Remember Bliss

by Carolyn Chase


n Sept. 13, 1899, Henry H. Bliss, a 68-year-old real estate broker, was knocked down and run over at Central Park West and 74th Street in New York City, making the ironically-named Bliss the first pedestrian traffic fatality in the United States. Bliss was killed by a taxi as he helped a woman off a trolley. Since then, automobiles have been involved in killing more than 700,000 pedestrians - more than the number of Americans killed in both World Wars.

This year, the Remember Bliss Campaign -- a group aiming to make streets safer for pedestrians -- organized vigils nationwide to bring attention to pedestrian deaths. In emembering Bliss, the human facts of today's car culture bear reviewing.

Motor vehicle travel is the primary means of transportation in the United States, providing an unprecedented degree of mobility. Yet for all its advantages, deaths and injuries resulting from motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for persons from 6 to 27 years old. The annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes exceeds $150.5 billion.

In 1997, 41,967 people were killed in more than 6,764,000 police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes. 3,399,000 people were injured, and an additional 4,542,000 crashes involved property damage only.

That same year, an average of 115 persons died each day in motor vehicle crashes in the United States -- one every 13 minutes. Vehicle occupants accounted for 85 percent of traffic fatalities. The remaining 15 percent were pedestrians, pedal-cyclists, and other non-occupants. On average, a pedestrian is killed in a motor vehicle crash every 99 minutes, and one is injured every 7 minutes.

Senior citizens (persons age 65 and over) comprise 13 percent of the population, but account for 23 percent of pedestrian fatalities -- meaning that seniors are almost twice as likely to be killed by an automobile as members of the general public.

In 1998, 580 pedestrians aged 15 and under were killed and another 21,000 were injured. One-fifth of all traffic fatalities among people under age 15 are pedestrians. Child edestrian crashes are a serious traffic safety problem and we have witnessed horrendous losses here in San Diego.

The main individual-based factors behind these statistics are: not using safety belts, alcohol use, and speeding. In 1997, the fatality rate remained at a historic low of 1.7 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, the same since 1992, as compared with 2.4 in 1987. A 69 percent safety belt use rate nationwide and a reduction in the rate of alcohol involvement in fatal crashes to 38.6 percent were significant contributions to maintaining this reduced fatality rate. However, as the individual statistics show, much remains to be done.

Individual action only can go so far. Walking is the oldest and most basic form of mobility, but the automobile-dominated planning of the last 50 years has created widespread barriers for pedestrians. In "Mean Streets," its policy report on pedestrian safety, the Surface Transportation Policy Project points out, "This carnage is attributable only in part to individual misjudgment.... These deaths and injuries are also the consequences of a transportation system gone badly wrong -- a system focused on making the streets safe for cars instead of making communities safe for people. Indeed, people are 1.6 times more likely to get killed by a car while walking than they are to be shot and killed by a stranger with a gun."

There are tools for making the roads safer for pedestrians. In Seattle, the city's traffic calming program reduced pedestrian accidents by more than 75 percent. In Portland Oregon, traffic circles reduced the number of reported accidents by 50 percent. Other traffic calming projects in communities from Long Beach, California to Fairfax County, Virginia, have reduced the risk to pedestrians in residential neighborhoods.

Many communities have found that a key to safe walking is to create public spaces that attract pedestrians, thereby establishing their presence and causing traffic to slow down. The Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI), for example, focused on pedestrian-friendly design to revitalize several commercial and transit corridors.

Instead of blaming the pedestrian for getting in the way, these communities are creating streets and neighborhoods that are inherently safer for pedestrians. These programs work because they solve the problem at its source: fixing systems that are poorly designed for pedestrians. Examples clearly indicate that America has the means to make our nation's streets safer for pedestrians and other non-car users.

Here in San Diego, SANDAG is beginning to come to grips with the people vs. cars problem by establishing a "Walkable Communities" Advisory Committee. This committee will aid in incorporating good design principles for communities "where walking and biking are accepted practices of physical activities and travel" and will help "identify and reduce the existing obstacles in our communities that make walking an unsafe and unfriendly activity."

We can design developments that work for people and cyclists as well as for cars -- if we set our minds, and our politicians to it.