A little perspective is in order here. Last week, a coalition of environmental groups back East ranked the Salt Lake-Ogden metropolitan area as the 17th most dangerous place in the nation to be a pedestrian. But while local officials scrambled to blame I-15 reconstruction for the poor showing, everyone seemed to be missing something.
The survey was based on figures for 1996, the year before freeway construction started. And last year, the same group ranked Salt Lake-Ogden as 12th worst, based on figures for 1995.So what's going on here? How did the region actually improve, and why isn't anyone celebrating the drop?
The answer is that reports such as these, compiled by interests groups with an agenda, should not be accepted at face value. If they serve a purpose, it is to remind local planners of the need to design neighborhoods with pedestrians, and not just vehicles, in mind. That is indeed important, as is the need for drivers to be more aware of people walking around them. But drivers aren't likely to change just because another report hits the streets of Washington, D.C. Local leaders need to teach that lesson.
Nearly every city at the top of the list was built largely after World War II and has a large percentage of daily commuters from suburbs. These cities naturally have a lower percentage of people who walk to work, as opposed to older cities in the East where many people live in dense, urban housing.
But the report uses pedestrian commuters as one of its main factors. In Salt Lake City-Ogden, only 3 percent of all commuters walk to work. That raises the area's score considerably, and it ignores the many people who walk somewhere during the day, either to lunch or between downtown locations. It also ignores the many people who stroll through their neighborhoods in the evening. Fully 74 percent of the area's pedestrian accidents occur on small neighborhood roads, as the study notes.
The report was written by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which includes about 175 environmental and transportation groups. Their common agenda is to increase federal funding to protect pedestrians, and they typically generate a lot of non-analytical attention with their report.
Utahns should not minimize the fact that 18 percent of all traffic fatalities and injuries were pedestrians in 1996. Nor should they overlook the fact that accidents have increased in some areas due to freeway construction. But they also ought to be aware that local planners already are working to incorporate so-called "traffic calming" methods, particularly in Salt Lake City and West Valley City. These methods include using raised crosswalks and other environmental factors to cause drivers to slow down and pay attention - almost without consciously thinking about it. In Seattle, such methods reduced pedestrian accidents by 75 percent.
That progress, and not some unreliable listing of cities, ought to be the focus of public attention.