Over the weekend I was hit by a car, and it provides me with a good opportunity to talk about safety in numbers that cyclists and pedestrians create and how streetscapes and development patterns contribute to safety.
Let me setup what happened. I took the Greyhound from Missoula to Coeur d' Alene (CDA) Saturday morning to visit my folks. There is no physical transfer station in CDA, rather the bus drops you off at a gas station that sits at the corner of a large intersection (Ramesy and Appleway) where two four-lane arterials meet (total of 22 lanes at the intersection).
Anyway, the bus dropped me off at a different location than the Greyhound website gave for the (nonexistent) station. My father was coming to pick me up, but since he doesn't have a cell phone there was no way to get a hold of him, so I decided to walk north along the western side of Ramsey to find a good place to wave him down as he came to pick me up.
Two blocks later I was crossing the intersection below, which is an old picture as the intersection now has a four-way light, within the cross walk while a car was waiting for an opening to turn right-on-red. I walked out in front of his car, attempting to make eye contact because I could sense he was ready to hit the gas to make an opening, but he was looking the other direction. Needless to say he hit the gas and ran right into me. Luckily he immediately stopped and I wasn't hurt other than a small bruise on my leg.
This incident got me thinking how ridiculous the incident was. Living in Missoula, I have walked hundreds, perhaps even a thousand miles around town over the course of seven years. In that time I have never been hit by a car... I don't even remember having a close call. But here I am, back in the town I grew up in, and five minutes after stepping off the bus I am hit be a car.
The whole time I lived in CDA, I never once got around by walking or biking, rather the only real way to get around is by car. Seven years of walking in Missoula = no problem, five minutes of walking in CDA = getting hit by a car. Missoula and CDA are also fairly close in terms of population size.
Why is this? Because of not only the streetscape that dominates in CDA (suburban arterials with speeds above 35 mph) but also the development pattern that essentially forced those types of roadways to be built.
You can see these patterns at play in the photo of CDA below. I have highlighted all the four lane arterials (red corresponding to suburban arterial design and yellow representing four lane roads with an urban character). CDA is a maze of suburban subdivisions that are only connected to the wider community through the use of a lot of arterials. Only a small portion of CDA (which also includes the towns of Dalton Gardens, Hayden, and Hayden Lake) actually has a street network laid out in a grid. This pattern results in a very spread out population with very low densities (Dalton Gardens is zoned at 1 house/acre).
Because people have to drive everywhere and there are almost no pedestrians or cyclists, the motorists don't look out for these types of people. Those whom do walk or bike are mostly a working-poor underclass -except for the roadies - that most suburbanites don't spend any time thinking of between trips to Starbucks, work, and dropping the kids off at soccer practice.
Now contrast this with Missoula (a photo with the same types of streets highlighted can be seen below). The bulk of Missoula is based on a grid system and subdivisions with a suburban character only exist at the fringes of the town. Not only that, but the most of the four lane roads that Missoula does have exist within areas that are urban in character (higher densities, tree lined streets, sidewalks, smaller lot setbacks, and slower speeds). The four lane suburban arterials are located again mostly at the edges of Missoula and so cyclists and pedestrians can largely avoid these roads by choosing quieter streets.
Also consider the the geographic distance these two photos show. The photo of Missoula covers most of the town and most of the town's population. The photo is 3.5 miles x 3.5 miles while the photo of CDA shows an area 7.5 miles x 7.5 miles that leaves out a considerable amount of development to the north. Missoula's compact nature encourages alternative transportation simply through its shorter distances.
The higher densities, shorter distances, and more welcoming streetscape encourages people to walk and bike. In much of the central part of Missoula you can't go more than a couple of blocks without seeing another pedestrian or cyclist. Just the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists using Missoula streets makes motorists more aware of them and creates a situation where motorists must constantly be on the lookout. This creates a Safety in Numbers phenomenon whereby the more cyclists and pedestrians out on the roads, the less absolute fatalities and crash cars have with cyclists and pedestrians.
Describing what had happened, even my very conservative father understood the relationship between development patterns, streets, and mode of travel. In his opinion, and I have to agree with him, CDA is a town that will never see a lot of people walking, biking, or using transit simply because the towns infrastructure makes those options economically difficult and even dangerous.
26 minutes ago