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Inequity, car design are major factors in walking deaths says reporter Angie Schmitt

Posted by on October 16th, 2019 at 11:30 am

Angie Schmitt at her talk yesterday in downtown Portland.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

As (former) editor of Streetsblog USA and a prolific user of Twitter, Angie Schmitt has become a leading voice for a problem that plagues cities and towns across America: the skyrocketing rate of people killed while walking. Schmitt, who’s working on a book about the issue due out next year, was invited to speak in Portland by the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University.

At her sold-out lecture yesterday, Schmitt said she believes the increased death toll is due to a combination of factors that are creating a perfect storm. “But if I had to tie it back to one issue,” she added, “I’d say it’s inequality.”

Yikes. (Schmitt shared this slide, but I’ve grabbed the original from Vision Zero Network)

National data shows that the number of walkers killed each year in the U.S. has gone up over 50% and has climbed to a 30-year high from a low of 4,109 people in 2009 to 6,227 people in 2018. Explanations for the uptick tend to focus on distracted driving, “distracted pedestrians”, unsafe road designs, and so on.

Schmitt’s role has been not just to explain the problem, but to point out why it hasn’t been solved yet. Standing in front of a slide that showed a Google Map image of people running across an eight-lane roadway to avoid being hit by drivers, Schmitt said she thinks privilege can explain a lot of it. “A lot of us who are a more privileged are never put in this position, that’s also one of the reasons this issue hasn’t resonated in the press and mainstream American culture the way it should given that 6,000-plus people are being killed every year,” she said, while looking out into a mostly white and relatively wealthy crowd. “We can afford to live in neighborhoods that aren’t like this or we can afford to drive.”

(A few of her lecture slides.)

America has a long history of ignoring problems when they impact mostly poor people of color or other marginalized groups. According to Schmitt, the epidemic of traffic deaths to vulnerable people is just another example. She pointed out that black people and Native Americans are are two times and four-and-and-half times more likely to be killed while walking than white people are. Similar risks exist for people over 75 years old, who are twice as likely to die.

Instead of blaming victims because they’d been drinking alcohol or because they live outside adjacent to dangerous streets, Schmitt says we should be doing more to keep these groups of people out of harm’s way. “We know they’re out there, but we’re not doing a good job protecting them.”


“There’s been a suburbanization of poverty, and unfortunately the areas growing fastest are also the most dangerous for pedestrians.”

Systemic racism was also a theme of Schmitt’s talk. She shared examples from Detroit and Cleveland to show how the geography of traffic deaths mirrors historic lines of institutional inequity, racial segregation and income. Then she criticized Portland directly and said she plans to use us as a bad example in her book. “This pattern is really stark in Portland,” she shared. “There’s a big dividing line [in walking deaths] east of 82nd Street, which is also where 28 out of your top 30 high crash intersections are located.”

Demographic shifts are also playing a key role in this problem. Schmitt pointed out the “suburbanization of poverty,” a phenomenon playing out in metro areas and cities across the country. Since people of color tend to use transit more and have lower rates of car ownership, Schmitt said, “As these folks end up in suburbs that were designed without pedestrian safety in mind, that’s another reason I believe we’re seeing this explosion in deaths. Unfortunately, the areas growing fastest are also the most dangerous for pedestrians.”

More people walking on streets designed only for driving is bad enough. The fact that more people than ever are driving larger, more powerful cars is also a big part of the story. The impact of car design is where much of Schmitt’s interest lies. She points to the rise of SUV sales as a leading factor in the fatality increase.

Schmitt’s son and a totally legal American vehicle.

With a photo of her 4-year-old son dwarfed by the grill of a lifted Ford pickup truck, Schmitt pointed out how the height and shape of grills leads to much worse collision outcomes for walkers. Lower, more angled front-ends result in more impacts to the legs and collisions that throw people up onto hoods. With high, square front-ends, not only is visibility worse, but impacts hit major organs and more frequently lead to deaths.

Then there’s culture: “The things going on with Trump and guns and masculinity… These kind of trucks have become more stylish,” she said. There was also a moment during the Q&A session where Schmitt said the “ethics of driving” deserves more attention. “How many of us spend any time thinking of driving in ethical terms,” she asked, “Yet it has these profound ethical consequences.”

