The seven-year-old girl killed in a crosswalk several weeks ago was, unfortunately, only one of a string of victims on El Paso’s dangerous roads this year. Pedestrian deaths like these are preventable. Our city’s traffic engineers should shift their priority from moving cars as quickly as possible to increasing the safety of those on foot.
Drivers have infrastructure privilege. All roads and streetlight signals have been designed with the automobile driver in mind. It is a problem that we design streets for those who travel within the comfort and protection of their enormous metal boxes. Pedestrians and cyclists do not have this luxury so when they are forced to compete with cars for street space, they lose every single time.
Multiple studies show that vehicles moving at speeds lower than 15 mph rarely kill or even severely injure a pedestrian. This might explain 15 mph school zone speed limits. However, Thorn street, and many streets like it in the city, are much wider than they should be. Regardless of speed limits, this width encourages speeding and other risky driving behaviors, according to The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
Narrower roads force people to drive more slowly and carefully in order to say within the lane. NACTO recommends street widths of 10 feet for most urban streets. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) Greenbook, known by many as the “traffic engineer’s bible”, advises that streets should be 12 feet wide.
How might they explain why each lane on Thorn Street in front of Roberts Elementary School is more than 17 feet wide? Even if we sided with the “engineer’s bible” and agreed streets should be 12 feet wide, that still leaves each lane of traffic on Thorn with 5 extra feet. This creates a 34-foot barrier of asphalt directly between the two buildings children should feel safest in: the one in which they learn, and their home.
Data by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities shows that fatality rates increase from 2.25 to 23.6 per 100,000 population when streets widen from 9.92 to 11.81 feet. That means we make streets at least 10 times more dangerous by widening them less than 2 feet. What are we doing when we widen them an extra 5 feet then?
For comparison, the city’s main freeway, I-10, is 12 feet wide per lane. This is a road designed to move vehicles at 60 miles per hour and yet is much narrower the one directly in front of an elementary school. Let that sink in.
Designing a Thorn and other residential streets so that they look and feel like a highway provides drivers the freedom to speed. It also lowers their ability to react quickly enough to stop for a little girl walking hand in hand with her teenaged sister. There is absolutely no reason a residential street should look and feel like the freeway nearby when the leading cause of death for people aged 5 to 24 is motor vehicle crashes, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Instead, of encouraging wide streets, we should use those extra 5 feet to widen sidewalks. This way siblings have plenty of room to hold hands as they walk to school or ride their bikes safely while mom or dad jogs next to them with the family dog.
We could also reclaim pedestrian space by placing large speedbumps under crosswalks, known as ‘raised crosswalks,’ so pedestrians have the added security of cars slowing down before they cross. Bump-outs are curbs that extend out from the sidewalk to narrow the street even further at intersections and crosswalks. These might also be used to slow cars as they near locations where children and their families might be crossing the street. These types of “traffic calming” has been found to increase pedestrian safety without significantly changing traffic volume (NACTO). In essence, we can have it all, if our traffic engineers simply place pedestrians on a level playing field with cars.
Can you imagine a future where drivers are more aware of their surroundings and confident that they are not putting anyone’s life in danger? Where people can stop on the sidewalk and chat, able to hear each other over the cars moving gently along? Where children can walk hand in hand on their way to school and parents can rest easy, knowing that everyone is getting where they need to go, safely and comfortably?
I can and traffic engineers should too.
Student, Master of Community Planning
Vancouver Island University
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