Aug 1, 2022 - News

Map: Where pedestrians are being killed on Charlotte’s streets

East Boulevard (left) and Clanton Road (right), where one side of the road has no sidewalk. Photos: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

Crossing from East Boulevard to West Boulevard, there’s an immediate shift in pedestrian infrastructure: the sidewalk grows narrower and closer to traffic, the crosswalks farther and farther apart, and the pace of traffic picks up.

From 2008 to 2020, there were no pedestrian deaths on East Boulevard. On and around West Boulevard, there were five.

What’s happening: Charlotte is spending millions to try to accomplish Vision Zero, the city’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries.

  • However, a new study shows that more pedestrians are being killed on Charlotte area streets and most pedestrian fatalities are in Charlotte’s crescent of poverty, in the west, north and east of the city.

By the numbers: A new report from nonprofit Smart Growth America, “Dangerous by Design,” reveals there were 265 pedestrian deaths from 2016 to 2020 in the Charlotte metro area. There are an average of 2.04 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people annually, an increase of 0.42 from the five year averages for 2011 to 2015. That ranks the area as the 44th most deadly for pedestrians out of 101 metros.

  • The streets are becoming more dangerous despite an increase in pedestrian traffic during the pandemic: from 2019 to 2020, the number of daily walking trips surged 58% in the region.

Why it matters: Charlotte leaders want more people to walk, bike and take transit to reduce emissions and lessen congestion as the city grows. But to do so, there needs to be infrastructure in place that allows people to get around safely.

  • And the city must contend with how to undo decades of planning decisions that left neighborhoods of color behind in the construction of essential infrastructure like sidewalks.

Data:  Smart Growth America; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

State of play: During COVID-19, fewer cars were on the road, which led drivers to think “that the road was theirs and they could do what they wanted,” says Lieutenant Jonathan Wally, with the transportation division of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. And courts were closed, which meant that drivers didn’t feel the immediate financial impact of a speeding ticket, for example.

  • But even as people return to work and get in their cars or walk more, some drivers have maintained those habits, he says.
  • CMPD focuses its enforcement efforts on what is known as the High Injury Network, the streets where fatal and serious injury crashes occur, including pedestrian fatalities.

Wally said Charlotte’s streets were not designed to withstand the city’s growth which has brought both more drivers, and more pedestrians and bicyclists.

Flashback: Much of Charlotte was built between the 1950s to ’80s, when developers were not required to construct sidewalks, Ely Portillo, assistant director for outreach and strategic partnership at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, tells Axios.

When historian Tom Hanchett first moved to Charlotte, he noticed streets with dirt paths alongside them: they were streets without sidewalks. UNC Charlotte history professor David Goldfield told him: “You can tell where the Black neighborhoods are, that’s where the sidewalks end and the streetlights end,” Hanchett recalls.

What’s more, highways were built through Black neighborhoods, forcing residents to cross dangerous roads to access essential services. You may have seen people dashing across Independence Boulevard, for example.

  • “We made a lot of mistakes in the past in planning both land use and transportation in Charlotte,” says Meg Fencil, director of engagement and impact with nonprofit Sustain Charlotte. “And now we know that population growth is coming to Charlotte, we have an opportunity to do better in the next decade.”

The solutions: The city is spending more to build infrastructure like sidewalks, barriers in the middle of the road, signalized crossings and pedestrian hybrid beacons (the mid-block crosswalks with the flashing lights), all of which can help reduce fatalities, says Angela Berry, traffic safety program manager for the Charlotte Department of Transportation.

  • This November, the city will ask voters to approve a bond for $226 million, $146 million of which will go toward transportation. That includes $50 million for the sidewalk safety program, more than triple the 2020 bond funding of $15 million.

Yes, but: Infrastructure is expensive, and the problem’s cost likely reaches the billions.

  • More than 250 miles of city streets lack sidewalks on one side of the road, per Charlotte’s Strategic Mobility Plan, which City Council approved in late June.
  • Building sidewalks costs between $4 million and $8 million per mile, according to a presentation given to council during a March budget workshop.

“We’re playing catch up,” Berry tells me. “When you live in a city that built itself on an automobile culture for the better part of 50 years … Now we want to be a great walkable city, bicycle-friendly city. It means retrofitting our existing infrastructure.”

Plus, even as the mindset is starting to shift away from that car culture, Berry says some citizens are still opposed to pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvements because they prioritize quick drives.

Map courtesy city of Charlotte.

What they’re saying: Social justice advocate Rev. Janet Garner-Mullins lives in Clanton Park, near West Boulevard. Only part of one of the main streets in her neighborhood, Clanton Road, has sidewalks.

When Garner-Mullins, who is a member of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Coalition, read about a child who was hit and killed by a car elsewhere in the city, she remembered thinking, the same thing could have happened on West Boulevard.

And it has. In 2016, 11-year-old Ty’Asia Young was struck and killed by a vehicle on West Boulevard while walking home from the convenience store.

  • In a 2018 video interview with the Observer, as Young’s mother discusses the need for a stoplight, a pedestrian can be seen in the background, balancing on the double yellow lines. Ty’Asia was doing the same thing, and was killed when she tried to cross.

Disparate impact: Axios analyzed the 196 pedestrian fatalities in the city (we looked at the Charlotte data with the report’s analysis of the region, which is why the number is lower). There were a large number of deaths in 2019 and 2020 where the race of the person was not reported, so we excluded those from our analysis of the racial breakdown.

  • Black residents make up nearly half of pedestrians killed on Charlotte streets from 2008 to 2018, but 35.5% of the city’s population.

Garner-Mullins says the city needs to do more than make band-aid fixes when there’s public pressure.

“It’s just like a generational curse,” she says. “Until proper infrastructure, adequate and equitable infrastructure is put in place across the city, you’re going to continue to see generation after generation of people of color getting killed because nothing has been done to change the complexities of it.”

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