Look Both Ways

Pedestrians crossing a street in Downtown Raleigh
Pedestrians crossing a street in Downtown Raleigh

Raleigh is a great place for drivers, but for pedestrians? Not so much.

Recently, the personal finance website WalletHub analyzed the hundred largest cities in the U.S. using 30 indicators of driver-friendliness. Factors included accident likelihood, traffic and infrastructure, gas prices, annual hours in traffic congestion and car theft rate, among others. Raleigh ranked No. 1 overall as the nation’s best city to drive in, beating out Orlando, Tampa and Lincoln, Nebraska. Four North Carolina cities appeared in the list’s top 10.

On the other hand, a recent study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration listed Wake County as having the second highest frequency of pedestrian collisions in North Carolina. Wake was second only to Mecklenburg County, the home of the state’s most populous city, Charlotte. Overall, North Carolina ranked 16th for pedestrian collisions. And nationally, pedestrian collision numbers are only rising.

“A lot of drivers in this area are unaccustomed to looking for people,” says Ashton Mae Smith, a Raleigh resident and former candidate for the Raleigh City Council, who was struck by a vehicle on Hillsborough Street four years ago. “Culturally, we put a lot of burden to be noticed on pedestrians and cyclists instead of on drivers. That’s a bit of a challenge.”

Raleigh, for its part, has some infrastructure for pedestrian safety, but there are definitely areas in need of improvement.

“Lower speed limits in urban areas, traffic diets, leading pedestrian intervals at signals are all ways we can help,” Smith says. Traffic diets (or road diets)—a term generally used to describe removing travel lanes from a roadway to use the space for bike lanes, pedestrian refuge islands, transit and parking—can be particularly helpful, leading to a crash reduction rate of around 19 to 47 percent according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“But some of it is as simple as the City installing sidewalks and more frequent crosswalks,” Smith continues. “A lot of the incidents we see are people at mid-block crossings or in an area of town where crosswalks are quite a distance apart.”

Capital Boulevard is particularly problematic, along with New Bern and Glenwood avenues, all long, busy roads with businesses located on either side. Pedestrians tend to cross where it’s convenient and, to save time, don’t necessarily want to walk down to broadly spaced crosswalks—especially to get to or from a bus stop.

Streets and intersections closer to the urban core have different issues.

“At Dawson and McDowell at South Street, the crosswalk signal is, like, 12 seconds long,” says Smith. “At Hillsborough Street and Glenwood, the signal light has been covered for a year and a half or two years now. And if you get off the bus right at Washington Street but want to get to Fletcher Park, good luck! Or, you can walk all the way back down to Peace Street.”

Smith says she wasn’t tempting fate by jumping into busy traffic when her accident happened. Instead, she was halfway across Hillsborough Street with a walk signal when a Kia Soul turned left from S. Harrington Street and hit her. After a little time in the hospital, some surgery and a lot of physical therapy, Smith says she’s still feeling both the physical and emotional effects of the crash.

“You should see me walk downtown,” she says. “I’m pretty much on high alert all of the time. There are more drivers and fewer people paying attention.”

The City is Taking Action

While there are ongoing issues, the City of Raleigh isn’t sitting idly by.

“We have focused on pedestrian safety for a long time,” says Eric Lamb, the transportation planning manager for the City’s transportation department. Lamb points to a 2009 rating from the nonprofit Smart Growth America that put Raleigh at No. 6 for worst pedestrian safety in the country.

“The system was based on our metro area, but Raleigh made up a significant portion of the crashes being recorded,” Lamb continues. “Since that time, we have taken steps to improve pedestrian infrastructure and pedestrian crossings and, as such, our ranking has improved consistently in the last 10 years in that evaluation.”

One of the steps the City took in response was to create the Raleigh Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, an all-volunteer body appointed by members of the Raleigh City Council. It also installed leading pedestrian indicators, such as those on Fayetteville Street, that light up the “go” signals for pedestrians before those for cars, so drivers can see pedestrians in the crosswalks before they start moving. Once-dangerous Hillsborough Street has undergone a facelift, making it safer and more attractive for bicyclists and pedestrians. And the city is installing more crosswalks with pedestrian refuges on Wake Forest Road so pedestrians only have to cross one lane of traffic at a time.

“Each street is different,” says Lamb. “One of the problems with parts of New Bern is not having any sidewalks, period. We have projects going on right now to improve that. With Capital, what’s interesting is that we have some limitations on how frequently we can create crossings.”

To these ends, the city has retrofitted more sidewalks in town and has upgraded intersections. It also installed road diets along Peace Street between Glenwood Avenue and Cameron Village that, though they increase traffic congestion slightly at certain times of the day, have seen crash rates drop dramatically for pedestrians and vehicles.

Currently, the City has allocated more than $20 million solely for sidewalk improvements, which is more money allocated for pedestrian safety than in the last 20 years combined.

“One of our challenges has been us playing catch up to our growth and urbanizing streets where growth has already taken place,” says Lamb. “For a city our size, that is a pretty substantial challenge. We take pedestrian safety very seriously and we’ve taken a lot of steps to improve our environment.”


Pedestrian Safety Reminders

• Walk on a sidewalk when one is available.

• Cross at intersections or crosswalks.

• Face traffic when walking on a shoulder.

• Avoid distractions.

• Do not assume you are visible.

• Make eye contact with drivers if possible.

• Avoid alcohol or drugs.

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