It’s dangerous to go for a walk in the Tampa Bay region, and it shouldn’t be. Nine hundred pedestrians died in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area between 2008 and 2017, making Tampa Bay the ninth-most dangerous region to walk in the entire United States, according to Dangerous By Design, a report out this week by the advocacy group Smart Growth America. It doesn’t have to be this way, and the region’s embrace of “complete streets” — urban planning that stresses safety for walkers and cyclists and transit riders as well as drivers — should help to ensure that it won’t. But personal responsibility plays a big role as well. No road engineering will protect a pedestrian from a texting driver who is oblivious to the flashing signal at the crosswalk.
Florida is by far the most dangerous state and has eight of the nine most pedestrian-hostile metro areas, and it’s much worse than other Sun Belt states, so it’s not just the weather. Dangerous By Design looks not only at pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people (Tampa Bay has 3.07; for comparison’s sake, the murder rate in Tampa is 10.3). Its “Pedestrian Danger Index” also controls for the share of people who walk to work, meaning the numbers are comparable across all states and metro areas.
This is a civil rights issue as well as one of safety. The study shows that, nationally, African-Americans pedestrians are at 50 percent more risk than whites. (Incredibly, a separate study from Las Vegas showed drivers were likelier to yield to a white woman in a crosswalk than a black woman.) People walking in lower-income neighborhoods die at 2.5 times the rate as those in well-to-do neighborhoods. Anyone over 50 years old faces a higher risk and, for the elderly, it’s far higher still.
While driving has become safer thanks to air bags and other safety features, walking has become more dangerous. Miles driven increased only 8.1 percent in the decade of the study, but pedestrian deaths rose at more than four times that rate (35.4 percent). The study blames decades of design that emphasized moving cars quickly with little regard for the safety of others, and its authors surmise that Sun Belt states fare badly because so many of their roads were engineered in the age of the automobile.
Improvements already are happening. Tampa has added bike lanes and markings to 98 miles of its roads in recent years, and it plans 20 more miles of bike projects in the next fiscal year. St. Petersburg plans to add 60 miles of bike lanes, trails and markings and about 92 pedestrian crossings to city streets in the next five years. And Clearwater has just completed a bike trail that makes it possible to ride from Clearwater Beach across the Courtney Campbell trail to Tampa.
The countywide transportation tax that Hillsborough County voters approved in November commits a dedicated portion to transportation safety improvements. All told, nearly one-fourth of the $300 million the tax is expected to generate each year will be used to improve safety on existing roads and bridges, including projects that are specifically intended to make walking and cycling safer. Hillsborough and its three cities will have tens of millions of new dollars every year for road safety and sidewalk improvements, which will mean better lighted streets, new crosswalks and safety barriers and safer intersections from Plant City to Town ’N Country.
In a region where school children are routinely asked to walk up to two miles to school, there should be adequate sidewalks and safe crosswalks. Drivers, especially frustrated ones, should remember to share the road. They must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. It’s not an inconvenience for drivers — it’s the law, whether or not a signal is flashing.
Better road designs will help. But it’s a people problem, too. Drivers have a responsibility when they get behind the wheel, one that is deadly serious.