Horsepower (another stylish thing for people who worry about their masculinity) is also on the rise. Schmitt pointed out that a 1999 Ford Mustang topped out at 320 HP. The 2019 version of the same car has a whopping 480 HP. And speaking of Trump, Schmitt said former President Barack Obama tried to start a pedestrian safety rating program system for new cars, but under the Trump Administration, “It’s not happening.”

With very little walking-specific advocacy (especially compared to cycling) and a lack of institutional respect from government agencies, Schmitt says the only way to turn the tide is for people to step up. “In the advocacy community, I think we’ve overlooked some important important things,” she said. “I think it would be really helpful if people got more engaged in what’s going on with federal regulation of cars. That’s something that’s been missing from this movement.”

Schmitt is working on a book to be published by Island Press in August 2020. Until then, catch her latest thoughts on Twitter @schmangee.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and
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57 thoughts on “Inequity, car design are major factors in walking deaths says reporter Angie Schmitt”

  1. Avatar middle of the road guy says:

    “The things going on with Trump and guns and masculinity”

    Those things were going on long before Trump.

    1. Avatar dwk says:

      11 likes for the MAGA loving Trump supporter.
      What this has to do with the subject is beyond me, one sentence in the article.
      Spare me the victimhood, Trumpsters, or just leave the orange mess out of this.

      1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

        Can you tell me who the MAGA-loving trump supporter is that you are referring to?

    2. True. The fastest rise was during the Obama administration, especially 2014-16. Trump was elected at the end of 2016 and started in Jan 2017, a year that pedestrian deaths actually went down slightly. But of course it’s the republican’s fault, can’t disprove the narrative.

      1. Avatar dwk says:

        Who said this was republicans fault?
        Again the MAGA victimhood… Trump can’t be gone soon enough.

        1. Avatar BikeRound says:

          The article implied that it was at least partially Trump’s fault. I agree with you that we should have left Trump out of this whole discussion, but once it is brought up by one side, the other side certainly has a right to respond.

    3. Avatar El Biciclero says:

      Indeed. I don’t like the generalization that masculinity is bad. Maybe that’s not the intent of this statement, and I get that some masculine types do bad things, but let’s be careful.

      1. Avatar q says:

        She may not be saying there’s anything wrong with masculinity. She may be saying what’s wrong is that some people are tying masculinity with driving giant trucks, driving dangerously, driving cars with high horsepower, etc.

        It reminds me of Sarah Palin posting a photo of herself with a Harley juxtaposed with a photo of Obama on a bicycle, with the assumption anyone seeing them would see her as more powerful and masculine than him:

    4. Avatar SD says:

      On long rides in rural areas near Portland, I have felt like trucks are bigger and drivers are more aggressive. More coal rolling, close passes and horns. I suspect that this is related to intensification of culture wars. But I have nothing objective to back that up.

  2. Avatar Todd Boulanger says:

    Great discussion and looking forward to reading her book. (I miss attending these type of events in Portland.)

  3. Avatar Todd Boulanger says:

    Looking at the slide of pedestrian fatalities…I wonder how strong a positive correlation there is between the mass adoption of the iPhone/ Smart Phone with way finding apps and the fatality rates? Since this u-turn trend shift started before Mass deployment of Uber and Lyft.

  4. Avatar Todd Boulanger says:

    And as a former SUV owner from the old days (1981 Jeep) I am always shocked at the height of SUVs (pickups especially) now in use on our suburban streets…especially when I can no longer see over the hood (let alone a child). When I was struck in a crosswalk by a mid height Jeep I could not get myself over the hood.

    I always ask myself when I see these monster Tacomas etc.: Why has not NHTSA (or other agency) put a stop to these designs as being a “traffic safety problem”. (There seemed to be more institutional interest in making car fronts more “pedestrian impact friendly” in the early 1970s when side mirrors, grills, bumpers and other protrusions were changed for impact safety.

  5. Avatar Jim Lee says:

    Very imaginative.

  6. Avatar El Biciclero says:

    I’m fascinated by the notion of “the ethics of driving”, and would love to hear more about that.

