During the weekend of Sept. 22, four pedestrians were killed in the Denver metro region. Three of those people were killed on Colorado Department of Transportation roads. Pedestrian deaths statewide are at an all time high.
It’s often said that a system produces the results that it is designed for, and based on the consistent pattern of recent deaths, our system of state highways in urban areas are not designed for pedestrian safety. They are designed to move a large volume of cars through urban neighborhoods full of pedestrians and transit users at high speeds.
Take Federal Boulevard, a CDOT road, where it passes by CDOT Headquarters, as one example.
At that location, the road is 8 lanes wide — about 100 feet across. It’s a long, dangerous crossing, especially for elders or people that use wheelchairs.
That segment of Federal passes by a transit hub where several of Denver’s busiest bus lines and the W Line light-rail meet. Yet the road has a deadly design for pedestrians. The lanes are wide, which encourages drivers to speed, and at the 35 mph speed limit, there is a 50% chance that a pedestrian hit by a driver will die. In Denver, only 7% of all trips are made by pedestrians, yet nearly half of the deaths on Federal Boulevard since 2013 have been pedestrians.
So what can we do? First, reduce the speed limit on our urban roads where pedestrians are consistently being killed. Streets like Federal Boulevard, Colfax Avenue, Colorado Boulevard, and Sheridan Boulevard are all part of the high injury network — the 5% of Denver streets that account for 50% of traffic fatalities. We know that speed kills, and if we want to take pedestrian safety seriously, we must lower the speed limits in places where people are being consistently killed.
In Denver, 83% of fatal crashes involve speeds of greater than 30 mph. We can reduce the number of fatalities by lowering the speed of vehicles in urban area with large number of pedestrians and transit users that have historically had a nigh number of crashes. I hope that most of us would make the tradeoff to get somewhere a few minutes later driving our car if it means the road would be safer and there is a chance of one less person dying. Seattle saw success in lowering their speed limits on arterial roads to 25 mph with a reduction in injury rates. CDOT should lower the speed limit to 25 mph on high injury network roads. This could be done by CDOT in a matter of months.
Second, we can implement automated speed and red light cameras. Thanks to new legislation from the state General Assembly,we have more opportunities for automated enforcement.
In 2018, prior to the passage of the law, CDOT turned down Denver’s request to add a red light cameras at 14th and Federal Boulevard — the dangerous section of Federal mentioned above. Since then, Denver has learned that red light cameras elsewhere, like the one at 6th Avenue and Lincoln Street, have reduced injury crashes by 80%. And photo speed enforcement vans in Denver have resulted in a 21% reduction in vehicles going at least 10 mph over the speed limit.
CDOT should reconsider allowing Denver to implement speed and red light cameras on CDOT-managed high injury streets to reduce fatalities and injuries. It should do so with an emphasis on equity, so as not to make the same mistakes that Chicago did and end up ticketing communities of color disproportionately.
Third, CDOT in the longer term can focus on road design. Narrower driving lanes, pedestrian medians, curb extensions that intermittently narrow the roadway, planting trees, adding transit-only lanes, and wider sidewalks (or just having a sidewalk) are just some examples of things that can be done to alter the road design, to force drivers to slow down, and to make walking along and across CDOT roads safer for pedestrians.
If CDOT wants focus on pedestrian safety, it can implement safety improvements to our urban roads with the same level of urgency that it musters when Glenwood Canyon is closed for rock slides, or commit as much money to it as the $250 million it is spending on widening Interstate 70 at Vail pass, or the $700 million it is spending to widen I-70 at Floyd Hill.
In my experience, traffic engineers tend to blame crashes on behaviors of individuals. Federal Boulevard has had more than 11,000 crashes since 2013. This is not a behavior problem. It’s a system problem. It’s time to stop blaming individuals and design safer roads for pedestrians and drivers.
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