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Mean Streets 2004
How Far Have WE Come?

Executive Summary

America’s streets are growing meaner for pedestrians

The Surface Transportation Policy Project has been reporting on pedestrian fatalities in the United States for ten years now.  Our first report, produced with Environmental Working Group and published in 1996, examined pedestrian fatalities for the period 1986 through 1995.  Since that first Mean Streets was published, STPP has issued three updates, each looking at a two-year period.  This year, STPP is taking the opportunity with the publication of our fifth edition of Mean Streets to reflect on the trends in pedestrian safety over the past decade. 

A total of 51,989 pedestrians have died over the ten years from 1994 through 2003.  In raw numbers, pedestrian fatalities have declined over this period by approximately 12.8 percent.  This is good news, except when you consider that the rates of walking have declined even faster.  The U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial data on commuting provides the most reliable benchmark of walking over time.  According to that data set, the percentage of commuters who walked to work declined by 24.9 percent from 1990 to 2000. 

In fact, walking is by far the most dangerous mode of travel per mile.  Although only 8.6 percent of all trips are made on foot, 11.4 percent of all traffic deaths are pedestrians. And while the 2001 fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled is 0.75 for public transit
riders, 1.3 for drivers and their passengers, 7.3 for passengers of commercial airlines
[1], the fatality rate for walkers is an astonishing 20.1 deaths per 100 million miles walked.


Fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled

Public transit


Passenger cars and trucks


Commercial airlines1




Yet, across the country, there is some decidedly good news for pedestrian safety.  Many metropolitan areas, some prompted by STPP’s Mean Streets reports, have taken steps to make their regions more walkable.  Upon his election in 1999, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson elevated pedestrian safety and walkability to among his adminstration’s highest priorities. His safety campaign and other efforts have proven effective, with pedestrian fatalities in the Salt Lake City area declining by more than 44 percent.  Unfortunately, not all areas have followed Salt Lake City’s lead.  Pedestrian safety continues to worsen in many metro areas.  This report takes a hard look at the trends across the country and identifies the metro areas where the streets have grown meaner, as well as those where the streets have become friendlier to walkers.

The Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) shows where it is most dangerous to step out of your door to take a walk.  It looks at the rate of pedestrians deaths, relative to the amount that people walk in a given metro area.  In order to assess whether pedestrian safety has improved or worsened over the past ten years, STPP calculated a PDI for the period 1994 to 1995 and for the period 2002 to 2003, and looked at the change in those two figures.  According to this analysis, pedestrian safety has improved markedly in the following large metropolitan areas: Salt Lake City; Portland; Austin; New Orleans; Los Angeles; Dallas-Ft. Worth; Norfolk-Virginia Beach; San Francisco; Hartford; and Phoenix.  In contrast, the large metropolitan areas which have seen their streets grow meaner are: Orlando; Richmond, VA; Memphis; Denver; Grand Rapids, MI; Columbus, OH; Pittsburgh; Buffalo; West Palm Beach; and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater. (Please note that the Pittsburgh area ranks very low in its PDI.)


Metropolitan Area

1994-1995 PDI

2002-2003 PDI

PDI Change

Metro areas with the greatest improvements in pedestrian safety

Salt Lake City-Ogden, UT MSA




Portland-Salem, OR-WA CMSA




Austin-San Marcos, TX MSA




New Orleans, LA MSA




Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, CA CMSA




Dallas-Fort Worth, TX CMSA




Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, VA-NC MSA




San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA CMSA




Hartford, CT NECMA




Phoenix-Mesa, AZ MSA





Metro areas with the greatest declines in pedestrian safety

Orlando, FL MSA




Richmond-Petersburg, VA MSA




Memphis, TN-AR-MS MSA




Denver-Boulder-Greeley, CO CMSA




Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland, MI MSA




Columbus, OH MSA




Pittsburgh, PA MSA




Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY MSA




West Palm Beach-Boca Raton, FL MSA




Tampa-St Petersburg-Clearwater, FL MSA




America’s meanest streets

4,827 people died in the year 2003 while walking down the street in the United States, down slightly from the toll of 4,919 in 2002.  An estimated 70,000 pedestrians were injured in traffic crashes during each of those two years.  In addition to the ten-year pedestrian safety trend analysis, this report looks at where Americans are dying as pedestrians, what makes the streets dangerous for those on foot, and how the states are responding to those dangers.

The PDI shows that the most dangerous places to walk are metropolitan areas marked by newer, low-density developments, where wide, high-speed arterial streets offer few sidewalks or crosswalks.  The most dangerous metropolitan area for walking in 2002/2003 was Orlando, followed by Tampa, West Palm Beach, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Memphis, Atlanta, Greensboro, NC, Houston, Jacksonville, FL, and Phoenix.

Lack of investment

Unfortunately, few federal transportation dollars are being spent on pedestrian safety in many of the metro areas most in need of improvement.  In a separate analysis, STPP reviewed expenditures of federal transportation funds over the last twelve years (fiscal years 1992 through 2003), and found that in four of the top ten areas – Columbus, Denver, Memphis and West Palm Beach – showing the greatest declines in pedestrian safety, state spending of federal dollars on creating a safe walking environment actually declined over time. 

During the most recent spending period (under the federal surface transportation law, which covered fiscal years 1998 through 2003), funds expended in six of these metropolitan areas was well below the national average of 82 cents per person each year.  In fact, spending in the ten areas listed above was still below the national average, at 73 cents per person for pedestrian facilities or safety programs.

Because state Departments of Transportation typically control the vast majority of federal funds (94 cents of every federal transportation dollar), federally-funded roads have tended to be designed and built with little regard to local needs.  This often results in wide, high-speed arterials (the type of roads that the state DOTs are most familiar with) running through towns and neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, these are the same roads which are the most deadly for pedestrians.

