Walking in Florida: Is it really that dangerous?

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Last month, as reported in NPR and elsewhere, SmartGrowth America, a self-described “national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for and leading coalitions to bring smart growth practices to more communities nationwide”[1], released a study which used what it called a “Pedestrian Danger Index,” or PDI to calculate the most dangerous metropolitan areas for walking in the United States.  Included in the top twenty (20) most dangerous areas were nine (9) “metropolitan areas” in Florida.

At first glance, residents, government officials and tourists were understandably horrified and wondered why walking is so dangerous in most of Florida and what could be done about it?  However, a deeper look at the study reveals some information that suggests that Florida is not so fraught with danger as the study suggests.

First of all, comparing all the “metropolitan areas” located in Florida with those metropolitan areas which include large cities is not an accurate comparison.  The Florida metropolitan areas ranked 1, 2, 5, 6 and 10 on the list are not urban.  If pedestrians are hit by cars these metro areas, it may not be in an area that could be considered a downtown in one of the many cities that comprise these areas.  For example, our area, Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, Fla., is ranked fifth on the list.  There are approximately 500,000 people in Volusia County, in which the metro area is located.  However, the area encompasses 1,432 miles, 1101 of which are land (the rest are water.)  Much of the center, northwest and southern parts of the County are rural and sparsely populated.  Therefore, the population is concentrated in the eastern part of the County and in the southwestern part of the County.

To the contrary, some of the other metropolitan areas included in the study are urban environments, such as major cities, or areas which include at least one large city.  The study obtained its definitions from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  The OMB includes in its definition of the term “metropolitan area” what it calls Metropolitan Statistical Areas.  “Metropolitan statistical areas consist of the county or counties (or equivalent entities) associated with at least one urbanized area of at least 50,000 population, plus adjacent counties having a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured through commuting ties.”  https://www.census.gov/population/metro/data/glossary.html.  Therefore, based on the use of these definitions, the study looked at broad, geographic areas in determining the rate of pedestrian danger.

Why does that definition affect the survey results?  It affects the results because it includes deaths that occur in rural areas or along roads that are not meant for pedestrian traffic.  In a true urban environment, pedestrian traffic is expected and city planners include such traffic in their calculations.  In a rural or suburban area, where there are no sidewalks, understandably, planning for pedestrian traffic is not a priority.  Likewise, highways such as I-95 or state roads such as State Road 44, where the speed limits are in the range of 55-70 miles per hour, are not intended for pedestrians.

Therefore, although there are parts of truly urban environments in Florida that are dangerous, using the definitions and comparisons from the study result in the misleading conclusion that walking is not safe in Florida.

As for the urban environments in Florida that are, in fact, dangerous to pedestrians, we suggest that those environments should be divided into two categories and addressed accordingly.

First, for poor neighborhoods and communities of color, the urban environments in which the most vulnerable pedestrians live, planners need to address infrastructure issues which result in such unsafe conditions for walking, if, it is the unsafe conditions that are causing the danger, rather than, for example, impaired drivers or residents.  A cursory review of some of the locations along US 1 in Daytona Beach, a commercial, low-income thoroughfare, indicates that those locations coincide with the locations where illegal activity and homelessness are problematic.

Second, as Florida is a destination for tourists from all over the world, pedestrians who are not familiar with the area, become vulnerable.  Walking along A1A in the dark or crossing major thoroughfares such as International Drive in Orlando, that are not intended for pedestrian traffic, puts tourists at risk, as do language and cultural barriers.  Appropriate signage, sidewalks and crosswalks can go a long way to protect these pedestrians.

[1] https://smartgrowthamerica.org/about-us/

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