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Our deadly roads are 'dangerous by design'

Ralph Didion and his wife started crossing N 56th Street one evening last month not far from their Temple Terrace home. She stopped on the narrow concrete median. He did not. "I hollered at my husband, 'No, Ralph, wait,' " Betty Didion said last week sitting at the kitchen table in her home half a mile away. "The car hit him," she said, "and threw him, I don't know, a good 20 feet in the air." It took paramedics four minutes to get there. Didion already had no pulse. He was 74.

He was one of 10 pedestrians killed in the Tampa Bay region just in October. He was one of two in Hillsborough County killed just that night. So a recently released national study only confirmed what we've known for a while: This is a treacherous place to travel on foot or by bike.

The study, done by the nonprofit groups Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, used the average fatality rate and the percentage of residents who walk to work to calculate something called the Pedestrian Danger Index.

Florida, according to the study, has the four most dangerous metropolitan areas in America. Orlando was No. 1. Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater? No. 2.

Transportation officials were disappointed but unsurprised.

"Unfortunately," said Kristen Carson, the regional spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation, "we've made this list for a couple of years."

More like a couple of decades.

Sometimes it's the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership that does the study, sometimes it's Transportation for America, sometimes it's the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but the results almost always are the same. Florida's the worst, and Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Pasco County to the north — the worst of the worst.

Theories concerning this dubious distinction often focus on elderly people, or homeless people, or tourists who don't know where they're going, or drunkenness or general carelessness. But this most recent study dismisses those ideas as primary reasons and gets more explicit. It blames the state's entire road system.

Florida, said David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, was "designed to be dangerous."

• • •

From about 1910 to 1930, according to University of Virginia history professor Peter D. Norton, the author of the book Fighting Traffic, there was a cultural shift in cities in the Northeast and the Midwest: At the beginning of that period, streets were mainly for people; at the end of that period, streets were mainly for cars.

Florida is different. Streets here always were for cars.

They were made the same way the state was made, big and fast — driven by exponential residential growth that started after World War II and stayed more or less constant until recent years.

Zoning rules set up Sunshine State suburbia: People lived in one place, worked in another place and shopped in yet another place, and what connected them were great wide roads, flat, straight strips of asphalt, where once there were so many ranches and swamps.

"In classic suburban-style development," said Goldberg, "we pretty much engineered out walking and biking."

Hence the name of this most recent report.

Dangerous by Design.

In 2008, according to state DOT statistics, 504 pedestrians were killed in Florida.

The local county-by-county breakdown is consistent. Take the numbers from Pinellas: 30 pedestrians were killed in '04, and again in '05, and again in '06, and again in '07.

This metro area as a whole listed 192 pedestrian deaths in '07 and '08. The most recent study ranked it so poorly because the number of people who walk to work is relatively low and yet the number of deaths is still so high.

"Runaway pedestrian fatalities are a measure of the severity of a more deep-seated problem," said Dan Burden, a traffic consultant who lives in High Springs, north of Gainesville, and worked for 16 years for Florida DOT as the state's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. "It's an indication that we've built a lifestyle that's not sustainable. It's a measure of what we've done wrong in the past in our building practices.

"Do we have the right neighborhoods?" he said. "Do we have the right roads?"

The wrongest of the wrong roads is U.S. 19.

A report by the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership in 2002 called U.S. 19 in Pasco the most dangerous stretch of road in the whole country. Dateline NBC said the same thing in 2005.

Drive U.S. 19, from St. Petersburg to Spring Hill, and what you see is a familiar mosaic of car-culture consumption: a roadway 120 feet wide, flanked by places to put gas in your tank and food in your mouth, where sidewalks stop and start and stop again, where traffic travels at interstate speeds and crosswalks come only once in a while.

In the last two months, a 67-year-old man died at the intersection of Harn Boulevard in Clearwater, a 45-year-old woman died at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Tarpon Springs, a 75-year-old woman died at Darlington Road in Holiday, and a 55-year-old man died at Green Key Road in New Port Richey.

"It's a death trap," said Bernice Willis, a nurse in Tampa whose brother, John Willis, 67, was killed in a turn lane in Clearwater on Oct. 6.

Her brother was a jazz-loving Vietnam veteran who grew tomatoes in his yard. He used to work in a warehouse in Chicago before retiring down here. He was walking from his apartment to the bus stop.

"When will this change?" David Olinger wrote in a piece in the Times' Perspective section. "Probably not in this century."

He wrote that in 1989.

Late one recent afternoon, near Green Key Road in New Port Richey, where Thomas Rabon Legg died Oct. 14, a man with flip-flops and a mullet haircut stood on the northbound edge of U.S. 19. With one hand he carried a case of Busch Light and with the other he shielded his eyes from the sun. He strained to see the unending traffic before finally scurrying across.

• • •

The solutions are clear.

More and better sidewalks, more and better bike paths, wider and more comfortable medians, time-specific "countdown" signals at intersections, better-marked crosswalks. All of these things are necessary, say local and state transportation officials, to create so-called "complete streets" — for people who are in cars and also for people who are not.

"We're at a point where we're retrofitting the facilities back into our roadway system, and that's a difficult process," said Cheryl Stacks, St. Petersburg's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

St. Petersburg was cited in the recent study as a success story. The city adopted a bike and pedestrian plan in 2003 and since then has added 13 miles of sidewalks on major roads. What once were 10 miles of bike trails are now 93 miles. A high of 143 pedestrian crashes in the city in 2000 was down to 70 in '08.

Meanwhile, in the last two years, DOT has committed $10 million to install street lighting on U.S. 19 in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, and $2 million to make 220 intersections in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties more pedestrian-friendly.

"We can reduce the number of pedestrian crashes by 30 percent by 2020," said Peter Hsu, a safety and special projects engineer for DOT in Tampa. "That's the goal."

When might the Tampa Bay area get off the top of the lists in these kinds of studies?

"Hopefully, next year," said David Skrelunas, a DOT safety programs engineer. "But the key word there is hopefully."

• • •

Last week in Temple Terrace, the sun had set, light had turned to dark, and Betty Didion sat at her kitchen table.

"We were walking side by side," she said.

They had been married 27 years. They lived in Toledo, Ohio, where he worked on the railroads, and then they retired in Mesa, Ariz., before moving to Florida to live with one of her daughters. He had the beginning of Alzheimer's and was hard of hearing, and she had poor eyesight, so they didn't drive anymore.

"My concern was that something would happen to me," she said, "and then who was going to take care of him?"

They were coming back from a Chinese dinner at the Lin Garden restaurant. They stopped to pick up a prescription at Walgreens. The woman in the red, '93 Nissan had a green light.

"The first month, it was terrible," she said. "Every time I closed my eyes I saw it again."

She's taking Xanax now, she said, and she's thinking she's going to have to go see a psychologist. When she walks her dog, she moves slowly around the block, staying close to the curb. She won't cross the street.

News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Our deadly roads are 'dangerous by design' 11/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 1:43pm]

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