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Derrick Z. Jackson

Taking a walk shouldn’t be a contact sport

By Derrick Z. Jackson
November 10, 2009

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ALTHOUGH MANY pedestrians might not think so, the Boston metropolitan area is the second-safest for pedestrians out of 52 cities of a million or more residents, according to a new report released Transportation for America, the coalition that advocates for less dependence on cars.

Before you laugh, it really is much worse elsewhere, especially in the South. Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville are, in order, the most dangerous. In suburban Tampa, where my sister lives, it is as if planners viewed walking as a communicable disease and jogging as cancer.

As a result, Tampa is one of many cities where less than 2 percent of its residents walk to work. The first two places my sister lived, there were no sidewalks either in her development and no road shoulders outside it. Every store required a drive and my morning runs were more dangerous than scuba diving, rock climbing, and white-water rafting put together.

For safe exercise on foot, you had to drive several miles to a bikeway. I have seen storks and sandhill cranes on the bikeway, and of course, it is almost always warm. But the annoyance factor of having to drive in order to run, has me appreciating, even on the coldest of days, the approximately 20 miles of paths around the Charles River.

But neither Boston nor Massachusetts can take much comfort in these rankings. The report, which says 76,000 pedestrians have been killed nationwide in the last 15 years, noted how several cities use “traffic calming’’ measures like speed bumps or crosswalk pylons in the middle of very busy streets that warn drivers to yield to pedestrians. But their effect in Massachusetts is not enough, with pedestrians making up nearly 18 percent of Massachusetts’ traffic deaths in 2007-2008.

It is a state law for drivers to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. I notice that in some suburbs, like Brookline, drivers will stop if a pedestrian is still on the curb. But in my Cambridge neighborhood of Central Square, any yield-to-pedestrian pylons in the center of Massachusetts Avenue are often ignored by barreling drivers.

Similarly, there is a nearby intersection at Magazine and Green streets that is posted with a stop sign. But few drivers pay attention to it because their eyes are fixed ahead at the yellow light a few feet ahead at River River Street. It is a miracle no one is killed there on a daily basis.

But people are killed elsewhere on the Commonwealth’s streets, particularly seniors. We have the eighth-highest rate of pedestrian fatalities for seniors in the nation. According to the report, Americans over 65 use their feet or bicycle on only 6 percent of their trips. Seniors in the Netherlands and Germany make about half of all their trips walking or cycling.

We easily have much that is positive to build on. Boston is consistently rated as one of America’s most walkable cities, with nearly 5 percent of residents walk to work, second only to the New York City metropolitan area. Adjoining suburbs tend to be very walkable. We also have towns across the state clamoring for more sidewalks, to create better access to schools, soccer fields, and town centers.

The Transportation for America report said that with pedestrians making up 12 percent of American traffic deaths, a similar percentage of federal highway safety dollars should go toward reducing such fatalities. That is a fair proposal since less than 1.5 percent of federal funds are dedicated toward pedestrian and cyclist safety and no state spends more than 5 percent of the federal transportation funds it gets on such safety. Massachusetts, according to the report, spends only 1.2 percent of its federal funds on pedestrian projects. There is still much more room for the state to walk the talk - for the sidewalk.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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