We’re walking the concrete tightrope to school — a narrow sidewalk flush with the street, an inch from oncoming traffic — and a harried parent in a giant sport utility vehicle throttles toward us, engine roaring and belching like an ill-mannered dragon. I wince as 3 tons of steel whooshes past my 11-year-old daughter.
If she were an iron lamppost or a stone wall, maybe the driver would slow down. But she consists of softer elements, like the infinite possibility of childhood, so the driver speeds past.
We should be encouraging kids to walk or bike to school — those who do are better able to concentrate, according to a Danish study of 20,000 students — and we urgently need to cut fossil fuel use. And active transport isn’t just for kids: More than 140,000 commuters walk or bike to work in metro Boston, according to census data. Every pedestrian you pass represents one less car clogging traffic or spewing exhaust in the school drop-off line.
Yet, instead of rewarding pedestrians and cyclists, we punish them as second-class travelers, subjecting them to the constant threat of road violence. Pedestrian fatalities have spiked 80 percent in the United States since 2009, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In Massachusetts, more than 100 pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles in 2022 — an all-time high, according to a MassDOT report.
A new year’s resolution can help: It’s time we slimmed down our roads and oversized vehicles.
Narrowing lanes is a classic example of roadway design that forces drivers to exercise more caution, says Stacy Thompson, executive director of the transportation advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance. It may sound counterintuitive, but narrow streets are safer than wide ones in urbanized areas, according to a new Johns Hopkins study — for pedestrians and drivers alike. “It’s why implementing protected bike lanes is so good for traffic safety, even if you never bike,” Thompson says. “If you have a road where people speed, putting in a bike lane — and, by default, narrowing the travel lane — makes cars move more slowly.”
“The main threat to pedestrians is cars moving quickly, and most American streets are currently engineered in a way that tells them to speed up,” says Jeff Speck, a Brookline-based city planner and author of the best-selling book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. When a residential street is as wide as a 12-foot highway lane, drivers often treat it as such, and an increase in vehicle speed from 20 to 30 miles per hour nearly triples the likelihood that a struck pedestrian will die from the collision.
“So the question is: What are the cues that cause drivers to speed up, and can we eliminate them in a given location?”
Speed humps (wider and more gradual than speed bumps), alternating curb bump-outs, and raised crosswalks can also gently compel drivers to slow down to navigate obstacles. Similarly, one study found that simply removing a street’s yellow centerline — and the confidence it instills — slowed drivers by an average of 7 miles per hour. Meanwhile, wider sidewalks and extended curbs at intersections reduce the distance pedestrians need to cross to reach safety.
Vehicle speed isn’t the only variable deadly to pedestrians; so is size. A child struck by an SUV is eight times more likely to die than if hit by a car, according to research from the University of Illinois; a pickup truck’s impact is four times as deadly to the average adult.
This is not because SUV drivers are especially bloodthirsty; it’s just plain, awful physics.
While sedans have low, sloped hoods that strike at leg level and propel victims up onto the hood (very bad), the tall, blunt hoods of SUVs and trucks strike pedestrians and cyclists higher up — where the important stuff is, such as vital organs and brains — and are more likely to knock people down and pin them underneath the vehicle (way, way worse).
Trucks and SUVs now account for the majority of US vehicle sales, and they’re getting bigger. Consumer Reports found the average pickup has grown at least 11 percent taller since 2000, and 24 percent heavier. New research from the IIHS found that vehicles with 40-inch hoods or taller are 45 percent more likely than a sedan to kill a pedestrian they hit. And those enormous, squared-off hoods prevent drivers from seeing things directly in front of them — including young children, too often the victims of deadly “front-over” accidents.
Driving an SUV doesn’t make you some horrible road monster. In many ways, market forces may have pushed you into that vehicle. Pickups and most SUVs aren’t held to the same fuel economy rules as sedans, and they yield bigger profits — so automakers produce and promote them aggressively. The market share of SUVs nearly doubled between 2012 and 2021, creating an arms race of sorts: I’ve spoken to friends who bought a large SUV to feel safer...from all the other large SUVs on the road.
Slimming down our biggest vehicles would probably require changes to federal law, Thompson says, but communities can nudge residents toward smaller cars. Washington, D.C., for example, tripled registration fees for vehicles over 6,000 pounds, and Colorado is considering its own weight-based fee that would fund pedestrian safety measures.
To its credit, Boston in 2015 adopted the Vision Zero goal of eliminating serious crashes by 2030, and has been bucking the trends on pedestrian safety, Thompson says. Lowering the citywide speed limit to 25 miles per hour was a key step, she says; more important has been the city’s investment in infrastructure that makes that speed limit a reality. “There are literally concrete examples,” she says, from bike lane corridors to speed humps on residential streets.
Most city planners value walkability, are well aware of the dangers pedestrians face, and would like to address those issues. So what I’m asking of you is this: Let them. Don’t freak out about new speed humps or curb extensions. Don’t fight against lane reductions, new housing next to transit, and protected bike lanes. We should be demanding these changes, not impeding them.
And if you don’t already, try walking or biking in your neighborhood in the coming year. If it feels unsafe to do so, well...you’re probably right, so don’t push it. But remember that feeling of vulnerability the next time you’re inclined to zoom past a pedestrian, and slow down. Better your child misses a few minutes of homeroom than the kid on the sidewalk misses the rest of her life.
Jon Gorey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.