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Are Urban Arterials and Pedestrian Safety Mutually Exclusive?

Pedestrian Traffic Accidents, 2007-2010. What interesting things stand out?

While looking at a pedestrian traffic accident map for Baltimore the other day, one obvious thing stood out;   injuries and fatalities are collected around arterial streets. Besides the obvious reasons for caring about this issue, pedestrian crashes usually make up the majority of traffic related fatalities, and while a fender bender is often easy to walk away from, pedestrian traffic injuries are often life changing events.

So, for non-transporation planners, urban arterial streets are usually 4 lane roads which accommodate through traffic – usually downtown to suburb commuters. Traffic speeds and volumes tend to be higher on these streets, and while many of Baltimore’s arterials double as neighborhood “Main Streets”, like Greenmount Ave., the character of these corridors often leans towards automobiles rather than comfortable, pedestrian environments. In the suburbs, arterials often connect banausic subdivisions or lame strip malls with little pedestrian activity, so it’s not a problem to design these streets for maximum throughput. In urban areas, there is a greater chance for accidents due to pedestrians, bicycles, transit vehicles, and cars all vying for space on a street designed for rush hour traffic.  Things get messy.

Baltimore is not alone.  NYC’s Pedestrian Safety Report shows that while traffic injuries and fatalities have dropped considerably since 2000, major two-way streets account for 47% of pedestrian fatalities but only 12% of the road network. The report also shows serious pedestrian crashes are about two-thirds more deadly on major street corridors than on smaller local streets. So what is NYC doing about the problem? Recent road diet projects are narrowing streets, reducing the number of traffic lanes, adding bike lanes, and widening sidewalks.  Will gridlock ensue? Probably not. Will the world come to an end?  Probably not. Will angry drivers write Mayor Bloomberg and demand their traffic lanes back? Perhaps, but in the interest of public safety, livable communities, and reasonable-ness, the mayor shouldn’t listen to them.

My favorite design guidelines come from famed planner and engineer John N. LaPlante of T.Y. Lin. I won’t repeat his recommendations, which I laid out here, but traditional methods of traffic engineering and design don’t necessarily apply to urban streets.  Inconveniencing drivers by adding 2 minutes to their trip is a reasonable trade off for improved pedestrian safety, neighborhood character, and the economic development benefits which accrue with increased pedestrian and bicycle accessibility.

The answer to the question posed in the title has been “yes” up until very recently.  The very concept of “arterials” in urban areas also comes into question – who wants to live on or do business on a street primarily designed for rush hour traffic?  With enormous amounts of traffic crash data collected, and complete street and road diet designs becoming more accepted by municipalities throughout the country, we have the tools needed to make significant pedestrian safety gains by focusing on major gateway streets.


  • Michael Anthony Farley

    I have thought about this issue before. I have a suggestion for reducing traffic speeds and increasing the appeal of the neighborhoods bisected by arterial roads. By removing the medians on roads like harford or reisterstown and using the available roadspace for bus lanes and wider sidewalks to accomodate off-street bike lanes, we can slow traffic speed while improving transit speeds and making the corridors more useful to residents rather than through-commuters. By offering residents along the arterials speedier transit commutes, neighborhoods in the northern districts can become more competetive to their county counterparts which would experience an increase in car-commuting times.