STPP’s analysis shows that the states are not investing enough of their federal transportation dollars to protect people who walk. While 11.4 percent of all traffic deaths are pedestrians (12.9 percent if bicyclists are included), less than one percent (0.9 percent) of federal transportation construction, operations, and maintenance funds are spent to ensure a safe walking environment.  No state spends more than 2.5 percent of their federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed humps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians or cyclists.  This is in spite of a more than 40 percent increase in federal transportation dollars to the states in the last six years, and regulations that make it easier to use what were once “highway funds” on a wider variety of transportation projects, including transit improvements and pedestrian facilities that support transit and other users.

In addition, over the past 12 years the states have lost the opportunity to spend $1.69 billion on bicycle and pedestrian projects available through federal law.  The program, Transportation Enhancements, is designed to support bicycle and pedestrian projects, among other investments. Many states have chosen to leave this money on the table rather than do the projects that could make walking and bicycling safer for everyone.

Communities with streets built for speed, not people

Rather than investing in pedestrian safety, many state departments of transportation often choose to build roads that turn out to be dangerous for people on foot.  In looking at the types of roads on which pedestrians are killed, STPP’s analysis found that 14.6 percent of pedestrians deaths occur on Interstates, freeways, and expressways, 31.1 percent on other principal arterials, 20.8 percent on minor arterials, 11.9 percent on collectors, and 21.6 percent on local roads.  The deadliest roads tend to be high-speed arterials, with few accommodations or protections – such as sidewalks or crosswalks – for pedestrians.

Overall, the nation’s transportation networks have been largely designed to facilitate high speed automobile traffic, treating our communities and pedestrian safety particularly as an afterthought. Streets designed with wide travel lanes and expansive intersections have been the norm or local zoning and parking requirements that don’t account for pedestrians and public transportation riders is too often standard practice.   Private sector actors routinely design malls, shopping centers and housing for automobile access, without suitable facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users.  Importantly, communities with a good design and a focus on features that support travel options from the start don't have to be fixed later, reducing the dangers to pedestrians today and into the future. 

People at higher risk

For the first time, the federal fatality statistics include a look at the racial and ethnic background of those killed.  While the record is not complete (race data is not available for 27 percent of deaths, and ethnicity data is not available for 28 percent of deaths), it does show that ethnic and racial minorities are over-represented in pedestrian deaths.  African-Americans make up 19 percent of pedestrian deaths, even though they represent just 12.7 percent of the total population.

Children also face higher risks as pedestrians.  Pedestrian injury is the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children ages 5 to 14.  This is true even though the evidence shows that fewer children are walking.  Only about 14 percent of children’s trips to school are made on foot, down from 50 percent in 1969.  Forty percent of parents asked about the barriers to children walking to school cited traffic as a major concern.  About 70 percent of children’s trips are made in the back seat of a car.

The health risk of walking less

While walking presents some dangers, not walking may hold more hazards.  As children have been walking less, the percentage of children who are obese or overweight has soared.  The same is true for adults:  the portion of people who walk to work dropped by 25 percent between 1990 and 2002, at the same time that the percentage of the population who are obese jumped 70 percent.  The Surgeon General’s Call to Action on the obesity epidemic calls for providing safe and accessible sidewalks, walking, and bicycle paths.  Physical inactivity is also associated with a heightened risk for many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and pancreatic and breast cancer. 

The medical costs of physical inactivity are estimated at about $76 billion per year.  Meanwhile, the federal transportation program, which weighs in at about $46 billion per year, spends less than one percent of that – about $240 million annually – on creating safer places to walk and bicycle.

Automobile-oriented transportation networks are sometimes so seamless that commuters can go directly from the garages of their homes to the basements in their worksites without so much as a short walk. The same attention needs to be directed to making other trips more seamless, including the pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities that both encourage walking and make walking safer.    This means wider sidewalks (if there are sidewalks at all), improved lighting, safe crossings and attractive transit wait areas can combine to improve the experience of walking.   Community designs that emphasize other travel options – walking, biking and transit – are needed to support additional activity and better health.

Recommendations for state and federal action

Americans strongly support greater investment and commitment to pedestrian safety.  More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans favor putting more federal dollars toward improving walkability, even within a constrained budget.[2]  The effort to create a better walking environment would be much more effective if local, state and federal transportation agencies embraced walking as a transportation priority by taking the following actions:



·         Fix What We Have to correct the many deficiencies that now exist in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, by developing pedestrian action plans, adopting “fix-it-first” policies, establishing Safe Routes to School programs, ensuring a “fair share” commitment of transportation funds to pedestrian safety needs and giving more funding to local agencies who own most of the federal-aid and other system roads.

·         Complete Streets so that transportation projects at every level of government – Federal, State and local – provide appropriate facilities and accommodations to serve pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.


·         Tame Motor Vehicle Traffic by ensuring safer motor vehicle operation, removing unsafe drivers from the roads and deploying new technologies to enhance enforcement such as photo speed enforcement and so-called red-light cameras.

·         Promote Walking by emphasizing the public health, economic development, and transportation benefits of walking, including more focused attention and greater resource commitments to encourage people of all ages to walk more.


[1] This figure is unusually high because it includes airline passengers who died during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Fatality rates in previous and more recent years range from 0 to 1.2.

[2] American’s Attitudes Toward Walking and Creating Better Walking Communities, April 2003.  Conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart Research and Communications for the Surface Transportation Policy Project. <www.transact.org/report.asp?id=205>

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