Walking is supposed to be one of the healthiest activities around, but unfortunately, when you add cars into the mix, it can be lethal. The Surface Transportation Policy Project’s latest “Mean Streets” report finds that walking is the most dangerous mode of transportation, per mile, and is becoming more dangerous in some areas of the United States, particularly for certain segments of the population: African-Americans, for example, make up 19 percent of pedestrian deaths, even though they represent 12.7 percent of the total population.

And walking is declining as a form of transportation; the percentage of US commuters who walked to work decreased by 24.9 percent from 1990 to 2000.

  • The most dangerous cities for folks on foot include Memphis, Atlanta, and Houston, as well as several in Florida-in other words, cities where sprawling, low-density development and wide, arterial streets have the right of way. Cities that showed the greatest improvement in pedestrian safety, included Portland, Oregon-a leader at curbing low-density sprawl that is so inhospitable to pedestrians-and Salt Lake City, which is also relatively compact. Seattle didn’t fare as well, as the P-I points out, with pedestrians making up 18.5 percent of traffic fatalities in 2003, compared to the national rate of 11.3 percent.

    The report called for greater investment in a transportation infrastructure that supports pedestrian safety and promotes walking. Even more key is encouraging cities to become more compact through policies such as Oregon’s land use laws, which have drawn a tight “girdle” around Portland’s development. Another intriguing idea is the new “shared streets” theory of traffic calming that-by limiting the separation of cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and reducing traffic controls-encourages streets to become self-regulating public spaces where pedestrians are on equal footing with slow-moving cars.