Do cities have a pedestrian safety crisis?

Is there a pedestrian safety crisis in the world’s cities? If so, what role can technology play to make cities smarter?

About the Problem (And Why We Should Solve It)

The proximate causes of the pedestrian safety crises in our cities involve the physical layout of urban centers, which were designed to be automobile- rather than pedestrian-centric, as well as the steady rise in population in these same areas. Most of our cities weren’t made for walking. They also weren’t designed, in most cases, for the number of people now living there.

But how do we go about measuring a “pedestrian safety crisis”? The worsening problem is visible in the number of pedestrian deaths over the past several years. And there is no mistaking how much a “global” problem pedestrian safety really is. Here are some numbers from around the world:

  • United States: Public accident records indicate there were 6,000 pedestrian deaths in 2017 alone: a 25-year high. New York City, however, saw pedestrian fatalities dip to historical lows in 2017. That year, 101 pedestrians lost their lives.
  • South Africa: Cape Town, despite being the oldest city and the capital of South Africa, is home to a tragic number of pedestrian deaths. Estimates indicate as many as 2,406 child pedestrians alone may have died in 2017. The region also sees 63 percent of its students walking 15 miles or more to attend school, which makes the state of pedestrian safety there especially urgent.
  • United Kingdom: There are an estimated 20 traffic incidents each day involving pedestrians in the UK. This has spurred technologists and researchers to look for solutions more modern than paint- and sign-based traffic slow signage. One solution would see sensors deployed in “digital crosswalks” that could change color when force is applied — that is to say, when somebody steps into the road when traffic has not yet stopped.
  • Japan: Traffic fatalities are a stubborn problem in Japan as well. Data from the WHO indicates that 2017 saw a slight decline in overall traffic deaths on Japanese streets, but that it remained high regardless, standing at 3,904 in 2016. Pedestrians, specifically, represented more than half of all traffic deaths in Japan in 2015.

In fact, according to the World Health Organization, there were a total of 1.25 million deaths on the world’s roads in 2013. Not all of these were pedestrians, but it goes to show just how unsafe — unnecessarily so — the roads can be, in both the world’s oldest as well as its most modern cities.

Now that humanity as a whole has become more cognizant of our influence on the natural environment, walking and cycling around metropolitan areas has never enjoyed such widespread enthusiasm. Increased foot traffic and “walkability” is a timely and universally positive addition to the culture in our cities.

Next time you’re hunting for an apartment, townhome, condo, or family home, we’d be surprised if walkability didn’t make an appearance in your list of desired qualities. The walkability of our cities and communities is, generally speaking, a selling point for properties on the market.

It’s not just good for renters and owners, more walkable city streets also correlate with a busier and healthier local economy as well.

Improving Pedestrian Safety via Public Investment in Infrastructure and Smart Cities

Pedestrian advocacy groups are taking issue with some of the public messaging concerning walking in urban centers. While well-intentioned, say some groups, the messaging fails to draw attention to areas that would deliver some of the best improvements to pedestrian safety. For example, many PSAs focus on seatbelt, texting and drunk driving awareness campaigns and not enough on the structural problems in the mix. Reminders like these are useful, but they don’t get at the heart of why being a pedestrian is dangerous in many American and world cities.

The much bigger problems are poor road designs and the frequency of speeding. Speeding-related fatalities have erased most of America’s gains in traffic safety over recent years. At the same time, the UK has seen their share of pedestrian deaths fall, thanks to a rollout of more speed cameras, more 20mph zones, more permanent pedestrian safety barriers, and more red lights in cities. Even a few well-placed safety bollards in public spaces are enough to save lives in many cases.

Smart Cities for Safer Driving (And Walking)

Smarter cars and smarter cities will go far in helping us turn the tide on pedestrian deaths, too. Driverless cars can navigate busy intersections with ease and react more quickly (and more appropriately) to the approach of pedestrians and other obstacles that would take human drivers considerably more time to factor in.

In addition to the sensor-laden crosswalks in the UK, as described above, intersections in cities throughout the world will soon host sensors as well, to help these autonomous and semi-autonomous automobiles communicate with each other and with city infrastructure. The result should be a much smoother and more harmonious traffic and pedestrian flow at intersections.

Cincinnati and other U.S. cities intend to initiate a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to pedestrian deaths by rethinking urban planning from the ground up and using citywide traffic information and other data to create more navigable and frictionless cities for all.

Technologies like these are applicable all over the globe, in each of our cities, no matter where we find ourselves struggling to live and move alongside each other in peace. Not every fix is technological in nature, however. Another part is simply cultural and even vocational. As we design our cities, as we elect city, state and federal leadership, and as we set out our infrastructure priorities, we all need to remember that “every journey begins and ends with walking.”

This can mean many things. Here are two just two: 1) People who live and work in cities have a right to coexist safely alongside automobiles, and 2) The choice to own an automobile should not be compulsory. We should be able to — should be encouraged to, given the state of the climate — move freely in urban centers on foot, by bike and, perhaps by permit only, by unicycle.

*) This article was written by Kayla Matthews (, tech journalist and writer.

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