The big news so far this week is that if you walk in the Louisville Metro area, you’re taking your life into your own hands. A new report called Dangerous by Design co-authored by Transportation for America and Tri-State Transportation Campaign analyst Michelle Ernst reveals that Louisville is the 7th most dangerous metropolitan area over one million people for pedestrians. That’s right, it’s more dangerous to be a pedestrian in Louisville than in notoriously bad pedestrian environments such as Houston or Las Vegas.
To level the playing field among cities with varying pedestrian counts, the rankings were determined using a Pedestrian Danger Index representing the ratio between the average pedestrian fatality rate per 100,000 residents in a two-year period and the percentage of residents who commute to work by foot. Results represent the entire urban region rather than just the core city.
Louisville’s poor ranking is the result of many factors identified in the report including a trend for more low-density, auto-centric land use in the southern U.S. (Nine of the top ten worst cities are in the South, including the four worst in Florida). The report also notes that wide, fast-moving arterial roads that facilitate such sprawling development are to blame for 56 percent of pedestrian deaths nationwide. These streets (think Shelbyville Road or Dixie Highway) often lack safe pedestrian infrastructure including sidewalks and crosswalks.
Total pedestrian fatalities in the Louisville area between 2007 and 2008 numbered 48 accounting for 14.2 percent of all traffic deaths. Only 1.7 percent of residents in Louisville walked to work. The Cincinnati area, for example, saw 33 pedestrian deaths in the same period accounting for 8.5 percent of traffic fatalities. Cincinnati counted 2.3 percent of residents walking to work. The winners in Kentucky are Elizabethtown with zero pedestrian deaths and 2.9 percent of workers walking and Lexington with the highest rate of walkers at 3.5 percent.
Suggested improvements include investing in better street infrastructure or “complete streets” that make the public realm more inviting to pedestrians. This can be achieved by simply adding sidewalks and crosswalk, or implementing road diets or traffic calming techniques. Emphasis on walkable communities is also cited as a key solution indicating that land use patterns in our sprawling suburbs must be adapted to allow a mix of uses at an appropriate density for walking.
Pedestrian spending in Louisville doesn’t seem to be the problem, however. The Dangerous by Design report indicates that Louisville is also in the top ten metros (number 8) for “Highest Federal Spending on Pedestrian Safety per Person” with $2.39 spent on bike and pedestrian infrastructure per person. Providence, RI ranks highest with $4.01 per person.
If Louisville is spending among the most per person for pedestrian improvements but still ranks among the worst metro areas for safety, then we’re either not putting our money in the right places or there’s a more fundamental problem that must be addressed.
I’m not going to try and diagnose these problems right now, but I would be willing to guess that addressing speed will be a key factor. Dangerous by Design points out the alarming truth about a pedestrian’s survival rate when struck at various speeds. When hit at 20MPH, your chances of recovery are good at 95 percent. As speed increases, survival rate drops rapidly. At 30MPH, the rate stands at 55 percent and at 40MPH your chances of survival are only 15 percent. Considering so many of Louisville’s arterials have a posted speed limit of 45 (or sometimes more) miles per hour, it’s no wonder that so many pedestrian deaths occur on arterial roads.
There’s also some good news for local pedestrians: Louisville’s core city (the old city limits) has been identified as the 15th most walkable city in the country by WalkScore based upon availability of amenities (such as businesses or parks) within walking distance that allow for the possibility of a car-free lifestyle. You can see the walkability “heat map” below indicating in green the most walkable parts of Louisville.
Louisville is the highest ranked city in our region and the top five walkable neighborhoods include the Central Business District, Limerick, Phoenix Hill, Cherokee Triangle, and Old Louisville. In all, WalkScore estimates that 25 percent of residents live in an area designated “Very Walkable.”
So to wrap up, it appears that Louisville has some work ahead of it to make streets safer for pedestrians. We as a city will need to determine how best to use our funds as we are among the top cities in the country for pedestrian spending (and we have millions more in stimulus funding still ahead of us). The core of Louisville is already showing signs of walkability which should be strengthened while we also promote principles of walkable development throughout our city and region.
[ Editor's note: We received word that the Dangerous by Design report was co-authored by Transportation for America and Tri-State Transportation Campaign Analyst Michelle Ernst, a change from what was originally reported. The article has been updated to reflect this. ]