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Calif. city takes steps to curb pedestrian deaths

Blacks and Latinos disproportionately hit by cars because they walk more, live in less pedestrian-friendly zones

SANTA ANA, Calif. — After the dismissal bells ring at the five schools along a stretch of Broadway Avenue, throngs of teens, tweens, young children and parents pour out onto the streets and crossings.

Near Civic Center Plaza, a sprawling downtown complex of county and city buildings, pedestrians cross Santa Ana Boulevard and crowd the many bus stops along the way.

At a corner of Pomona Street, a supermarket draws a steady flow of pedestrians.

People walk here, and most of them are Latinos, reflecting the city’s dominant population.

But it is California, after all, and people also drive. In cities such as Santa Ana, a dense city of about 330,000 people, the threat of cars hitting people is heightened in neighborhoods designed more for drivers than walkers.

A recent report on pedestrian fatalities found that people of color suffer disproportionately from traffic deaths.

The most obvious reason for high rates of pedestrian fatalities among minorities is that they walk more, many out of necessity.

According to the National Household Travel Survey, whites make less than 10 percent of all trips on foot, compared with 12 percent for blacks and more than 14 percent for Hispanics.

“I suspect that part of the reason that racial and ethnic minorities also are disproportionately represented is that they live along those arterial boulevards with strip malls along the way,” said Michelle Ernst, of Ernst Transportation Analytics, who analyzed data for Smart Growth America’s recent Dangerous by Design 2014 report.

As more minorities settle in suburbs that were designed to move people in cars rather than on foot, pedestrian deaths rise. Hispanics make up just over 15 percent of the U.S. population but are victims of almost 19 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Less than 13 percent of the population is black, yet more than 17 percent of people who are struck dead while walking are black.

The research found that from 2003 through 2012, more than 47,000 people died while walking on America’s streets, 16 times more than the number who died in natural disasters.

In 2012, pedestrians accounted for nearly 15 percent of all traffic deaths, a five-year high.

“Every day, most of the people walk their kids to school,” said Irma Macias, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Santa Ana for 40 years and has become a community activist. “The cars are going really fast, and that’s why there are fatalities … They fly through neighborhoods.”

Twice, Macias said, she asked the city to install speed bumps on her street in Mid-City. Twice she was rejected.

“They say my street doesn’t qualify,” she said. “They can come right now and see the skid marks in front of my house.”

They say my street doesn’t qualify [for speed bumps]. They can come right now and see the skid marks in front of my house.

Irma Macias

Santa Ana resident

Pedestrian awareness grows

Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez is well aware of the danger for a city whose population of Latinos is close to 80 percent. The city has 56 of Orange County’s 100 busiest bus stops.

In 2010 and 2011, 13 pedestrians died in Santa Ana, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Eight were Hispanic, ranging from age 3 to 76.

Only eight of 34 cities in Orange County have bike/walk master plans. Santa Ana is drafting one.

“We’re always going to be at the top of the list, not because we’re not doing our job but because of how many people walk,” said Martinez, director of the Alliance for a Healthy Orange County, who sits on various regional commissions. “I don’t believe it has anything to do with color. It’s just density.”

As more people walk, awareness of the danger has risen nationally and funding for road redesigns and pedestrian safety efforts has begun to open up. New developments are paying more attention to the needs of walkers and bikers. But older, dense neighborhoods are where many minorities live.

In May the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to back or sponsor state legislation that would generate a California-wide alert system for fatal hit-and-run crashes — a system similar to Amber Alerts used in child abductions.

Last year, California passed the Active Transportation Program to encourage active modes of transit and to make walking and biking safer. In 2011, pedestrians and bicyclists made up 53 percent of all fatal and severe-injury hit-and-run collisions statewide. 

The program will open up $360 million to California communities, and “at least 25 percent of the funds are supposed to go to disadvantaged communities,” said Tony Dang, deputy director of California Walks, a nonprofit pedestrian advocacy group.

A survey by Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, shows that the percentage of daily trips Californians make on foot or bike has doubled over the past decade to 16 percent, he said.

