Poor neighborhoods lose out

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When it comes to priorities, lawmakers tend to listen to the electors who can vote them back into power. After all, they have probably spent quite large sums of money getting into office and don’t want to lose the value of that investment. This is particularly important when it comes to setting the policy priorities for the budget. Now at this point we must admit the majority of city and state budgets are in trouble with falling tax revue and rising commitments. That puts a lot of pressure on the lawmakers to be seen to get value for the taxpayers’ bucks. So since the majority is drivers, being seen to be car-friendly often wins votes. Except, in the poorer neighborhoods, it’s more difficult to cover the cost of buying vehicles so the majority are pedestrians.

A recent analysis of data shows that, between 2008 and 2012, more than 22,000 pedestrians were killed and the majority of the accidents occurred in poor neighborhoods. Indeed, on average, neighborhoods with a high-poverty profile have twice as many fatalities as “rich” neighborhoods.

Is this a new phenomenon?
No. When it comes to safety, poor neighborhoods have always lost out when it comes to basics like adequate sidewalks, good street lighting, and properly signed crosswalks. But city planners have tended not to “notice”. It’s politically inconvenient to feature the number of deaths caused by the failure to improve street design. But the visibility of these deaths is growing. There’s a policy change to encourage more city dwellers to walk. Walking, say some green politicians, is a basic human right. Fewer vehicles on the road also reduces pollution. But as more people listen to the advice to get fit and save the planet, they begin to realize how dangerous it is. So in the “rich” neighborhoods, money is spent to make walking safer.

How do you make walking safer?

The most important factor is speed. If drivers are forced to reduce their speed, there are fewer deaths should collisions occur. Unfortunately, major roadways and highways are often routed through poorer neighborhoods and drivers respond by driving more quickly. Since more people are out walking, there’s a significantly higher risk of deaths. Solving this historical problem requires better lighting, more places for local people to cross safely, and active law enforcement to keep drivers to lower speed limits. Similar traffic calming measures are less necessary in the “rich” neighborhoods, but money is still being spent because this keeps the voters happy.

Which cities have the best approach?

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced Vision Zero to increase penalties for reckless drivers, reduce speed limits, increase the number of areas with traffic calming measures, and collect more traffic data. The District of Columbia, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco have also set policy goals to reduce pedestrian deaths.

But in the majority of places, the idea of trying to reduce pedestrian fatalities in poor neighborhoods is not a vote winner and so ignored. How many more have to die before people can walk safely?

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