WASHINGTON – Byron Thames,former head doctor at Disney World,said the Magic Kingdom is a great place for people to walk. He only wishes the same could be said for the rest of Orlando.
Florida is home to the nation's four most dangerous metropolitan areas for pedestrians,with Orlando topping the list,according to a study released Thursday. The next most treacherous areas are Tampa-St. Petersburg,West Palm Beach and Miami.
The Surface Transportation Policy Project study is based on government data and academic research for 2002 and 2003. The group has conducted the study every two years for the last decade.
Rounding out the list of the 10 worst cities are Memphis; Atlanta; Greensboro-Winston Salem,N.C.; Houston; Jacksonville,Fla.; and Phoenix-Mesa,Ariz.
Boston,Pittsburgh,Cleveland and the greater New York City area are the safest for pedestrians.
While some places,such as Salt Lake City,have made great strides in pedestrian safety since 1994,walking is becoming more dangerous in 30 of the nation's 50 biggest metropolitan areas,the study warns.
“The streets are already too mean,” said STPP President Anne Canby. “And,as we see in regions with the fastest growing populations,many are getting meaner.”
Since 1994,the pedestrian fatality rate has declined almost 13 percent,the study notes. “That doesn't mean that our streets are safer,” Canby said,noting that the number of people walking to work has decreased at a greater rate.
Almost 5,000 pedestrians nationwide died in traffic accidents in 2003,the report says.
Trying to ease rush hour traffic congestion,cities with urban sprawl have built roads that are unsafe for pedestrians,said Paul Farmer,executive director of the American Planning Association.
Farmer calls it “dumb growth” – wide streets with high speed limits,few stop lights and even fewer crosswalks. Such development is conducive to cars,but not public transportation,walking or cycling,he said.
That's what happened in Orlando,said Thames,a city resident since 1958. A state road that serves as a main artery into the city causes most of the problems,he said.
In the suburbs,the speed limit is 45 to 50 mph and “there are no street lights,just a few crosswalks,no median strips and double left-turn lanes,where you can turn either way,” he said. “That makes it a very deadly place.”
An AARP board member,Thames,74,is especially concerned with Florida's pedestrian safety problem because walking is an essential way for elderly people to exercise. It's the only way for some to get around because they can longer drive,he said.
According to the study,people older than 70 made up 17 percent of pedestrians killed in auto accidents,but they represent only 9 percent of the national population.
“This statistic is as shocking as it is unacceptable,” Thames said.
Many people might not consider walking safety an important issue,but it is to Georges C. Benjamin,executive director of the American Public Health Association.
An emergency room doctor for more than 10 years in Washington and Maryland,Benjamin said he can't recall how many injured pedestrians he's treated,but the number is high enough to make the issue significant.
He described the hardest part of that job: informing family members of the condition of a victim who's been hit by a car. In the best-case scenario,Benjamin would tell them that their relative sustained severe injuries and is in critical condition.
“But far too many times,the story is more sad than that,” he said. “Their loved one has died.”