Strategic street solutions: How to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist fatalities in Hillsborough County

Between the years of 2005 and 2014, 46,149 pedestrians in the United States died when they were struck by a motor vehicle. For perspective, this statistic indicates that people in the U.S. are 7.2 times more likely to be killed as a pedestrian than in a natural disaster. Even more sobering: for nearly a decade, the Tampa Bay region has been ranked among the deadliest areas in the nation to walk or bike the streets.
In early January, Smart Growth America (SGA) released its biennial Dangerous by Design report, ranking walkability in the 104 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. on a  "Pedestrian Danger Index" (PDI), based on the number of local commuters who walk to work and the most recent data on pedestrian deaths. 

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater region was ranked second most dangerous metropolitan area in the U.S. in 2009, 2011 and 2014, and came in seventh place in the 2016 report -- with over 821 pedestrians killed over a 10-year period through 2014. Florida cities claim the top seven most deadly spaces on the 2016 SGA report, with Tampa's neighboring Cape Coral-Ft. Myers area ranked deadliest in the nation.

"These aren't just numbers that are represented. They are human beings who may be a mother, father, daughter or son. These are your neighbors. These are people who are loved. It's devastating. It's costly. It's life-altering for entire communities of people," says Hillsborough MPO Executive Planner Gena Torres.

Although the Tampa Bay region saw a nearly 25 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities between 2015 and 2016, dropping from 51 annual deaths to 39, local officials and pedestrian safety advocates agree: These heartbreaking numbers are still far too high. 

"Going from bad to less bad shows progress, but it’s a far cry from where we want to be. It’s time now to set our sights on becoming a great place to walk and bike. We can do this by accelerating roadway improvements and institutionalizing culture shift," says Walk Bike Tampa Executive Director Christine Acosta.

Moving forward, zero is the only number of deaths Hillsborough County's Vision Zero coalition says will be acceptable on Tampa-area streets. The coalition is digging into the data to design a future free of today's sobering traffic statistics.
Mapping traffic tragedies: Each pin is a person

"One of the things we have a great handle on, now, is where crashes are occurring," Torres says. "We have a database that stays populated within up to three weeks of the current date." 

Torres is referring to an FDOT digital resource available to the Hillsborough MPO, which identifies all reported traffic accidents in FDOT District 7 (Citrus, Hillsborough, Hernando, Pinellas and Pasco counties) on a Google Maps database. The Fatality and Injury Crash Map includes digital pins indicating the location of every reported crash, all injuries and fatalities, and crash reports from responding law enforcement -- which can provide valuable insights into how the accident occurred.

"Each dot is really mysterious. You look at it, and on one level, it's just a red circle with an image of a person -- but that doesn't tell the story. That dot represents someone with a whole history that you'll never know unless you're motivated to find out about it. When you click on the crash report, you begin to find out those stories," says Johnny Wong, Hillsborough MPO Community Planner.

"Unfortunately, dead pedestrians tell no tales. Most of these accidents have no outside witness; no one to validate what happened. In almost every case, the police report states the driver had 'no contributing action' -- but we'll never really know the pedestrian's side of the story," Wong adds. 

Wong notes that poring through each red and yellow pin representing a death or serious injury on the Crash Map does illuminate a big-picture story about where, and under what conditions, Tampa area pedestrians and bicyclists are in greatest peril: "attractor areas" (high-density pedestrian thoroughfares with schools, shopping centers, doctor's offices, and workplaces) on multilane roadways claim the most lives. High motorist speeds, poor lighting conditions, and unpaved shoulders are contributing factors in almost all pedestrian fatalities.

"The major arterials carry a lot more traffic. There are a lot more conflict points and speeds are typically higher -- contributing to those roads having the majority of the crashes from a statistical point of view," says Frank Kalpakis, AICP, Principal with Renaissance Planning, the lead consultant for Vision Zero. 

The map identifies Dale Mabry Highway, Fletcher Ave., Fowler Ave., Hillsborough Ave., and Nebraska Ave. among the deadliest roads in Hillsborough County. 

"We had to narrow down the worst locations to see if something can be done. This map can help direct the efforts, time and money of our public works departments and educators," Torres says.

Directing safety efforts: Vision Zero hits the streets

Vision Zero's coalition of Hillsborough County officials and planners, law enforcement officials, educators, traffic engineers and citizen safety advocates met for the second in a series of tri-monthly workshops on January 31st. For this workshop, Vision Zero committees stepped away from the drawing board and into the streets for an in-field safety audit on one of Tampa's most treacherous roadways -- Hillsborough Ave., via the Town 'n' Country Regional Library. 

"The intent of the safety audit was to raise a level of awareness about the lack of pedestrian facilities and the need for those facilities," says Kalpakis.

