President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be Secretary of Transportation have given urbanists high hopes for what a former mayor can do to adopt a pro-urban mobility agenda. Many of these rest on transit and funding: saving the nation’s transit systems, giving city departments of transportation more control over spending, and embracing bike lanes as a national strategy. But the real test of whether Buttigieg will lead a pro-urban USDOT is not in these marquee issues. It will be in the less glamorous issue of pedestrian safety, as it relates to new cars, autonomous vehicles, and data collection.
Sadly, the United States is going the wrong direction on pedestrian safety. Over the last 25 years, American roads have gotten safer for people in cars, thanks to larger vehicles and new safety features. People outside cars, however, are dying more than ever – 7338 in 2019, compared with 6524 in 1995. The same larger vehicles are much more damaging when they hit people, and encourage drivers to go faster on local roads than ever before. In 2004, pedestrians were only 10% of all traffic-related deaths; in 2019, they were 20%. The idea that “distracted walkers” are a major cause of crashes is a myth.
Still, state and federal attention focuses almost entirely on protecting people inside vehicles. This is because federal and state DOTs have traditionally focused on highways, not local roads where pedestrians are more likely to be. (It’s no accident that the responsible federal agency is known as NHTSA — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) It’s also helpful that automakers benefit from assuring their customers that their cars are safe to ride in.