Who is responsible when a pedestrian is killed?


My neighbor in New York City was killed a few years ago. She was riding home on her bicycle, and was hit by someone driving an SUV. Criminal charges were never filed against the driver, though he was sued in civil court by her family and was eventually found culpable for her death.

Her story has been told quite honorably elsewhere, and I feel like it would be improper to go into the details here.

More importantly, though, is that there is nothing all that unusual in this “accident.” After all, cyclists die with relative frequency. (677 deaths in the US in 2011.) This is appalling, to be sure, but what appears to be worse is that in almost all cases as far as I can tell, the driver is never charged with anything.

This is not O.K.

The New York Times wrote about this recently in their op-ed “Is it O.K. to kill cyclists?“:

[Studies] suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. … When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.”

The answer to the question, it appears, is “yes.”

It does seem the very heart of injustice that one can get in a car and hit and kill someone on a bike without any fear of reprisal. But who is to blame? Do we blame the driver? That’s an understandable place to start, and sure, there is some individual responsibility at work here. The car didn’t drive itself. Do we blame the cyclist? Well, even if the cyclist was even partially at fault, does that mean that the cyclist deserved to die?

I don’t blame the driver or cyclist. To start, I blame the street.

The street, really?

Yes, really. I blame the design of the street that prioritizes cars over other modes of transit, more specifically, that prioritizes that fast moving of vehicles over people.

Look at this street (click to enlarge):

Bowery and Delancey St, Manhattan
Bowery and Delancey St, Manhattan

This is the approximate location where my neighbor was killed. A few blocks to the east is the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge, one of the only ways to get across the East River on foot or on bike. Does this look like a place that prioritizes people or bicycles? Or does it prioritize cars, specifically cars moving as quickly as possible?

Not convinced yet? How about Street View?

Bowery and Delancey, Manhattan, from the street
Bowery and Delancey St, Manhattan, from the street

And so what happens when you design a street for cars? You get it.

The limits of speed limits

Just putting a speed limit in does not help. You can’t build a street that allows encourages 50 mph speeds and then put down a sign that says “only go 25 mph”. (After all, the speed limit for all non-highway streets in New York City is 30!) The street design determines the actions that take place on them, and no legislation can change this.

If we really wanted cars to drive slowly, then we would add traffic calming devices on the street, such as curb extensions, fewer lanes, chicanes, pedestrian refuges, etc. But we don’t want cars to drive slowly.

Unfortunately, this kills people. Take a look at this amazing chart (taken from a World Health Organization report):

Pedestrian fatality risk
Pedestrian fatality risk. Note that this is in units of km/h, not mph.

Notice that this study shows that if cars are driving 30 km/h (20 mph), then there is almost no chance of a pedestrian fatality. But if the driver is going 60 km/h (40 mph), not uncommon on a six lane avenue, the chance of death rises to an almost certainty.

If you had to go ten miles, then driving at 20 mph versus 40 mph would save you 15 minutes. (30 minutes versus 15). That 15 minutes could be the difference between (potentially) someone living and dying.

Place matters too

But it’s not just the streets that are implicated here. Our cities and towns share this blame. This is because, among much else, our places are designed to allow promote traveling long distances, as our towns are often so spread out so as to require it.

Ten miles on foot or on a bike is a long distance, but in a car it’s nothing. The farther and less dense our places are, the more we encourage people to drive. The more we encourage people to drive, the more we encourage the building of places that encourage driving and not people. For example, because we assume that people will be driving, we make sure that every store has a parking lot associated with it.

These are planning choices that we make on a municipal level as well as a personal level.

  • On a municipal level, I believe the reasons why we design our places this way seems to be the interplay of the “windshield perspective” way of viewing the world only through the vantage point of cars, mixed with commercial interests that make the most money from designing structures such as strip malls and highways.
  • On a personal level, when you decide to live in a place that all-but-requires you to drive whenever you leave the house, then you will drive whenever you leave the house. You will shop only at places that have space to store your car. You will not think twice of traveling larger distances. You will complain about traffic and parking.

None of this is inevitable, though.

People first

I’m not saying that if you get in a car that you are a bad person. I own a car myself, and I don’t have any interest in taking your car away. As I’ve said before car ownership isn’t the big problem: it’s car dependency. And as we know from other types of dependency, be it substances or relationships, you lose power to make informed decisions when you are dependent.

We all have the power to make choices that make our places more friendly to people. After all, everyone is a pedestrian at some point! Not only is building a more pedestrian-friendly environment more pleasant for everyone involved, but this will allow us to a world with perhaps less death and destruction built into it.

Not everyone is a city planner, of course. I believe we can do more than we think, but awareness is the first step to movement. But first, we must understand how our actions (and places) affect others. Look at the places where you go; what modes of transport do they encourage?

May you never be one of the thousands of pedestrian fatalities that occur each year in this country, and equally, may you never be affected by those who have.

But enough about me. Do you live in a place that discourages any mode of transport other than a car? How do you respond?

Comments are closed.