In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic took hold and people across the country started staying home from work and school, car traffic across the country decreased dramatically. At the same time, sidewalks, footpaths, and bike lanes experienced a dramatic surge in daily use from people seeking fresh air and exercise and from workers who’d been deemed “essential” and were avoiding public transportation for fear of infection. Many started realizing what transit reform advocates have long known: in America, spaces set aside for anyone trying to move through the world without getting in a vehicle are rarely designed for crowds. The imperatives of social distancing exacerbated the problem. I remember the strange experience, from those fearful early days, of dancing around my neighbors on our pinched sidewalks (much less than six feet wide), comically aware of the swathes of free space right next to us—but unusable because streets are, as everyone knows, for cars and cars alone.
Soon local authorities started taking action, generally in larger cities with communities of transit reform activists both in and out of government. Most dramatically, cities started shutting down some of their streets to car traffic, at least during certain hours or on particular days. Oakland banned cars from seventy-four miles of streets, 10 percent of the city total; New York City did the same for over forty miles, later expanded to sixty-seven; smaller-scale but still significant closure initiatives were rolled out in Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, and Chicago, among other municipalities. Some of these closures were temporary, some appeared to be permanent, and some were “nudges,” with cars technically allowed but suggestively directed elsewhere. Restaurants got permits to extend outdoor seating onto sidewalks and into streets, taking over space previously occupied by parking spots. New bike lanes were added; existing bike lanes were widened.
On social media, people interested in shrinking the presence and influence of the car in American life—a group in which I very much count myself—shared images of “reclaimed” streets from across the country. These posts felt celebratory, and it was clear that people were using them as evidence for the proposition, advanced in many op-eds, that the pandemic would be not just a source of suffering but also a welcome chance to reconsider the status quo.
On America’s streets, such reconsideration is sorely overdue. There is no illustration of this fact starker than our disastrous pedestrian fatality numbers. In 2010, 4,302 American pedestrians died on public roads, an increase of nearly 5 percent from the year before. The death count has risen almost every year since: in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 6,205 pedestrians were killed—the equivalent of a full Boeing 747 going down every month. Another 1,463 pedestrians died after being hit by cars in driveways, in parking lots, and on private roads. And many more, of course, were hit and seriously injured.
In the last decade, fatalities for car drivers and passengers have increased by no more than 2 percent, but pedestrian fatalities are up almost 50 percent. This makes America an anomaly among other wealthy nations, where pedestrian fatality numbers are in general considerably lower, and in most cases have plummeted in recent decades, thanks primarily to new street and crosswalk designs, implemented in the belief that most road deaths are avoidable. In Europe, pedestrian fatalities have dropped by 36 percent in the last ten years.
Before the pandemic, I’d made a habit of bringing up America’s dismal pedestrian death count at social gatherings, curious to see how many people knew it was rising. No one ever did. This is unsurprising. Pedestrian deaths are usually covered by local newspapers with brief stories about individual fatalities; collisions between cars and bodies are presented without context, and in ways that implicitly blame pedestrians—insinuating that if only they’d paid better attention, or followed the rules of the road more fastidiously, they’d still be alive. Stories about annual death rates appear each year, but generally in brief one-offs that are easy to miss.
The standout exception has been the writing of Angie Schmitt, who was until recently a writer and editor for Streetsblog, a nonprofit news site dedicated to transit policy. Schmitt covered pedestrian deaths as few others would: like a beat reporter, returning to the subject again and again, from different angles, and connecting it to other trends in American life. Reading her slim new book, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, recreates the experience of following her articles over the last several years. Tellingly, it appears to be the first book ever devoted to pedestrian deaths in the US. (In the summer of 2019 Schmitt left Streetsblog to start her own urban planning consultancy, focused on pedestrian safety.)
As her subtitle makes clear, Schmitt is concerned not just with the horrifying fatality totals, but also with the fact that the risks of walking—much like the risks of Covid-19—don’t fall on all Americans equally. Low-income pedestrians, Black and Hispanic pedestrians, elderly pedestrians, and disabled pedestrians are all disproportionately affected. Black and Hispanic men are twice as likely as white men to die while walking, and four times more likely than the average member of the population. Native American men are almost five times more likely.