    1. Avatar Paul says:

      Not speaking for her, but my conception of it is something like “every time you choose to drive, you are choosing to put other people’s lives at risk.” That’s a pretty serious ethical consideration.

  7. Avatar Jim Lee says:

    And masculinity goes back at least to the Garden of Eden.

    1. Avatar q says:

      Yes, of course. But tying being masculine with driving big trucks or cars with huge horsepowers, or driving dangerously, hasn’t.

  8. Avatar BarbLin says:

    What an incredible chart! I’d really like to hear more about it. What the heck happened in 2009?? Is that smart phones taking off? Popularity of bigger vehicles? Why were we seeing such steady improvement before that? Better lighting/signals/facilities? Wonder if the attempt to idiot proof newer cars (auto braking, anti-collision sensors etc.) will have any effect in the future? Seems our idiocy is growing too fast for technology to keep up with from what I see on the road.

  9. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

    Is it really because of racism that the nature of the road network is so different (and dangerous) beyond 82nd, or is there a better explanation?

    1. Avatar Paul says:

      The explanation is that some races tend to have less money than others, which effects where they live, which effects their safety. The fact of racial wealth imbalance is generally considered to be a form of (or a result of) racism.

      1. Avatar Paul says:

        Oops, effects->affects.

    2. Avatar BarbLin says:

      Hello Kitty I always look at history. The area was built and planned differently than w. of 82nd because it was unincorporated County until the 70s or 80s. (and there was virtually no diversity there back then). Different block sizes, no sidewalks required, bigger lots, septic rather than sewer, etc. etc. It’s taking decades of investment to bring the area up to what it should be with parks, safe crossings, sidewalks etc.

      1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

        Yes, exactly. What the author cites as a “stark example” of racist development policy was in fact built by white people for themselves, while most minority folks were living in areas that had much better infrastructure.

        The real story here is that poor people live in the cheapest areas, which are usually the least desirable by the metric du jour. This story has been around for a very long time, and probably doesn’t sell books as well as the one the author wants to tell.

        1. Actually, to a certain limited extent, she’s right about East Portland. Up until annexation in 1986-1991, as others have pointed out, East Portland was largely a white low-tax unincorporated county area. Some areas were poorly developed with septic systems, others had sewers, sidewalks, and Bull Run water. There were both rich enclaves and poor white trash redneck communities. There was even an area that specifically excluded blacks and Jews (Ascot Acres), since ruled illegal. Most of the bike lanes you see from before 2016 were put in by the county before annexation, as well as the I-204, I-84, and Springwater paths.

          After annexation, the City of Portland did in fact “push” substandard commercial housing onto East Portland as well as several “housing projects” in areas without the needed infrastructure such as community centers, sidewalks, and good transit connections, for example at 125th & Division. They city also allowed and encouraged rapid population growth without building the needed infrastructure, as part of the 1993 Southeast Portland Plan (which included all of East Portland from NE Halsey on south.) I personally remember hearing private discussions in the late 90s among city planners about “pushing poor black people and new immigrants” into the white privileged areas of both East Portland and the Southwest Hills to “punish” privileged white homeowners and obnoxious community advocates in those areas. It happened. At the time I was new to Portland and living in Goose Hollow, so I didn’t care.

          So the City’s proven history of neglect for East Portland from 1991/1993 to the present is, I’m afraid, more than a bit racist and bigoted, certainly anti-immigrant, and certainly economic. What I don’t know is to what extent a City policy and set of actions reflects its population and community norms. Was the City reflecting a racist attitude of the community at large, or only among certain city staff? Who benefited from such policies? Who made money on it?

          1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

            Where you see malign intent, I see some combination of “out of sight out of mind”, problems too big to handle, and lack of effective advocacy to counter those factors (assuming that residents actually wanted their transportation infrastructure redesigned and rebuilt, which is highly questionable).

            I think the condition of East Portland is entirely explainable without invoking race.

        2. Avatar soren says:

          Another real story here is that Portland has a racist history of targeting black neighborhoods for redevelopment (e.g. PDC-funded ethnic cleansing).

