a Safe Pedestrian Experience in New York, America_© High Line

References:

Smart Growth America. (2023). Dangerous by Design [online] Available at: hftps://smartgrowthamerica.org/dangerous-by-design/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2023]

New York Times. (2023). The Exceptionally American Problem of Rising Roadway Deaths [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/27/upshot/road-deaths-pedestrians-cyclists.html [Accessed 7 Jan. 2023]

Forbes Advisor. (2023). How Many People Die From Car Accidents Each Year [online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/advisor/legal/auto-accident/car-accident-deaths/#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20the,Fatality%20Analysis%20Reporting%20System%27s%20history. [Accessed 7 Jan. 2023]

Vox. (2023). Why America’s raods are so much more dangerous than Europe’s [online] Available at: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2016/11/30/13784520/roads-deaths-increase-safety-traffic-us [Accessed 7 Jan. 2023]

Fast Company. (2023). The Hidden Inequality of America’s Street Design [online] Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3067055/the-hidden-inequality-of-americas-street-design [Accessed 7 Jan. 2023]

Author

An architecture and art enthusiast, Rashmi Gautam, is an Architecture Student from Nepal in search of her own expression in forms of words and design. Finding solace in the company of literature, art and architecture, she can be found brooding in the nearest library or museum.

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