Renée Loth

Safe to walk, even amid crazy drivers

By Renée Loth
August 27, 2011

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YOU’D NEVER know it when sprinting for dear life across Mass. Ave. or Merrimac Street, but the Boston area has been rated the safest for pedestrians among the 52 largest metropolitan regions in the country. The ranking comes in a national survey by the advocacy group Transportation for America, based on the number of pedestrian deaths over a 10-year period. Orlando, Tampa, and two other Florida regions are the least safe, with a “pedestrian danger index’’ more than 10 times that of metro Boston.

How can it be that Boston, which takes a perverse pride in having the worst drivers in the nation, can also be the safest for pedestrians? We must have really, really bad aim.

Just kidding! Actually, the survey results have little to do with the quality of Boston drivers and everything to do with the design of the streets. Carved into communities long before the automobile age, the byways of Boston, Cambridge, and other old towns are narrow, winding, and cross-hatched with intersections - a natural formula for slower traffic and fewer fatalities. “There is a plus to having the roads laid down over former cow paths,’’ said the aptly named John Walkey, Massachusetts field organizer for Transportation for America.

Most of the newer development in the country - including much of suburban Massachusetts - features roads that are “dangerous by design,’’ the report says: wide, high-capacity, and high-speed. It’s no surprise that the top 10 most dangerous metro areas in the study are in the South or Southwest.

For decades, transportation planners routinely eliminated sidewalks, crosswalks, on-street parking, even street trees from their road designs, all of which serve to slow traffic. And the difference is not trivial: A pedestrian hit by a car going 20 miles an hour has a 95 percent chance of survival; at 40 miles per hour the survival rate drops to 15 percent. Speed kills, and speed is designed right into our roads.

“The United States has never been good at designing roads for the speeds we actually want people to travel,’’ said Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston. There’s a posted speed, she says, and a “design speed,’’ and they often don’t match.

The perils of crossing the street are, not surprisingly, worse for older adults with less agility and slower reflexes: Pedestrians over age 75 have fatality rates more than twice the general population. The poor and racial minorities are also disproportionately at risk; both groups drive less and walk more than other Americans.

But the very fact of walking isn’t what endangers pedestrians. In fact, concentrations of pedestrians actually enhance safety by training drivers to watch out for them. And Boston has a greater percentage of walkers (based on US Census data of people who commute to work on foot) than any other metropolitan area except New York. The pedestrian danger index is a ratio of fatalities measured against the prevalence of walking in a given district. Boston also gets high marks for pursuing a “complete streets policy’’ that considers all forms of mobility in any transportation project.

Not that there isn’t room for improvement, even in dense urban areas where traffic snarls. Among the things that suppress walking are inadequate crossing times, faded or distant crosswalks that encourage jaywalking, poor lighting, and - how Boston is it? - drivers who won’t yield despite walk signals. Still, compared to the vast stretches of open highway between the dentist and the dry cleaner that define most of America, Boston is a walker’s paradise.

Walking (and its sprightlier cousin, biking) is good exercise, good for the environment, and good for combating social isolation. But national transportation priorities are badly lopsided toward the car. Retrofitting communities with sidewalks or traffic lights costs money, and the current federal transportation authorization bill offers little support. US Representative John Mica, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, recently zeroed out funding for two programs - Safe Routes to School and Transportation Enhancements - aimed at creating streets that are safe for everyone.

The irony? Mica represents Florida’s 7th congressional district, which includes most of the suburban Orlando area that’s ranked most dangerous in the country.

Or maybe it’s not an irony at all.

Renée Loth is a regular contributor to the Globe opinion pages.