The Tampa Bay area and seven other Florida cities are among the top 10 most dangerous places in America to walk, according to a report released Wednesday.
The advocacy group Smart Growth America compares pedestrian safety among cities of different sizes as part of its Dangerous By Design report. Tampa Bay's rank among the most deadly regions dropped from 7 to 9 since the group's last study in 2016, but the number of pedestrian deaths increased in that same time period.
Also, Florida remains the nation's most deadly state for those who journey on foot, topping the group's study for the last three reports since 2014. The state's numbers are "significantly, significantly higher" than Alabama, which ranked second, said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition with Smart Growth America.
She added that, nationwide, 2016 and 2017 were the two most deadly years for pedestrians in the past three decades.
"The bottom line is we are killing more people," Atherton said.
The report also highlights that the elderly, minorities, people with disabilities and those living in low-income neighborhoods are more at risk than their counterparts.
"This sobering report confirms what we have known for years," said Jeff Johnson, AARP's Florida state director. "Florida is the deadliest state in America to simply walk. And older Floridians are especially at risk."
Back in 2016, the seven most dangerous metro communities for pedestrians were all in the Sunshine State. Bakersfield, Calif., broke up those rankings this year, claiming the seventh position.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area had 900 pedestrian deaths from 2008 to 2017, the new report says. That's up from the 821 pedestrians who were killed across the region over a 10-year period through 2014.
The rise in fatalities comes after Tampa Bay has made investments in "complete streets," an urban design approach that promotes safety and convenience for all users and modes of transportation.
Several local governments in Florida, including Hillsborough County, Tampa and Orlando (the most dangerous area, according to the report), have recently adopted a "Vision Zero" goal of eliminating pedestrian and bicycle fatalities. Safety planning often addresses both bicyclists and pedestrian issues in tandem, seeking to make streets safe for all users, not just drivers.
St. Petersburg has committed to a 20-year initiative that over the next five years would add 60 miles of bike lanes, trails and markings and about 92 pedestrian crossings to city streets.
The city drew ire from some residents after replacing one traffic lane on Martin Luther King Jr. Street between Fourth and 30th avenues N with extra-wide bike lanes as part of its complete streets efforts.
Tampa quashed a plan to add bike lanes on Bay-to-Bay Boulevard after facing similar criticism. Bike and pedestrian advocates said the plan to convert a traffic lane to a bike lane would also improve safety for those who walk by slowing speeds and calming traffic. The city instead decided that traffic flow takes precedence over bicyclists and pedestrians.
Atherton referenced the debate over Bay-to-Bay Boulevard when encouraging cities to evaluate whether resources are being spent on the streets that have the heaviest pedestrian traffic and need the most work, or if those funds are being diverted to other roads that have less of an impact but more political will backing their improvements.
"Sometimes the streets that need retrofitting the most face the most political opposition," she said.
Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, said local planners prioritize projects based on areas that have the highest number of crashes.
"From my experience, the local governments are really trying to go about (making safety improvements) by starting with the most dangerous areas," Kress.
Hillsborough's recently approved transportation sales tax aims to dedicate a percentage of the revenue directly to safety improvements, as long as a lawsuit filed by Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White doesn't overturn the tax. One of the first priorities, Kress said, is to spend some of the money on sidewalks and crosswalks around schools.
"Everybody wants safer streets," Kress said. "I personally think that's part of the reason why the referendum passed. … I think people are fed up and it's time do something about it."
Hundreds of the mid-block, flashing crosswalks have been installed on popular roadways throughout Tampa Bay, including Gulf Boulevard along Pinellas County's beaches, Fourth Street in St. Petersburg and Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. More are planned over the next decade.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough's Vision Zero project aims to slow traffic, educate the community, and provide fair enforcement of the law. Efforts to connect sidewalks, install mid-block crossings and improve intersections have increased in recent years.
Still, the numbers of pedestrian deaths continue to rise.
"These changes take time," Atherton said. "We spent decades building an unsafe system."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.