Phoenix struggles with its pedestrian safety record

By Robbie Webber

Phoenix has a problem with pedestrian fatalities. The city, along with the entire state of Arizona, has an exceptionally high rate of pedestrian fatalities compared to the rest of the country. It looked like the city was ready to tackle this problem, with a city staff naming 11 intersections and neighborhoods to study that had poor and unsafe pedestrian conditions. However, the citizen committee that was tasked with recommending and pushing through a new street design guide—one meant to make city streets safer and more friendly for pedestrian, bicyclists, and transit users—has become so frustrated with the lack of progress that they have quit en masse.

So how did the city get to this point, and what can be done to fix it? What have other cities done when they have found themselves with a mounting pedestrian fatality rate and a reputation as a dangerous place to walk?

The Phoenix metro area was ranked 16th in a list of the most dangerous place to walk in the U.S. in a 2016 Dangerous By Design report, and Arizona was ranked the sixth most dangerous state. The Governors’ Highway Safety Council reported in February 2018 that, based on the first six months of 2017, Arizona had become the worst state for pedestrian safety, measured by the number of pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 population. Since much of the state is sparsely populated, most of these fatalities are concentrated in urban areas such as Phoenix. In March, the first pedestrian death associated with an autonomous vehicle received national attention when it occurred in nearby Tempe, but 10 other pedestrians were killed in the previous week in the Phoenix area.

The press has taken notice of the dangers to pedestrians. The ABC affiliate is now running a series of reports about dangerous intersections and other safety hazards, including several segments on pedestrian safety.

It looked like the city was going to start tackling the issue in May when the city announced that it would study 11 neighborhoods and intersections with especially bad safety records or lack of safe walking and biking connections.  Yet just ten days after that announcement, seven of the nine members of the Complete Streets Advisory Board—tasked by the city council with developing a new street design guide—resigned, writing that their work “has been maligned by developer lobbyists, disrespected by city staff and dismissed by ill-prepared political bodies.” They had been working for four years and were two years beyond when they thought the design guide would be adopted.

Phoenix is not the only city to gain a reputation for being unfriendly and unsafe for pedestrians. The same 2016 report that named Arizona as the sixth most dangerous state ranked Florida as number one, and nine of the 11 most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians were in Florida. But some cities got tired of being on the list and are making changes. Orlando—number three on the list of most dangerous metro areas—in particular has sought to turn around its safety record by participating in a series of workshops offered by the National Complete Streets Coalition and using demonstration projects to engage the public in change. Billy Hattaway has made improving walking conditions a top priority, first as a Florida DOT district secretary, and now as Orlando Transportation Director.

It’s not always easy to make change, and there will always be political pressure to maintain the status quo, but cities that make a decision to make streets safe for everyone can turn things around. Whether Phoenix can be one of those cities remains to be seen.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.