On one side of Lafayette Street are the J.C. Napier Homes, the public housing project that sits between Lewis Street and Charles E. Davis Boulevard. On the other are the Cee Bee Food Store, the Wishe Washe Coin Laundry and other obvious destinations for the many pedestrians who live across the street. On some days, particularly just before dusk with the sun dead ahead, driving toward downtown on Lafayette is like a troublingly real version of Frogger: pedestrians cross the street in random intervals and drivers must try to avoid them.
In a sort of reverse, pedestrians along some sections of Harding Place headed toward the intersection with Nolensville Pike and the many restaurants and stores in the area — the Walmart Supercenter being the biggest — often must walk on the shoulder of the road or in the grass alongside it in lieu of sidewalks.
And joggers in Green Hills at times tempt fate by running along and across the patchwork of that unique streetscape.
While Nashville has made strides in improving pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists over the past few years, the city still has a long way to go, according to advocates for improving walking and biking conditions in Music City.
Last week, attorney and president of Walk/Bike Nashville David Kleinfelter drew attention to a recent study by Transportation for America that ranked Nashville as the 14th most dangerous large metro area for pedestrians out of the 54 largest cities. Memphis, by comparison, landed at No. 7.
The report, titled Dangerous by Design 2011, comes at a time when Transportation for America is urging Congress to include funding in the next federal transportation spending bill for safe walking and bicycle routes, for the completion of street networks as well as the connection of bikeways and sidewalks, and the adoption of a national “complete streets” policy that accounts for all users — from public transit riders to drivers to pedestrians to bicyclists to the disabled.
Muddying Nashville’s ranking is the fact that the data area in the study includes Franklin and Murfreesboro. The total population of that area, according to the study, was about 1.6 million people in 2009. Davidson County’s population is closer to 630,000, and its urban profile is quite different from the other two.
According to the study, 204 pedestrian fatalities occurred in that Davidson County-Franklin-Murfreesboro area from 2000 to 2009. Over the same time period, 131 pedestrians were killed in Davidson County — 14.9 percent of the total number of traffic deaths, according to the report.
In Tennessee, the number of African-American and Hispanic deaths per 100,000 people between 2000 and 2007 was nearly double that of non-Hispanic whites. Children and older adults also saw higher numbers of pedestrian deaths.
The reasons for more pedestrian fatalities in certain areas vary. In some areas, a high volume of pedestrian traffic — some walk for convenience, some out of necessity — may be facing roads with no sidewalks, crosswalks or pedestrian signals.
But it isn’t all about the civic engineering. Even if those safety measures are in place, it doesn’t mean people will use them instead of darting across streets mid-block or into an intersection mid-green light. Part of increasing pedestrian safety could fall to educating pedestrians, or even police clamping down on enforcement of laws that go largely unconsidered.
The concern of Transportation for America is that more people taking to the streets by foot or bike, encouraged by health benefits or even economic issues, may exacerbate potential dangers if the federal government doesn’t provide funding for state and local governments to engineer more multimodal streetscapes.
The next version of a federal transportation spending bill is something the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is watching closely. The MPO — chaired by Mayor Karl Dean and composed of city and county leaders from Davidson County and most of its surrounding counties — prioritizes projects to distribute federal funds to supplement state and local dollars.
The MPO’s latest update to its long-range Regional Transportation Plan, adopted in December, includes a significant shift in funding policy, to the Urban Surface Transportation Program funds for which urban areas within the MPO will be able to compete. Now, the funding plan sets aside 15 percent (where there had been none) of the total USTP funds (about $16.4 million for 2011-2015, after prior commitments) for “active transportation enhancements,” such as for walking and biking.
Also, the majority of the funds (70 percent) will be awarded to urban areas in the MPO based on how well their plans meet objectives that encourage multimodal transportation.
Mark Macy, director of engineering for Metro Public Works, said the department has added 150 to 200 miles of sidewalks (bringing the total close to 1,000 miles) and 135 miles of bike lanes in the past 10 years.
Kleinfelter suggested it could take a sea change in the engineering field to displace old philosophies that he said harbor the idea of pedestrians and bicyclists as mere “obstacles” in the path of free-flowing vehicle traffic.
But Macy said engineering regulations at every level — local to federal — have always taken into account safety for all modes of transportation. And, Macy said, with Metro’s 2010-2011 fiscal year capital spending plan allotting $12.5 million for sidewalks (double the historical average of $6 million a year), and another $3 million for bikeways (historical average: $118,000 a year), things are looking up.
Kleinfelter praised Dean’s efforts so far in his administration. In October, the mayor signed the “complete streets” executive order, stating, “The Metropolitan Government desires to support and encourage a transportation system that is safe and convenient for all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation through the development of Complete Streets.”
(Requests to speak to representatives of Dean’s own Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee were redirected by the mayor’s office to Metro Public Works.)
Dean “gets it,” Kleinfelter said, because he’s out there walking and biking, too. The 28th Avenue Connector, for which Metro set aside $18 million dollars of the capital-spending plan, is an example of the city heading in the right direction, he said.
The “28th [Avenue Connector] is going to be a complete street,” Kleinfelter said. “My concern is … the mayor has said everything had to be a complete street. I think I still have concerns about whether the importance of that is trickling down to every project that the city’s engineers have any oversight over.”
Still, as Kleinfelter sees it, “We’ve got a big hole to dig out of,” adding that the report on dangerous metropolitan areas for pedestrians is a little misleading.
“The message isn’t that it’s unsafe, so don’t walk or bike,” Kleinfelter said. “The message is people are walking and biking more, which is necessary for their own health, for the environment — heck, for economic reasons.”
And so funding and proper design may now be more important than ever.