After spending decades building wide streets, Valley cities are retrofitting them to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, cut down on chronic accidents and shift to a healthier, less stressful way of life.
Phoenix, Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa have joined a national trend by shifting their design philosophy to seek transportation equality for pedestrians and bicyclists by reconfiguring streets with wider sidewalks, more landscaping, bridges and a few specialized crossings.
National and state statistics show Arizona has a chronic problem with pedestrian deaths. Phoenix ranks fourth on a list of cities with the highest percentage of pedestrian fatalities, behind New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to federal statistics.
An annual report with information supplied by Arizona cities on crashes shows little to no progress in reducing pedestrian fatalities over the past 15 years.
That toll got the attention this summer of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sponsored a national conference in Miami attended by traffic engineers representing the cities with the highest number of pedestrian deaths to share ideas about possible solutions.
Valley cities are responding in a variety of ways, both unique and mundane, to protect pedestrians and bicyclists and redesign roads to accommodate different forms of transportation.
Among the unique additions across the Valley is the HAWK, which stands for High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk. Its three lights are activated by a pedestrian in the intersection and are displayed just long enough for a pedestrian to cross. It doesn't hold up traffic as long as a conventional traffic signal.
Other efforts to make streets safer include:
Peoria widened sidewalks near several schools and installed two-stage crossings, with pedestrian refuge islands to improve safety, near three high schools. A HAWK was added near Desert Harbor Elementary School at 91st Avenue and Tumblewood Drive. Underpasses separate pedestrians and bicyclists from traffic on major roads along the New River multiuse path.
Mesa and Gilbert installed conventional streetlights where canals popular with bicyclists and joggers cross major streets. Mesa is narrowing Main Street through downtown to one lane in each direction to cut traffic and make it friendlier for pedestrians in conjunction with Metro light rail's extension. It plans to install two HAWKs to reduce pedestrian fatalities near Mesa Drive and Southern Avenue.
Tempe installed HAWKs at two Western Canal crossings: McClintock Drive and Rural Road. Tempe also widened sidewalks and added landscaping on older streets near downtown.
Glendale installed two HAWKs. One, near 63rd Avenue and Loop 101, connects with a bridge over the freeway to promote bicycle and pedestrian use along a path. The second allows pedestrians to cross from an apartment complex to a shopping center in the 6500 block of West Glendale Avenue. Glendale High School is also nearby.
Scottsdale widened sidewalks and moved them farther away from the curb. Bicycle and pedestrian paths include numerous tunnels and bridges over canals. Four HAWKs protect pedestrians crossing wide roads for shopping and equestrian trails in north Scottsdale.
Valley cities still lag Tucson, which has made a science of pedestrian safety and attracted national acclaim from a federal study for pioneering the HAWK.
Valley cities combined have 24 HAWKs in use or planned, while Tucson has more than 100 after inventing them 12 years ago and using a transit tax to pay for them.
Engineers say they are doing the best they can with the money they have as they try balancing pedestrian safety with traffic flow.
"I think there is a recognition that to have a more sustainable community, you have to have less reliance on the automobile," said Kay Fitzpatrick, senior research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute who authored a July 2010 study that showed the HAWK reduced pedestrian collisions by 69 percent.
Jamsheed Mehta, Glendale's transportation director, said the HAWK is expensive and defeats the synchronized traffic lights that help traffic flow, but "safety comes first. The HAWK is a solution."
Arizona's bleak pedestrian-fatality statistics show residents have reason to fear crossing major streets.
Crash Facts, an annual report on highway crashes produced by the Arizona Department of Transportation, recorded 153 pedestrians killed statewide in 1997, 166 killed in 2001 and 154 killed in 2011.
Nationally, pedestrian fatalities dropped from 5,321 in 1997 to 4,280 in 2010, a 19.5 percent decrease, according to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The overall traffic-fatality rate dropped from 15.69 per 100,000 population in 1997 to 10.63 in 2010.
"There has to be mutual respect between pedestrians and vehicles," said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, adding that he sees numerous examples of both motorists and pedestrians ignoring good safety practices every day. "We are all to blame for the lack of respect."
Police should follow the policy set by Mesa this summer by ticketing jaywalkers who ignore traffic signals and cross midblock, a dangerous practice because drivers often don't see pedestrians in unpredictable locations and are frequently accelerating, Gutier said.
He said distracted drivers who are talking on their cellphones or reading their e-mail are also responsible for fatalities. And statistics show that many drivers and pedestrians also are impaired by alcohol or drugs.
Gutier is planning to meet this week with ADOT and the Arizona Department of Public Safety after noticing a disturbing uptick in all Arizona highway fatalities from 2010 to 2011, a pattern that has continued during the first six months of 2012.
Laura Douglas, an ADOT spokeswoman, said her agency is in the process of updating its bicycle- and pedestrian-safety plan.
"This is why we have a bicycle- and pedestrian-safety plan, not just to improve infrastructure but to improve safety," Douglas said.
Kerry Wilcoxon, head of Phoenix's safety and neighborhood traffic section, said pedestrians frustrate the cities' efforts to protect them.
"Sometimes, you will see pedestrians in the middle of a median, talking on their cellphone. They have no situational awareness," he said.
In Phoenix, pedestrian deaths rose to 45 in 2010 from 36 in 2009, according to the latest available statistics.
"We would like to get to zero," said Wylie Bearup, director of Phoenix's Street Transportation Department.
In 2010, Phoenix's overall crashes were at a 20-year low, and pedestrian crashes also dropped. But the percentage of fatalities involving pedestrians is rising, with most of those occurring midblock, according to Phoenix statistics.
Although pedestrians were involved in only 2.2 percent of crashes, they account for 41.7 percent of all fatal crashes.
With the increase of awareness when it comes to pedestrian accidents in Arizona, it makes sense that cities would come together in helping eachother keep pedestrians safe. As a Phoenix Pedestrian Accident Lawyer, these statistics can be very alarming to see. The best way to combat this, is with awareness amongst both drivers and also pedestrians. The aid of specialized cross-walks will also continue to play a major role in keeping our streets safe.