"I feel like most people just aren't thinking about it enough. When you really pay attention, you can recognize all the things that have been done right -- and more importantly, where we've been missing opportunities to make the pedestrian and bicycle environment safer and more comfortable."

It doesn't take long to discover pedestrian woes. In a one block radius along Hillsborough Avenue: an unshaded bench along the highway serves as a meager bus stop with no shelter from the elements; pedestrian crosswalk buttons require an off-road trek into weedy, littered terrain; vegetation obstructs crucial pedestrian and motorist sight lines, crosswalk signals offer dangerously short timeframes for slower-moving pedestrians to cross six lanes of traffic -- and the list goes on.

Hillsborough MPO Planner Wade Reynolds notes that the stretch of highway observed by the Vision Zero teams is located within a one-mile radius of densely populated shopping centers and other businesses, as well as foot traffic-heavy attractors for local youth, including Skate World of Tampa, Webb Middle School, Dickenson Elementary, Berkeley Preparatory School and Sweetwater Organic Community Farm.

"As you're headed from Veteran's Expressway toward the library on Hillsborough Avenue, one of the first signs you see is a 'Share the Road' sign with a picture of a bicycle on it," Reynolds says, "but I'm walking down Hillsborough and thinking to myself: 'yeah right -- as a cyclist, there's no way I'm going to share this road with motorists. That's terrifying."

Reynolds' observations:

"There are no proper bike facilities. The bus facilities aren't very nice. There are incomplete sidewalk networks and areas where sidewalk simply disappears. There's one long curb cut where you can drive off the road into a long driveway, just north of Hillsborough [Avenue] by a tire store. There's no sidewalk for about 100 feet of that whole stretch -- and no curb preventing motorists from pulling off the road."

Planning for a zero-fatality future

"Across Hillsborough County and in many places throughout this region, we have in the past designed solely for automobiles rather than multiple modes of travel -- but I think that's changing, and that's part of what the Vision Zero effort is about. There are many things that can be done to improve safety, and roadway design is just part of it. A lot of it will have to do with culture change," says Kalpakis. 

Beyond its efforts to identify the most vital areas to direct resources toward mitigating bicyclist and pedestrian safety hazards, Vision Zero has committees whose primary goal is to work within the community to facilitate the cultural shift to which Kalpakis alludes.

The 'One Message, Many Voices' action track is focused on spreading the Vision Zero message and educating pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as motorists, about the best safe practices on Hillsborough's developing multi-modal roadways.

"There's an equity aspect to the data as we hone in on locations [for Vision Zero]. By using the data on the Crash Map, we can query all kinds of info that is necessary to correct the road problem and determine better ways to direct our outreach efforts," says Torres.

Whereas Vision Zero's 'The Future Will Not Be Like the Past' action track may focus on combatting infrastructural design flaws -- by adding street lighting to poorly lit areas, for instance -- the 'One Message, Many Voices' action track may attempt to access the area's most affected pedestrians by visiting schools, churches and community centers to educate non-motorists about the safety benefits of wearing reflective clothing after dark.

Coinciding with the safety audit, Vision Zero committees brainstormed to compile a series of key issues and goals to be addressed in the next Vision Zero workshop, taking place in April, during which they aim to begin hammering out deliverable action plans that will improve the local landscape for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Goals include working with law enforcement to enforce a data-driven approach that targets problem behaviors on the road, creating powerful messaging about pedestrian safety to spread the Vision Zero message, strategizing impactful educational efforts, and channeling 'pop-up' solutions that provide quick, inexpensive improvements to pedestrian visibility and safety in problem areas.

Vision Zero's goal is to work alongside Hillsborough public works, as well as the local community, to influence quick-moving improvements that begin to reverse the tides of the Tampa area's Dangerous By Design designation -- within the next two to five years, says Torres.

"At the end of the day, for every dot on that map, we know -- if nothing else -- that dot represents a parent, a friend, or a whole network of family and friends. It may represent an entire high school: a community of people who are impacted by these losses. We must not wait to implement a change," Torres says.

Read more stories about Vision Zero in 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor living in the historic, colorful Gillespie Park neighborhood of downtown Sarasota. A Florida native, Jessi spent her childhood exploring the mangroves along the riverbanks of the Manatee River, and to this day refuses to live anywhere that is not within walking distance of a body of water. She received her BA in Art History from Florida International University prior to moving to Sarasota, where she channeled her passion for the arts into a writing career and found yoga to counteract the effects of hunching over a keyboard for days at a time. Today, when Jessi is not writing or teaching, she enjoys traveling, thrifting and indulging in the Bay area’s distinctive culinary and craft brewery scenes.
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