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More Than “Dangerous by Design,” Our Streets Are a Community Health Crisis… and Opportunity

By Kelly Hans Brock, Ph.D., P.E., Bike/Walk Central Florida Board Member & Orlando Resident.  

First off, I am not anti-car. I love driving my car, especially for road trips. I’ve driven well over 400,000 miles in my lifetime. But the fact is we have spent roughly 100 years designing a built environment where cars are the accommodated elite and people are second class citizens. And by “people” I mean everyone, including people driving, walking, biking, or rolling in wheelchairs or even on scooters or skateboards. (Think our world is built for you as a driver, not your car? Consider the 57 hours the average Orlando commuter wastes every year stuck in traffic… And I promise you the I-4 Ultimate will not fix this.)

Recently Smart Growth America released “Dangerous By Design 2021”, a report that identifies the deadliest metro areas and states for people walking. Once again, the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford Metropolitan Area is ranked #1 most dangerous metro area in the nation. Florida is the #1 deadliest state, and eight of the top eleven most deadly metro areas are in Florida. There has been a 45% increase in the number of people struck and killed in the nation by drivers while walking between 2010 and 2019. In response to the question “Why is this happening?” Smart Growth America states “…because state and local transportation agencies place a higher value on speed (and avoiding delay) than they do on safety. It’s simply not possible to prioritize both. When faced with decisions that would elevate and prioritize safety for people walking but increase delay for vehicles, the decision-makers’ true priorities are laid bare.” The report focuses on direct deaths from crashes. However, if all health impacts resulting from the lack of a built environment that encourages walking and biking are considered, the situation is even worse.

This brings me to my “light bulb” moment. A few years ago, Mark Fenton changed my life. Fenton is a nationally recognized Public Health Planning and Transportation Consultant. I found myself in one of his talks in a crowded room in Winter Park. With clever storytelling he took the audience to places of childhood nostalgia, where many of the GenXers (me included) and Baby Boomers remembered the freedom to roam their neighborhoods without parental chaperones. Millennials perhaps less so. And he showed us graphs and numbers. Lots of numbers. He reminded us that chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are linked to inactive lifestyles. He demonstrated that despite our structured exercise programs, gyms, and sports activities, one out of three of today’s children will develop diabetes in their lifetimes. And fewer than 5% of adults meet recommended minimum daily physical activity guidelines. And then he taught me this: the built environment plays a key role in a person’s level of activity… and by extension, the built environment is key to the health of the individual and the community. We move the most when our built environment encourages us to do so by second nature – where walking or biking is the routine, obvious first choice to best go about our daily business, not just for recreation.

I’m a living example of this fact. Most of my exercise comes from the daily routine of walking Luc, my Jack Russell Terrier. My neighborhood has a traditional grid of streets, meaning I can vary my walks for interest and even select streets with the most shade or the most sun depending on the weather and time of day. But while I also have a very short walk to Lake Eola, Publix, and a host of other establishments, I rarely do so in part because it is not the best experience to cross busy Robinson Street or Mills Avenue or Colonial Drive. And while I do have choices to get to work through a combination of bike, e-scooter, SunRail, and/or bus, I usually drive instead because those options would double or triple my commute time, even under ideal circumstances.

This brings me back to “Dangerous By Design.” Orlando actually does not have the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the nation – New York City does. So why is Orlando ranked #1 most dangerous while New York City is way down the list at #93? The “Pedestrian Danger Index” (or PDI) that Smart Growth America uses calculates your relative risk of dying while walking in your region by adjusting for two factors: population and percentage of people who walk to work (which is used as a proxy to estimate the total number of people who walk for all trips.)

Which brings me back to the ideas presented by Mark Fenton. Who walks to work in Orlando? And who actually walks to work because that’s their preferred option? Who walks to the grocery store, an eatery, church, clothing shop, or hardware store by choice? Our sprawling and separated land uses, wide and divisive roads, skinny and sun-baked sidewalks, limited transit services, oceans of parking lots, and mountains of parking garages all illustrate one thing: our region was built for the car, not us.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of effort in our region going toward making it safer, more comfortable, and more connected for people walking and biking. Every year a few miles of trails are constructed; sidewalks are retrofitted; crosswalks are enhanced and enforced. We even occasionally retrofit ridiculously wide roads so that they become complete streets, re-balanced to make other modes of travel a viable choice. We have many agencies, organizations, and individuals working to support “active transportation”. Bike/Walk Central Florida, for example, has worked with dozens of partner agencies to grow the Best Foot Forward program, which is now the nation’s largest grassroots coalition focused on pedestrian safety. Perhaps this is partly why our PDI score at least went down in this last “Dangerous By Design” report.

But our efforts toward this are a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars we continue to pour into road widening and new roads in homage to the single occupancy car. We continue to do this even though we have decades of experience to prove you cannot widen and road-build your way out of traffic congestion. For the price of the nearly billion dollar I-4/SR 408 interchange we could have operated SunRail for 25 years. Or we could have built 1,000 miles of trails – the equivalent of building Florida’s Coast-to-Coast Trail FOUR TIMES OVER – a trail that everyone is so excited about but has taken decades to build (and is still not complete).

It, of course, is not that simple. Funding restrictions for federal, state, and local transportation dollars limit what they can be used for. But why? Again, because 100 years have been spent to systemically prioritize the car over people. And undoing all of this to achieve a more balanced transportation system would be a herculean effort on so many levels.

So what can you or I do about it? Talk to your local, state, and federal elected officials. Donate to or volunteer for a charity that supports biking and walking. Express support for that sidewalk project or trail project or pedestrian crossing or road diet in your neighborhood. Support transit. Support mixed land uses and housing options. Rethink your commute and your daily routine. Question everything.

I’m not saying let’s get rid of the cars. I’m saying we’ve focused on cars for far too long. Let’s redirect our efforts to give people a fighting chance at safe and comfortable mobility and access, no matter how they choose to move. Our health and our very lives depend on it.

About the author:

Kelly Hans Brock, Ph.D., P.E., LEED AP, ENV SP, currently works as Deputy Public Works Director and City Engineer for the City of Casselberry. There, Brock manages capital and maintenance programs in transportation, parks, stormwater, lakes, and more. He is a registered professional engineer in the State of Florida. He has led efforts to promote complete streets in the City – enhancing walkability, bike-friendliness, safety, accessibility, connectivity, and sense of place.

Kelly Brock

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