          1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

            I don’t think I would put it quite that way, but the Planning Bureau did do a study on race and zoning and found that the well-intentioned upzoning of Albina led directly to the rapid gentrification and redevelopment that displaced many residents and communities there. Unfortunately, the city didn’t seem to absorb that lesson, and seems bent on repeating that error all over the city, an effort unfortunately championed by many here.

            1. From living in “the South” for the last 4 years and living in Portland for 18 years, the main difference I’ve seen is people’s attitude towards institutional racism. In the South, there’s a real recognition of it, bureaucrats are constantly trying to fix past wrongs, and people are more willing to talk openly about it. In Portland (and Seattle) there’s still a huge stigma about it, with most people (and city bureaucrats) still in denial about the city’s very racist past and continued “out of site out of mind” reaction to it, as you rightly put it.

              In the North, if city bureaucrats and VIPs don’t like a district, they respond by neglecting it for investment, for decades if necessary, then when property values hit bottom, they suddenly over-invest in it, making a financial killing by gentrification and economic involuntary displacement of local residents, leading to massive homelessness. You saw it in Uptown in the 80s, St Johns in the 90s, Albina & Piedmont in the 2000s, and now in Cully and East Portland.

              In the South, most cities make steady investments in each community of color, but also develop housing projects in overwhelmingly white areas of town to encourage a racial shift in population. It doesn’t always work, but it sure beats the way Portland does it.

      2. Avatar soren says:

        Fixed it for you:

        Decades of disinvestment epitomizes Portland’s racist and classist approach to “urban” planning.

    3. Avatar gilly says:

      Portland has always neglected the area east of 82nd. It was annexed in the 80’s and 90’s with promises of improvements but most city money was spent on revitalizing the downtown core. A lot of the development took place while it was unincorporated so it was not required to follow city planning standards.

  10. Avatar Pete says:

    Privilege didn’t hit me while stepping into a crosswalk after the walk light came on, a woman looking left trying to beat traffic taking a right turn on red without stopping did.

    1. Avatar q says:

      In other words, a woman who felt her need to save a couple seconds off her trip was more important than your safety hit you? That’s the epitome of privilege.

      1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

        I’m sure that’s exactly the calculus she used. “I think I’ll save time and hassle by running down this person of lesser privilege.”

        1. Avatar q says:

          Well, no, I’m sure she didn’t make any conscious evaluation at all, and it’s very unlikely she even saw him. She was most likely focused on getting where she was going, and not concerning herself with the safety (or existence) of possible pedestrians around her. That is privilege (1 form) at work.

          1. Avatar Fred says:

            I think “privilege” is less important than the conscious decision of lawmakers to allow a right turn on a red light and to countenance such lax standards for drivers.

            On a recent trip to Germany, I rented a car and ferried several Germans around – to their great delight. I approached a right light and asked, “Can I turn right?” They laughed: “Of course not. Right on red is not permitted anywhere in Germany.” We approached stopped traffic. “You need to put on your emergency lights [flashing hazard lights].” Huh?

            Soon it became a running joke. “Can I pass someone on the right?” (more laughter) “Can I hang out in the center lane?” “Can I turn right from the left lane?” (all behaviors we see in Portland during our daily commutes).

            Some wise person said that every system is perfectly optimized for the results it achieves. Our transportation system is perfectly optimized to “speed up car traffic” and kill vulnerable road users.

          2. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

            You shouldn’t assume “they” was a she.

            1. Avatar q says:

              Pete said it was a woman.

              1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

                Pete interpreted it based upon appearance. I doubt he asked.

              2. Avatar q says:

                Do you have a point?

  11. Avatar meh says:

    Not sure what they are putting in the water the last few years but it has certainly caused more red light runners. My girlfriend was rear ended on the weekend. The light had turned yellow and by the time she got to the cross walk it was read and she had stopped. the guy behind her admitted he was expecting her to run the yellow/red so he didn’t slow.

    I like the mobile speed vans like in Beaverton, and would like to see a mobile red light camera. They can move around and force some changes in how people drive, and it doesn’t condition them to slow down for specific intersections on stretches of road.