Communities from New York to California have embraced Vision Zero, a Swedish program that sets a goal of zero traffic deaths involving pedestrians and bikers in 10 years.

“But there’s very little of our transportation money that goes to support these modes,” Dang said. “Less than 1 percent goes to biking and walking. It really demonstrates how disproportionately pedestrians are [under]represented.”

Santa Ana has applied for 10 grants totaling $6.1 million from the new Active Transportation Program.

“Santa Ana is experiencing a renaissance in how they’re approaching street design,” Dang said. “It comes from a long history of pretty terrible rankings. Santa Ana is No. 1 in the state for pedestrian fatalities and injuries for children under 15.”

Santa Ana is experiencing a renaissance in how they’re approaching street design. It comes from a long history of pretty terrible rankings.

Tony Dang

Deputy director of California Walks

Safer by design

More funding continues to be available for roads and cars than for sidewalks and people, but Santa Ana’s public works engineers say they have used every resource possible to improve pedestrian safety.

Santa Ana, the seat of Orange County, is ending the second year of a three-year pedestrian outreach program for schoolchildren, parents and neighborhoods.

About five to six times a month, traffic engineers go to meetings in some of the city’s 63 neighborhoods.

Last year, Santa Ana installed radar feedback signs along four main thoroughfares that flash the speed at which cars are traveling — a method proven to slow down speeding drivers.

“We’re planning on doing it citywide,” said Francisco Orellana, senior engineer.

Nationally, speed is the leading cause of preventable deaths, according to the Smart Growth America report. At 20 mph, the risk of death to a person on foot struck by a vehicle is 6 percent. At 30 mph, that risk is three times greater. At 45 mph, the risk of death is 65 percent — 11 times greater than at 20 mph. When struck by a car going 50 mph, pedestrians’ fatality rates are 75 percent and injury rates are more than 90 percent.

Gradually, illustrations are being added to traffic signs throughout Santa Ana to overcome language barriers.

“We use illustrations wherever it’s allowed,” said Zdenek “Zed” Kekula, senior civil engineer for the city.

“We’re the largest Latino district in California, and eight years ago we did not have Spanish translation at council meetings,” Martinez said.

Today, all seven council members are Latinos, but only four speak Spanish.

Kekula and Orellana proudly point to the bulb-outs they have added to major thoroughfares. A bulb-out is a curb extension that narrows traffic lanes at pedestrian crosswalks, forcing traffic to slow down and reducing the walking distance from one sidewalk to the other.

Then there are the road diets that remove one lane in each direction and sometimes add a bike lane. And there are added midblock crossings for walkers.

“There really seems to be a more concerted effort at the national, state and local levels,” Kekula said.

In the state capital, WalkSacramento is focusing its advocacy on schools in low-income areas.

“That’s where you have the highest number of people walking and biking,” said Terri Duarte, executive director of the nonprofit community organization. “There have been a number of crosswalks painted, stop signs installed, sidewalks installed.”

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to speed up response. Michelle Murigi, a 16-year-old high school student, was struck and killed by a driver at a crosswalk near West Campus High School in January 2012. Murigi’s classmates launched a petition drive, and the city and school district agreed to share the $400,000 needed to install traffic signals in the south Sacramento neighborhood. They went up last month.

“It does seem like lower-income areas receive less transportation funding for improvements,” Duarte said.

Macias agreed.

“For some reason, we haven’t been able to get what we ask for,” she said.

Traffic engineers say that has more to do with funding and regulations. But Santa Ana residents see safety measures that have been in place in wealthier areas for years. In the Floral Park neighborhood, traffic can enter only one way and exit another, reducing traffic on Santa Clara Avenue. But even those changes were not greeted warmly by some residents who found them to be an inconvenience.

And Macias admits that, often, pedestrians are at fault and there are not enough police to enforce the law.

“It’s cultural, but at least they have to know where to cross and where it’s safe to cross,” Macias said of more recent immigrants.

“I don’t think because we’re a minority city we’re more dangerous,” Martinez said. “I truly believe it has nothing to do with the color of your skin.”

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