Schmitt’s book asks two urgent questions: Why are pedestrian fatalities rising? And why are the deaths distributed so unevenly? The answers paint a dispiriting picture of the part cars play in our national life, where they have long brought freedom—or a version of it, anyway—to some more than others, and always left a trail of harm behind.
One reason the number of pedestrian deaths has risen in the last decade is that the total number of miles driven by Americans each year has increased. Gas is cheap, and public transit use is on the decline in most cities. More miles driven means more chances for walkers to get hit. But while total car miles have risen by 10 percent in the last decade, pedestrian deaths have surged by almost 50 percent.
So it’s not just more cars on the road. It’s also that more of them are SUVs, which are now so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how recently they weren’t. In the 1980s SUVs were a rarity. It was only in 2015 that they started outselling sedans. In 2018 they accounted for just under half of new vehicle sales, more than any other category of car. The height of American SUVs makes it harder for drivers to see pedestrians and means the hit comes higher on the body—and backed by extra mass—which makes organ damage and death two to three times more likely for adults, and four times more likely for children. More SUVs than ever are “overpowered”—that is, equipped with a high horsepower-to-weight ratio; this makes speeding more likely, which, like increased height and weight, increases the chances of pedestrians being hit and killed. More cars on the road, taller and heavier than ever before, going faster: each factor alone presents a serious problem. Together, they are a recipe for disaster.
But there are also substantial issues of geography, street planning, and history involved. Of the twenty US metropolitan areas most dangerous for pedestrians, Schmitt points out, nineteen are located in the southernmost third of the country, the coast-to-coast stretch of land often referred to as the Sun Belt. The reason is simple: Sun Belt cities were built almost entirely after the automobile came to dominate American assumptions about urban planning and transit. As a result, they are all sprawl and no core, crazily crisscrossed by wide, high-speed arterial roads that were simply not designed with pedestrians in mind. Crosswalks are few and (literally) far between, walk signals set punishingly short time spans for crossing, and sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent and frequently end without warning.
The Sun Belt is the fastest-growing area of the country; in the last decade, it has accounted for almost half of US population growth. Not all of these transplants are retirees fleeing colder climes; many are low-income workers and families who live without daily access to a car. They walk to work, to the grocery store, to bus stops. And more people walking along and across high-speed arterials means more people getting hit.
Overlay any map of urban arterial roads with a map showing its residents’ average income, or their race, and it becomes clear why the risk of pedestrian death is so unevenly distributed. Low-income, Black, and Hispanic neighborhoods, in addition to being populated by people who are more likely to have to walk, are more likely to force walkers to go near large, busy roads and be subject to other conditions—like the absence of sidewalks, crosswalks, or nighttime lighting—that increase their odds of being hit. This is true not just in the Sun Belt but in almost all American cities, where poor and minority communities are increasingly pushed to the outer fringes and beyond, into the suburbs.
It’s a particularly cruel twist of history. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, suburbs swelled with white residents fleeing desegregation and urban unrest. Their migration was made possible by cars and new federal highways, and often the suburbs’ aura of sanctuary was achieved by the deliberate exclusion of non-car transit. Many suburbs rejected initiatives that would have linked them to nearby cities by public transit; some even banned sidewalks. Meanwhile, the new highways connecting suburb and city often cut through established urban neighborhoods, tearing them apart and lowering the quality of life for those who remained.
More recently, though, affluent whites have flocked back to urban cores in search of walkable neighborhoods, shorter commutes, and the other pleasures of city life. Urban rents and home prices have gone up; at the same time, the American project of public housing has been all but dissolved. Contrary to long-held visions of the suburban life, which still proliferate in TV shows and movies, the suburbs are no longer exclusively white, and on average poverty is rising faster in suburbs than it is in cities. Areas once built as escapes for well-off white people with cars are now increasingly populated by people of all races and ethnicities who can’t afford them. And so the death toll rises.
