Boston’s Small, Winding Streets Are Good for Something: Pedestrian Safety

A new report ranks Boston as the safest city for pedestrians.


Downtown crossing by BrxO on Flickr

The, uh, quirky design of our city streets here in Boston elicits a lot of complaints from a lot of groups: tourists trying to find their way around, drivers who don’t want to share the road with cyclists, cyclists who want things like protected bike lanes, etc. But the city of paved cow paths is good for one group: pedestrians.

The Boston-Cambridge-Quincy metro area is the safest in the nation for pedestrians, according to the report “Dangerous by Design 2014,” released by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition. The report compared the number of pedestrian fatalities to the share of local commuters who walk to work. The goal was to calculate the cities where it was most or least likely that a pedestrian would be hit and killed by a car. The report concluded that you’re better off strolling the streets of an older, more compact city—Pittsburgh, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco also scored well—and you’re worse off pretty much anywhere in Florida. Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville were the four most dangerous cities for pedestrians.

This isn’t so surprising when you consider how traffic works in a newer city, one that was developed in the age of the automobile. Over half of the pedestrian fatalities happen on arterial roadways, ones designed to move as much automobile traffic as possible. The report notes:

Arterial roads are expected to move the most  automobile traffic possible with minimal delay over longer distances, meaning they often are built wide, fast, and flat to serve the purpose of quick automobile travel.

“Wide,” “fast,” and “flat” are words that tend not to come to mind when driving around downtown Boston, so we’re at an automatic advantage as walkers. Cars often can’t sustain the high speeds that make fatal collisions more likely. But that’s not to say we’re just lucky beneficiaries of our grid-phobic colonial ancestors. The Boston Transportation Department also runs a Complete Streets initiative that “puts pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users on equal footing with motor-vehicle drivers” when designing streets.

Initiatives like that one, above all, are the National Complete Streets Coalition’s goal in releasing all this data about pedestrian safety in city streets. The report’s sponsors want Congress to pass a national Safe Streets Act, which would “require all states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) to adopt complete street policies for federally funded projects within two years, and consider the safety of all users when designing new roads or improving existing roads.”

If a city wants pedestrians to use its streets safely, it needs to consider their presence when designing them. Boston was built for people to navigate it on foot. Hundreds of years later, it’s still a good place to hoof it.