Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Child Deaths, Injuries Warrant Road Design Investigations

You may have noticed a lot of kids critically injured and killed on our roads last week. Children with green lights, in crosswalks, walking to school, walking to catch a school bus.  Boys losing their brothers.  Parents losing their children. Reading about this carnage day after day in the Sentinel is unbearable. I'm hugging my four kids a little harder every night.

A pick-up truck struck and critically injured Douglas Ethan Swayze, 10, walking in the crosswalk directly in front of his elementary school, Spruce Creek, in Port Orange.  The road is a typical 45 mph posted arterial highway engineered for 50 mph traffic.  The child had about 70 feet of pavement to cross, with no refuge island, exposing him to danger for an extended period of time. 

Taylor Road--The highway in front of Spruce Creek Elementary School (lower left-hand part of photo) in Volusia County where Douglas Swayze, 10, was struck and critically injured while walking to school in the crosswalk.  The crosswalk, in the upper center of the photo, is not lit.    
I cannot comprehend why a school board member, school planner, or official would place elementary schools on highways, where we know children will walk. 

A week earlier, in front of nearby Silver Sands Middle School, a car hit Kasey Alexander, 12, and Sarah Griffin, 11, but only injured them slightly.  The road is two-lanes, tamer, and safer compared to Taylor Road.

The two-lane road in front of Silver Sands Middle School. 
Studies find a correlation between the percentage of pedestrians who survive a collision and vehicle speed.  Billy Hattaway, VHB Miller Sellen's director of transportation planning for the State of Florida, gave me the following chart:
To summarize the chart: speed kills. 

In East Orange County last week, a motorist ran over and injured Miguel Rodriguez and killed his twin brother, Anthony Rodriguez, both 15 years old. Anothony was an English honors student and football player.  The brothers were walking to their school bus stop on the side of Valencia College Lane.  There's no sidewalk on the highway, yet that's where Orange County Public Schools designated a school bus stop.   

The Orlando Sentinel reported the family was "angered that the teens could no longer use a bus stop close to their house — accessible by a side walk. A school district spokeswoman said that bus stop is for middle school students. Anthony and Miguel couldn't use it anymore because they graduated to high school."  This terrible policy had deadly consequences.   
In Kissimmee last week, a Lynx bus ran over and injured Mark Robinson, 12, and killed his brother, Mathew Robinson, 10, walking with a green light in a crosswalk in Kissimmee.  Look at the well-rounded curb radius--about 35-40 feet--which encourages high speed vehicle turns.

The Lynx bus turned left, heading northbound on Dyer Blvd. to westbound on Columbia Avenue.  Numerous apartments are in the northeast corner.  The approximately 40 foot curb radii encourages vehicle turns exceeding 30 mph. 
Compare those curbs to those in old neighborhoods, or New York City, where curbs are more square than round.  That slows vehicle turns to speeds safer for pedestrians. 
The Dangerous by Design report came out in November 2009 and--one year later--I am hard pressed to identify substantial measures undertaken by FDOT and our local governments to improve upon our #1 in the nation pedestrian danger ranking. 

Putting aside designated sources for transportation funding, it's ironic that we can spend $70 million widening three miles of the Turnpike, $12 million tearing out part of the 429, hundreds of thousands on this and that intersection widening, and not more than a pittance making our existing roads safe for pedestrians. 

10/17/10 UPDATE: I received the following information from the Orange County Planning Department regarding $2.4 million in budgeted pedestrian safety items not in the Capital Improvement Element:
The Public Works engineering budget includes $2 million for sidewalks.  Last year the County spent $1,774,194. A safety committee meets to prioritize projects for this budget item.  Additionally, Traffic Engineering has $419,500 budgeted for FY11 for pedestrian safety. This funding is for safe routes to school. Last year the County spent $675,000 under this line item.  In addition to these line items, funding for new roads or road widenings include sidewalks, and new subdivisions are required to construct sidewalks.
I did not find any projects to redesign dysfunctional roads in the DRAFT Orange County Capital Improvements Element probably because the Element is directed to facilities needing minimum Levels of Service (e.g. levels of service for automobile flow).   It is counterintuitive that a "road diet"--removing lanes and slowing traffic--can improve a road's level of service.  However, East Central Florida Regional Planning Council executive director Phil Laurien told the Council this morning that a road diet, if done correctly, can have that effect. 

We should not single out Orange County for criticism.  Can anyone name one existing arterial or collector road elsewhere in Central Florida redesigned in the last year to slow-down motorists for the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists?

The new Town of Windermere roundabout next to the Elementary School is a notable exception.  The roundabout provides an example how a local government can keep a road safe and narrow.  Traffic tie-ups have virtually vanished while low-engineered speed traffic enables motorists and pedestrians (mostly children) to make eye contact.  Motorists then ease to a stop and wave the kids to cross.  After a Federal SAFETEA-LU grant, the roundabout will cost the Town about $120,000, according to my discussion with town manager, Cecelia Bernier.  By comparison, a traffic light would have cost the Town at least $225,000 while imposing ongoing electrical and maintenance costs. 

The time has long passed to consider sweeping reform of our road design standards, both locally and at the State level.  We need road designs sensitive to the context.  Where we know kids will walk--in front of schools and apartments--we need design standards that slow the traffic.  We need to narrow the lanes. We need landscaping that gives motorists a better sense of their speed.  We need to require lit pedestrian crossings and refuge islands.  The Institute of Transportation Engineers has published new standards for designing walkable, urban thoroughfares that warrant adoption.  The Federal Highway Administration endorses the concept.  A growing national movement advocates "complete streets," designed for all road users, not merely motorists.  Local governments take note: Federal grants opportunities are shifting in this direction, as Windermere's experience with their new roundabout demonstrates. 

Saving motorists an extra 10-15 seconds (lost at the next red traffic light) was not worth the lives of Anthony Rodriguez or Mathew Robinson.  In the meantime, official investigations into their senseless deaths and the other incidents discussed here warrant in-depth consideration of the role played by poor road design.