Often, when I bring up the worsening pedestrian fatality crisis, people confidently opine that it surely has something to do with our damn smartphones and their attention-sucking powers. Like most people who engage seriously with the road fatality literature, Schmitt doesn’t believe that distraction—on the part of drivers or pedestrians—explains much of the problem. After all, it seems safe to assume that distractibility is a feature of human psychology more or less evenly distributed across the country, yet pedestrian death rates vary widely from place to place, primarily in correlation with road conditions. But to acknowledge this would be to shift responsibility away from each individual’s decisions in the moment and onto public policy as an agent of the public good. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, on American roads—at least as Americans tend to understand them—there’s no such thing as society. There are only solitary drivers and walkers—and people must look after themselves.
The solutions Schmitt outlines are, as she admits, conceptually and technically quite simple: more public transit, lower speed limits on streets where cars and walkers must coexist, and more interventions—speed bumps, barriers, widened sidewalks, more and better-designed crosswalks, better night lighting—that decrease the chances of walkers getting hit. Car manufacturers should be required, or at least seriously incentivized, to consider pedestrian safety. (In Europe, for example, influential safety ratings programs have essentially forced SUVs to be produced with shapes less harmful to pedestrians.) The effects of these measures would be significant, reaching beyond fatality and injury counts: if walking became safer and more appealing, more people would do it, which would reduce carbon emissions, improve health, and help communities bond.
But don’t hold your breath. Thanks to advertising, music, and movies, not to mention the experience of driving itself, cars remain an enormous presence in the American psyche, where they are symbols of independence, success, and strength. SUVs in particular seem to function both psychologically and physically as mobile fortresses, protecting everyone inside from a world of threats and threatening changes. Schmitt quotes Clotaire Rapaille, the French marketing guru who helped launch Chrysler’s shift to SUVs: “If you put a machine gun on top of them, you will sell them better. Even going to the supermarket, [Americans] have to be ready to fight.” Every year, the average SUV gets a little taller, a little heavier, a little more militaristic. As these metal behemoths surround you on the highway, it’s easy to start feeling unsafe in your Honda Civic. Once you upgrade to something bigger, your new vehicle becomes a part of the daily fabric of your existence—the new normal—making reform that much more difficult. For many Americans, their cars are their favorite place to be alone, to think, to unwind. This deep familiarity is not the biggest obstacle to sensible transit reform—that award goes to out-of-touch municipal planners who still prioritize car traffic flow over everything else—but it’s a crucial one.
Because our relationship to cars is so visceral—with touches of romance and addiction—any serious reform will require going beyond the professionally dry language of policy papers and government reports. Though Schmitt’s book is aimed primarily at her fellow urban planning professionals, she at least gestures toward the need for emotion and feeling in the broader discourse of transit reform. Most of her chapters start with personal narratives, often of individual pedestrians killed by cars, emphasizing the grief of their families and friends. She notes that many mourners have found meaning by becoming transit activists. They are stirring stories, as stories about grief and resilience tend to be.
But effective countermessaging against the automotive status quo will need to address feelings beyond grief and loss. Because we have been convinced to associate cars with fun and happiness, the call for a world safe for walking will also need to embody such concepts. I want to suggest that art might help. Schmitt doesn’t advance this argument directly, but she brushes up against it when, in a chapter on pedestrians outside the US, she tells the story of Jorge Cáñez, a Mexico City resident who, in 2011, decided to do something about the unchecked dominance of cars on his city’s streets. Cáñez donned a mask and cape costume of the type worn by Mexico’s lucha libre wrestlers and turned himself into a superhero: Peatónito (the Little Pedestrian). Along with friends, he started painting new crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes onto streets that needed them. He also showed up as Peatónito at these new crosswalks to direct traffic, force cars to yield to schoolchildren, and literally push back on cars whose drivers failed to respect the new boundaries. Eventually, his group won government support for their crosswalk interventions.
I don’t mean to suggest that art projects can replace the need for large infusions of public funds, or that we should rely on masked vigilantes like Peatónito to make our streets safe for pedestrians. But any reform effort would do well to take the theatrical side of Cáñez’s efforts seriously. (It’s encouraging to hear that he is now working on a pro-pedestrian initiative in Los Angeles.) It’s understood that art can help us see the world differently, but it can also make looking at the world differently more joyous, absorbing, and easier to stick with.
