Life-sav­ing tran­sit

Our view: Re­duc­ing high­way deaths can start with of­fer­ing vi­able pub­lic trans­porta­tion al­ter­na­tives

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The lat­est ac­count­ing of car­nage on the na­tion’s high­ways should be set­ting off alarms — and caus­ing greater in­vest­ment in safer modes of travel. U.S. high­way fa­tal­i­ties rose to 35,092 in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est National High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­count­ing re­leased in Au­gust, a 7.2 per­cent in­crease from the year be­fore and the big­gest jump in 50 years.

Ex­perts have of­fered any num­ber of ex­pla­na­tions for this, from lower gaso­line prices and more con­gested roads to dis­tracted driv­ers in the smart­phone era, as well as the usual cul­prits, speed­ing and drunk driv­ing. But what makes the trend espe­cially trou­bling is that fed­eral and state au­thor­i­ties have been work­ing on this prob­lem for decades — cars have more safety features, EMT work­ers and hos­pi­tal emer­gency rooms are bet­ter equipped for trauma pa­tients and roads are bet­ter and more safely de­signed than ever be­fore.

But what if the cen­tral prob­lem is that Amer­i­cans are sim­ply too car de­pen­dent? What if the best way to re­duce fa­tal col­li­sions was not to get in a car in the first place? What if peo­ple were of­fered a con­ve­nient, safer al­ter­na­tive?

Those very ques­tions are raised by a re­cent re­port, “The Hid­den Traf­fic Safety Solution: Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion,” that found that Amer­i­cans can re­duce their risk of be­ing in an ac­ci­dent by 90 per­cent sim­ply by tak­ing mass tran­sit rather than get­ting in a car. Tran­sit-ori­ented com­mu­ni­ties are es­sen­tially five times safer than other neigh­bor­hoods, the au­thors found, be­cause of a much-lower per capita traf­fic ca­su­alty rate.

The re­port, pre­pared for the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, notes that peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to take tran­sit each day to re­ceive some ben­e­fit from this phe­nom­e­non. Cities where res­i­dents make 50 or more tran­sit trips each year have 50 per­cent fewer traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties than cities where res­i­dents use tran­sit for 20 trips or fewer. That’s a mod­est dif­fer­ence in tran­sit us­age, given that most peo­ple av­er­age 1,350 trips of any kind in a year, but it yields a ma­jor ben­e­fit.

The find­ings should come as no sur­prise given that buses, trains, sub­ways and other modes of pub­lic tran­sit have al­ways had much lower ac­ci­dent rates than cars. What’s more sur­pris­ing is that man­ner in which the pub­lic has be­come in­ured to high­way fa­tal­i­ties. If the deadly crashes con­tinue to climb at their cur­rent rate, they could sur­pass sui­cide to be­come the 10th lead­ing cause of death in the U.S. Even now, the annual to­tal is about the same as the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of An­napo­lis.

That should have Amer­i­cans clam­or­ing for ac­tion. Yet the Com­mu­ni­ties that are well served by mass tran­sit ex­pe­ri­ence sig­nif­i­cantly fewer traf­fic deaths. fed­eral gov­ern­ment has, if any­thing, re­treated in its sup­port of mass tran­sit. APTA es­ti­mates that the back­log of re­pair needs for var­i­ous tran­sit sys­tems now tops $86 bil­lion — with nearby Washington, D.C.’s dys­func­tional Metro sys­tem a poster child for the cost of ne­glect.

In Mary­land, Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s de­ci­sion to deep-six the $2.9 bil­lion Red Line project — a choice to es­sen­tially bury and for­get a nearly $300 mil­lion in­vest­ment in plan­ning, de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing for an east-west light rail sys­tem — has left the Bal­ti­more area more car-de­pen­dent than ever. That’s in­con­ve­nient for mo­torists, but it’s a tragedy for low-in­come city res­i­dents who can’t af­ford a car and who strug­gle to find ways to com­mute to far-flung employment cen­ters.

Yet safety is only one of the ben­e­fits of tran­sit. It’s less pol­lut­ing and more en­ergy ef­fi­cient as well. It pro­motes economic de­vel­op­ment and com­mu­nity re­vi­tal­iza­tion. And younger work­ers of­ten pre­fer tran­sit to driv­ing — sur­veys show a ma­jor­ity of mil­len­ni­als want to live and work some­where that’s con­ve­nient to pub­lic trans­porta­tion (mak­ing it a top three fac­tor in de­cid­ing where to live, ac­cord­ing to one poll). Across the coun­try, tran­sit rid­er­ship is up — about 39 per­cent since 1995 even as the U.S. pop­u­la­tion has in­creased just 21 per­cent.

Ob­vi­ously, the coun­try needs safer roads, but the fail­ure to in­vest suf­fi­ciently in pub­lic tran­sit is more than just bad plan­ning — it’s bound to cost lives. Surely, a na­tion that can grieve each Septem­ber for the 3,000 who died on 9/11 can save a few tears for the eleven-fold more killed on the high­ways each year and help spare other fam­i­lies from ex­pe­ri­enc­ing such loss.

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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