Pedestrians: be safe, flock to Portland!

In the past 6 years pedestrian crash rates have fallen by 38 percent, according to a report on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The decline is especially impressive because there are likely more pedestrians today because more people (32 percent more) are using Portland’s public transit. And similarly, while the number of bicyclist injuries has remained fairly constant, the total number of cyclists has gone up so that, on average, bicyclists are safer than they were 6 years ago.

Crash rates don’t increase directly in line with walking and biking rates because there’s safety in numbers. A study that looked at walking, biking, and crash rates in several cities found that individual pedestrians and cyclists are safer when traveling in cities with greater numbers of pedestrians and cyclists. The study’s authors estimated that if the number of pedestrians were doubled, then the total number of pedestrian injuries would increase by only a third, but the rate of pedestrian injuries would actually decrease by a third. The theory is that the more often drivers encounter walkers, the more they expect to encounter them, and the more cautiously they drive.

Of course, infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as traffic regulations and customs, also greatly affect safety. I suspect that Portland’s reductions are due to both safety in numbers and infrastructure improvements because the number of car crashes dropped as well. But it seems as though investments in pedestrian and cyclist safety could generate a feedback loop of benefits: if a city increases safety with better intersections and more bike lanes, then more people feel safe to walk and bike, so walking and biking become even safer, so more people feel safe to walk and bike. Eventually it would reach a plateau, of course, but we have a long way to go to match pedestrian rates in other countries.