One of my favorite examples comes from the historically pedestrian-hostile city of El Paso, Texas, where in 2010 a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (and El Paso native) named Peter Svarzbein created a fake advertising campaign for the return—not then underway in any real sense—of a discontinued streetcar system that until 1974 had run throughout the city and across the border to Juárez, Mexico. Svarzbein’s campaign featured eye-catching wheat-paste posters reminding El Pasoans what their stylish Art Deco streetcars had once looked like; he also created a mascot (Alex the Trolley Conductor) who showed up around the city spreading the good news of their return. Svarzbein eventually admitted his deception—but then used the excitement he’d generated to successfully lobby the city government to bring the streetcars back and the Texas state government to fund them. In 2015 Svarzbein won a seat on the El Paso City Council; in 2018 streetcars started running in El Paso again.
As the pandemic has progressed, the early aura of possibility around pedestrian rights has dimmed considerably. In retrospect, some of the more ballyhooed changes may have had less to do with “reclaiming the streets” than it first seemed. In my own relatively walkable suburban Illinois neighborhood, for example, so many restaurants spilled out of doors that on some streets there was less walking space than ever, with stretches of sidewalk previously open to anyone on foot now limited to those with the expendable income for al fresco cocktail hours, making it even harder for wheelchair users to move around. Yes, some US streets remain closed to cars. But many of last year’s closures have been reversed or inadequately enforced, often because no funds were allocated for the work it would take to keep them going.
Even in New York, where lawmakers have voted to eventually make one hundred miles’ worth of closures permanent, the implementation still relies significantly on local volunteer labor. Where meaningful car restrictions remain, enthusiastic motorists—a historically powerful political constituency—want them removed. Across the country, the barriers used to enforce street closures have been damaged and vandalized. In April a Brooklyn resident posted a video of what appeared to be an Amazon delivery driver loading metal closure barriers into his van; they were later found dumped in a nearby creek. (Amazon claimed the driver was an impostor and his van “counterfeit.”)
In any case, most of the pandemic-related street interventions took place in areas that account for a relatively small portion of deaths; it wasn’t arterial roads in Florida’s pedestrian hellscapes, for example, getting transformed into car-free boulevards. Whatever other good the Covid-prompted measures did, they didn’t affect nationwide fatalities. According to a recent analysis conducted by the Governors Highway Safety Association, between January and June last year 2,957 pedestrians were killed: almost the same number killed over the same period in 2019, but with a 16.5 percent drop in miles driven. Traffic engineers have long known that drivers will, in general, go as fast as a road allows them to; with fewer cars on the road thanks to the pandemic, it seems likely that they went faster, increasing not just the likelihood of collisions but also their deadliness. At the height of the pandemic there was also a surge in illegal street racing, with people nationwide using emptied streets to act out their Fast and the Furious–style fantasies.
In much of the country, traffic is returning to normal. Some people are driving less because they’re out of work or working from home. But others are driving more, afraid to return to public transit, or simply out of habit. In my own household, over the last year, going out for a drive (maybe with an errand or two attached) has become a regular activity, a form of leisure or escape. For the last several months car purchases have been booming, despite rising prices. The decline in bus and train ridership is a crisis for transit agencies nationwide; among specialists there is widespread fear that, barring serious intervention, pandemic-related cuts will become permanent, striking another blow for car supremacy.
The details of the fallout—and the next chapter in the saga of American pedestrianism—will depend in large part on the fate of President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which in its current form allocates $85 billion to transit agencies, but also $20 billion specifically for programs designed to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety. This would be an unprecedented federal investment in the well-being of walkers—and it still might not be enough. After the plan was announced, Schmitt aired her skepticism on Twitter: “Debbie Downer here,” she wrote. “It’s not nothing but it’s not enough to reshape our built environment to not be deadly for pedestrians and cyclists.”
Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, it was again shown that one of the most accessible methods for disrupting American business as usual is placing people on streets to stop cars from going where drivers are used to taking them. Some protests spilled onto highways, repurposing the historical pathways of white flight and suburbanization as staging grounds for a movement demanding a safer world. Since then, Republicans in at least six states have introduced laws offering protection from civil lawsuits—even, in Oklahoma, from criminal charges—to drivers who plow into pedestrians, provided those pedestrians are political demonstrators occupying a road.