(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The number of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. continues to grow unabated, and new analyses by Smart Growth America show those deaths disproportionately occur among low-income and minority groups.

The nonprofit released its Dangerous by Design 2024 report at a news conference last week and found an increasing number of pedestrians continue to die on the nation’s roadways. Those deaths increased about 75%, from 4,302 in 2010 to 7,522 in 2022, the most recent year that complete national figures are available.

The deaths in 2022 marked the highest percentage of traffic deaths involving people outside of a vehicle in 40 years. The agency said that 82% of the 101 metropolitan areas it analyzed have gotten more dangerous, which it attributes to roads being designed to move traffic faster without enough concern for pedestrian safety.

Calvin Gladney, Smart Growth’s president and CEO, called the national average of 20 pedestrian deaths a day a “national epidemic.” Improving those numbers would require “changing our culture, changing our street design,” he said.

“If 20 people a day fell out of the sky, we would shut down the airline industry,” he said.

The study found that income and ethnicity play a major role in whether someone is likely to be the victim of a pedestrian death.

Based on figures from 2018 to 2022, people with incomes below $15,000 a year die in pedestrian accidents at a rate of 5.23 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 1.07 for people who make more than $100,000. Black people die at a rate of 3.40 per 100,000 people while the rate for white people is 1.59.

“Each year, thousands of people lose their lives by just trying to cross the street — and that’s especially true if you’re a person of color or live in a low-income community,” said Gladney, who is Black. “It’s shameful that if you look like me in this country, your life is put at risk when you leave your home, and it’s continuing to grow even worse compared to other Americans.”

The agency believes the major reason for the disparity of deaths in low-income and minority areas has occurred because planners have built commuter roads through those communities to get suburban people to work without enough regard to pedestrians, who are more likely in those areas. As a result, those neighborhoods are littered with roads that have fewer intersections and sidewalks, and the intersections that do exist often are dangerous because they have poorly marked or unmarked crosswalks.

“The more money you have, the safer you are on our roadways as a pedestrian,” said Beth Osborne, vice president of transportation and thriving communities for Smart Growth.

The study claims that not enough attention is paid to three other aspects of pedestrian deaths: the families of victims, the number of pedestrians who are injured and the pedestrian trips not taken in dangerous areas.

(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Beatriz Montano of Fresno, California, told the news conference her youngest sister, Corina Samuels, 19, died in October when she was struck while walking across an unmarked intersection to get to a neighborhood store. The nearest marked crosswalk was a half-mile away, she said, which makes her neighborhood “not safe for people.”

In 2022, 67,336 pedestrian injuries were reported, almost nine times the number of people who died.

Gladney said people who live in areas that are dangerous for pedestrians generally know the risks and often change their lifestyle to avoid danger.

“They know it’s too dangerous. They decide not to access the parks, the jobs, the services they need because it’s too dangerous,” he said. “We shouldn’t design our streets for only the people to walk if they are being brave.”

Osborne said it is “maddening” that pedestrian deaths continue to grow because designers know that sidewalks, well-marked intersections, bump-outs to shorten the crossing distance and tree-lined streets slow traffic and protect pedestrians. Instead, she said, many streets are designed as straight and wide as possible, “screaming to [drivers] that you can go fast” even when they pass through heavily populated areas.

Across the country, pedestrian deaths remain more common in Southern states, where Smart Growth said the growth of a car-centric society occurred later, after many neighborhoods had developed and highways didn’t have cost-effective alternate routes around them. Eight of the top 20 metropolitan areas for traffic deaths are in Florida, and 18 of the top 20 had more deaths in the past five years than the previous five.

Memphis is rated the most dangerous area for pedestrians, with 5.14 deaths per 100,000 people, a figure that nearly tripled over the past five years.

The study noted some areas where there have been improvements. For example, Hoboken, New Jersey, hasn’t had a pedestrian death in seven years while speed bumps have reduced deaths in Buffalo, and Detroit has had success by providing more space for walking, biking and transit use.

Pittsburgh started an extensive program five years ago to calm traffic by adding speed humps and highly visible crosswalks in troubled areas. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation completed a multiyear project to improve pedestrian traffic on the South Side by improving crosswalks, installing  bump-outs and reducing the lanes of traffic.

Gladney said it’s time for the public to tell elected officials across the country that “enough is enough” and “we don’t want to see anyone else like Beatriz” mourning the death of a loved one who died while walking.

Fond du Lac Avenue is considered to be one of Milwaukee’s most dangerous streets. (Courtesy of Smart Growth America)
Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.