Urban Pedestrians Tire Of Walking on the Wild Side

A few years back, Tom Toronto had just wheeled his infant son's stroller into a downtown crosswalk when a car came barreling through the intersection.

"He never even hit the brakes," says Mr. Toronto, who was inspired to run for Leonia, N.J.'s town council and has made pedestrian safety his mantra. "In California, you step off the curb and people slow down. Here, they speed up."

But its not just in New Jersey that pedestrians find themselves the Davids in daily battles with the 3,000-pound Goliaths of the road.

According to a report called "Mean Streets: Pedestrian Safety and Reform of the Nation's Transportation Laws," more than 6,100 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents each year between 1986 and 1995 - the equivalent of a commercial airline crash every 11 days.

The study by the Environmental Working Group and Surface Transportation Policy Project blamed a transportation system that serves cars but considers pedestrians "impediments." While pedestrians account for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, just 1 percent of federal highway funds go to pedestrian safety.

The study also found that the safest cities for pedestrians include Boston and New York, where there are so many walkers that the statistical probability of being hit by a car is lower.

The most dangerous places are newer, sprawling cities that have limited mass-transit systems and are "biased toward the car," such as Atlanta, Miami, and Dallas. Three of the five most dangerous are in Florida, home to a large number of seniors, who account for 23 percent of all pedestrian fatalities but only 13 percent of the population.

But there's a growing cadre of people who are helping their cities fight back.

Leonia, which is a mile from the busy George Washington Bridge, is now building and widening sidewalks, restriping crosswalks, retiming traffic lights to favor pedestrians, and redesigning the dangerous downtown intersection where Toronto and son narrowly escaped being hit. Other efforts include a flashing electronic sign that tells drivers how fast they're going and plans for speed bumps and rumble strips in residential neighborhoods.

Leonia is one of a growing number of communities where phrases like "traffic calming" and "pedestrian friendly" are finding their way into the civic lexicon.

In Seattle and nearby Portland, Ore., pedestrian accidents plummeted after the cities built speed bumps on local streets and islands in the middle of four-way intersections to slow down residential traffic. Bike lanes have encouraged people to leave their cars in the garage.

The Conservation Law Foundation in Boston has published a guidebook, "Take Back Your Streets," full of tips on how other cities can corral their traffic.

EVEN New York City is trying to tame its notoriously aggressive drivers with a safety effort launched last year. One Brooklyn intersection now has sensors in the crosswalk that, when activated by a pedestrian, trigger a warning light and blow a loud horn to alert drivers.

The new efforts appear to be working, Mr. Orcutt says. In 1990, 364 pedestrians were killed in New York City. Last year the total fell to 250.

Even in the nation's densest state, there are continued signs of change. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman recently appointed a Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocate and added $1 million to the state's transportation budget for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

Toronto says he's still wary about crossing streets. He even looks both ways before going through a green light in his car. But he thinks the pedestrian-friendly movement is on an upswing, which is important for communities that want to protect their quality of life.

"We're so trained to think about roads and cars that we forget to think about roads and people."

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