Bike/ped crash data: pinpoint vs. corridor

A few years ago, I was working with the Tri-City Active Living Advisory Committee to gather information about where crashes between motor vehicles and people walking and biking were happening in the Scottsbluff-Gering area. Where were the problem areas in terms of bike/ped safety? Where could safety efforts best be focused?

When a report came out on the state of sidewalks and bike transportation in our area, I was a bit . . . disappointed? The reported crashes were not in any one location, really — they were all over the map.

Here’s a screenshot of the map in the report, which came out in December 2017 and included bike/ped crash data from January 2014 through July 2017. The red dots are bike crashes; the blue dots are pedestrian crashes.

People driving cars are crashing into people biking and walking all over the place. There are no particularly problematic spots that can be called out for action, really. (Spoiler alert: actually, there are.)

I kind of put the information aside – until this week.

This week, I’ve been participating in the virtual National Bike Summit, put on by the League of American Bicyclists.

In a session discussing federal legislation related to traffic safety funding (specifically, H.R. 508), League Vice President Caron Whitaker noted that there is a disconnect between the proportion of deaths that occur among people biking and walking (Vulnerable Road Users) in the United States and the amount of funding allocated for bike/ped safety. Here’s a screen grab from her presentation:

People biking and walking make up about 12% of trips, but are over-represented in fatalities at 20%, yet less than 1% of federal highway safety funding goes to bike/ped safety improvements.

Why is this happening? Why the disconnect?

Caron pointed out that there’s a problem with how traffic fatality data is collected and analyzed that leads to a distortion in how funds are spent. I’m going to quote directly from her presentation given on Feb. 28, 2021:

Under current practices, we know that states say they use a data-driven approach, and that data-driven approach is to identify hot spots or pinpoints of high fatalities.

But we know that those hot spots, especially for in-vehicle fatalities, are generally in very high-speed areas, like interstates or rural roads, maybe a specific turn, or they’re head-on collisions in intersections. It’s very easy to pinpoint those deaths because right now we make our cars so safe for the people inside them, that it takes really high speed or head-on crashes for fatalities.

But when we look at areas that are most dangerous for people biking and walking, it’s corridors, it’s arterials, it’s connector streets that have a high speed limit or maybe even higher speeding, but you have destinations and you have virtually no infrastructure, you don’t have a lot of crosswalks or sidewalks or bike infrastructure. So those corridors don’t show up in the formula, and that’s why states are spending less than 1% of their safety dollars on this.

I’m going to repeat a portion of that.

[The] areas that are most dangerous for people biking and walking, it’s corridors, it’s arterials, it’s connector streets that have a high speed limit or maybe even higher speeding, but you have destinations and you have virtually no infrastructure.

Taking another look at the Scottsbluff-Gering map of crashes, the data jumped out and smacked me in the face. The pattern is clear. IT’S THE CORRIDORS. Here’s that map again, with the problematic corridors highlighted in pink – accounting for at least 75% of the traffic crashes involving people biking and walking.

27th Street. 20th Street. Overland. U Street. Avenue I. Broadway / 10th Street. 5th Avenue.

And this doesn’t include crashes that have happened more recently. The ones I can think of offhand all happened along these corridors:
27th Street
April 2019
March 2020
December 2018
September 2019
10th Street
December 2019
September 2019
September 2020

What do these corridors generally have in common?

  • They are highly traveled areas that connect people to destinations: schools, businesses, workplaces.
  • Many areas of less-than-ideal conditions for people biking and walking, including:
    • Higher speed limits (30-40 mph)
    • Lack of marked and/or traffic-controlled crosswalks
    • Street-adjacent sidewalks that are often poorly cleared of snow in the winter (did you SEE the sidewalks on 27th Street after our recent storms?) and/or poorly maintained or absent altogether
    • Multi-lane streets, exposing people to higher danger as they cross
    • No bicycle facilities

The first step in solving a problem is correctly identifying the problem. A problem in our community is that the places people are biking and walking are not as safe as they could be, and a portion of that lack of safety could be attributed to a lack of funding, because of the way problems have been reported. Better data can lead to better solutions.

Designing our streets for ALL USERS, not just people in cars and trucks, can also lead to better decisions for our community.

I would also like to make another point in conjunction with this map that has been weighing on my mind.

There has been a lot of celebration recently about the near-completion of the pathway extension in Scottsbluff, and rightly so. The city has done a great job of maintaining the prior pathway along the river, and it’s heavily used and greatly appreciated. Having more pathway is great! Especially great is the fact that people will finally have a place to safely cross Highway 26 on foot and by bike.

However, the danger for people walking and biking remains. Take a look at my (super rough) map of the new pathway marked in blue compared to the problematic corridors for bike/ped safety marked in pink.

There’s virtually no overlap.

I’m concerned that people will think “Oh, things are all set for people biking an walking – look at all that new pathway!”, when in fact, the pathway will not do a whole lot to improve safety for the people who are trying to get places that are not connected to the pathway. I’m concerned that when people are biking and walking in the community and they are hit and hurt or killed, that they will be blamed for “not being on the pathway” even if the pathway is nowhere near where they need to go.

Yes, Scottsbluff has made a lot of progress recently. But there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take money. And it’s going to take political will.

Traffic deaths often catalyze infrastructure improvements. (Sad that it takes someone dying or being severely injured for changes to occur, but that’s where we’re at.) In the late 1970s, a young person riding a bike died at the 5th Avenue crossing of Highway 26. It took more than 40 years before city priorities and local/federal funding aligned to get a bridge built that can prevent future such tragedies.

How long will it take for the traffic dangers for people biking and walking in the central parts of Scottsbluff and Gering to be addressed? When will sidewalks and crosswalks show up on the city’s multi-year road construction forecasts? When will a policy be implemented to require that sidewalk improvements be made every time a construction project is undertaken? Where will the political will come from? I can tell you, if it’s just lonely little ol’ me out there being a squeaky wheel, the timeline is going to span many decades, if anything changes at all.

Copyright 2021 by Katie Bradshaw

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