    Right now everyone is on their best behavior when they know there’s a camera (Beaverton Hillsdale Highway for example), they are conditioned to only obey the law where there are cameras. Move them around randomly and they will start to behave better more often.

  12. Avatar Toby Keith says:

    The “poor folks don’t drive” load of crap has gotten a little old. Plenty of low income folks driving out here on the Eastside. They are NOT riding bicycles.

    1. Avatar middle of the road guy says:

      And if they are driving trucks, they MUST be Trump supporters!

    2. Avatar Alex Reedin says:

      Nationally, low-income people drive much less than wealthy people.

      Certainly, many low-income people drive. But that doesn’t change the fact that driving is disproportionately done by higher-income people.

      1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

        Right… but what do national statistics tell us about the folks in East Portland? Probably not much.

  13. Avatar Chris says:

    I’m surprised there isn’t a mention of using cell phones while driving in her studies. Surely they are having an impact as well?

  14. Avatar Rudi V says:

    The woke white lady brigade’s desire to tie transportation policy to their obsessive “everything is racist” narrative is going to turn out disastrously. When wokeness goes out of fashion, which it already is doing, all of the real issues like transportation policy that have been tarnished by it are going to go be discredited too. It’s almost like that’s their plan…

  15. Avatar Jim Lee says:

    Did Angie do statistical regression analysis in making her links?

  16. Avatar Asher Atkinson says:

    The prominent 1990-2018 chart suggests pedestrian fatalities are back to level with 1990. Keep in mind total annual vehicle miles traveled is around 50% higher today than 1990.

  17. Avatar SD says:

    Safety or lower risk of death shouldn’t be a major factor in the price of a house, but it is. This is partly because we have equated the wealth with who is deserving of basic human rights and partly because planners have ignored the effects of poorly planned roads on people’s health. It is problematic to not provide basic services to low income areas, but it is much worse to build dangerous roads that cause harm to low socioeconomic areas but benefit wealthy people who live in safe less polluted areas.

    1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

      In reference to East Portland, perhaps the roads were developed before the area became populated, and it attracted low-income residents because it was outside existing municipalities where taxes were lower (and consequently received fewer services), and land values were lower because it was further from the urban core without quite the bucolic character of a “true” suburb. And I’m not sure Gresham was ever where the “wealthy people” lived.

      You are suggesting a level of intent and causality that I don’t think is supported by the facts.

      1. Avatar SD says:

        Not intended to specifically reference East Portland because I would need much more information to know if that were the case. From your statement, it appears that you don’t have enough information to dismiss it for East Portland either. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you do know that high speed roads intended for through travel have been built through established poorer neighborhoods to benefit wealthier travelers.

        1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

          East Portland was developed using the most modern planning ideas of the time, some of which, in retrospect, turned out to be misguided. I’m sure that some of our currently fashionable thinking will turn out to be equally misguided.

          It should probably not be a surprise that infrastructure is often built where land is cheap, which, as it happens, tends to be where less affluent people live. This dynamic works completely independently of ill intent.

          1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

            Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

            1. The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  18. Lenny Anderson Lenny Anderson says:

    Plot ped deaths against gas prices…I’m guessing a good correlation. Lower oil prices=cheaper gas=bigger vehicles=more ped deaths. Upside of lower oil prices: more dirty oil stays in the ground at $50/barrel than at $100/barrel.
    It is not a mystery why Porltand’s freeway network went through Albina (Black), Central Eastside (marginal industrial district), Goose Hollow (PSU student “ghetto”), South Portland (immigrant). Cheapest land, least organized opposition, marginalized people. Three cheers for Bob Moses! Somehow I-205 failed to swing west to meet up with 217 at I-5…I wonder why?

    1. Avatar q says:

      Your comment (and the article) tie in well with the new article about the King Neighborhood divider. That divider is in the area that got the freeway you mentioned run through it (among many other projects benefiting people passing through the area at the expense of those who live in it) and many happened recently enough that people living there now have firsthand experiences with them.

      Ironically, the understandable skepticism towards agencies coming in and promising “this will be good for you” (when it clearly wasn’t) may now be working against safety and livability in those neighborhoods, because the agencies have created decades-long portfolios of examples of why they shouldn’t be trusted.

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