Dangerous Design: Walking in Suburbia

Cities are hot stuff these days.  After a half a century of people fleeing the nation’s cities for a “better life” in the suburbs, they are coming back.  As city centers are becoming more and more desirable places to live, rising property values are making it impossible for the less fortunate to stay.

Those who are being priced out of the cities are migrating into suburban and exurban areas where living is more affordable.  Many of them do not have cars.

Suburban Poverty Surpasses Urban and Rural

Many suburbs and exurbs, particularly those which developed over the second half of the twentieth century, are laid out in a patchwork of developments cobbled together by rural highways or arterials, and they do not support safe walking.

It is an unfortunate reality today that the very places that were designed for heavy vehicle use have a growing population of those who cannot afford cars, according to transit advocate, Benjamin Ross, author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Pedestrian walks along Highway 35 in Sayreville, N.J.

Pedestrian walks along Highway 35 in Sayreville, N.J.


These sprawling suburbs and exurbs are bisected by main roads which were not intended for foot travel and people are finding themselves either cut off from resources within walking distance or in harm’s way when attempting to walk there.  Walking along these roads often means walking on the shoulder of the highway because there are no sidewalks provided.

Recorded pedestrian fatality rates in low-income tracts are approximately twice that of more affluent neighborhoods within metro areas, according to a 2014 research report by Governing .  The report compared federal traffic accident data from 2008-2012 with census data about income. According to the same report, 89 percent of streets have sidewalks in high-income areas compared to 49 percent in low-income areas.

Arterial Roads are a Particular Concern

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), a non-profit organization which advocates for balanced, transit-friendly and equitable transportation in the Tri-State Area, studied federal transportation data from 2010 through 2012 and found that 1,236 pedestrians were killed on Connecticut, New Jersey and downstate New York roads. In 2012 alone, there were 427 pedestrian deaths, 394 deaths in 2011 and 415 deaths in 2010 in the Tri-State Area.

It found that arterial roads—multi-lane roads with typical speed limits of 40 mph or higher and few accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists—are the most deadly for non-drivers in the area.

Looking out for Non-Drivers

Road Redesign

There are many roads designed with little or no consideration for the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, putting lives at risk.  The TSTC recommends simple, low-cost safety improvements to make these roads safer for non-drivers, such as well-marked crosswalks, pedestrian countdown signals, and pedestrian crossing islands.

The tendency toward infrastructure that favors cars over people is a nationwide trend that started in the mid-20th century.  To this day, many officials continue to readily approve major road expansion projects in residential areas, in spite of admonitions from transportation experts of the inherent danger of such infrastructure to pedestrians and cyclists.

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