Why so many pedestrian deaths? Southern Nevada is literally built that way

By: - October 4, 2019 6:42 am

(Nevada Department of Transportation photo)

Between 2008 and 2017, drivers struck and killed 601 people who were walking on streets in Nevada, the overwhelming majority of them them in Clark County. That’s about an average of 60 people per year, according to Smart Growth America, which lists Nevada 11th in pedestrian fatalities.

In 2017, Clark County had the highest number of pedestrian fatalities ever recorded for the county, at 78. Last year didn’t fare much better with a total of 63 pedestrian deaths, according to data from the Nevada Department of Transportation. For both those years Clark County accounted for about 80 percent of all pedestrian fatalities in the state. 

And the deadliest time of the year for pedestrians is fast approaching, as the days get shorter and the darkness lasts longer, leading to more pedestrian fatalities.

Pedestrian-involved accidents disproportionately occur in lower-income, minority communities located around neighborhoods with roadways built to move vehicles quickly, and where pedestrian infrastructure can be little more than a design afterthought.

Eastern areas of Las Vegas⁠— where there is a greater number of pedestrian-involved crashes⁠ and deaths— have the longest average time for school commutes at 18.8 minutes, indicating a lack of personal vehicles and greater walking distances, according to the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission (RTC).

Overall, the Paradise township in the heart of the Las Vegas metro area and eastern areas of Las Vegas have the greatest share of households with no personal vehicles, at 17.5 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively. The regional average for Southern Nevada is 8.3 percent.

“When people get off the bus to try to make their connection the last thing that they are thinking about is ‘I’m going to lose my life.’ What they’re thinking about is ‘I’m going to lose my job if I don’t catch that bus,’” said Erin Breen, coordinator of the UNLV Traffic Safety Coalition, which studies pedestrian safety. 

A 2017 study by the RTC found that low-income households in Southern Nevada are increasingly located around high-capacity urban roads. 

Last year Flamingo Road in Paradise took the top spot for pedestrian fatalities, according to NDOT crash data. Other streets listed as “top fatality” streets for pedestrians included Sahara Avenue, Charleston Boulevard, Lake Mead Boulevard, Boulder Highway, Durango Drive, and Las Vegas Boulevard North. 

Many of those roads correlate with RTC’s busiest transit routes. Transit ridership data for 2019 shows that Flamingo Road is the second busiest route with an average of about 12,000 riders daily. Charleston Blvd comes in third with an average of about 11,000 riders daily. Boulder Highway is fourth busiest, and Sahara sixth. Maryland Parkway is the fifth busiest though has seen significantly less fatalities in recent years. 

Anyone who’s driven along those streets will notice many of them tend to be wider, have more lanes for traffic and larger intersections, higher speed limits and have inadequate to no dedicated bicycle facilities, crosswalks or buffered sidewalks.

Breen said working-class low-income people are at the highest risk of being hit during their everyday commute home along these roads.

“You are the most likely to get in a car crash close to home, and it’s because you’re comfortable and you’re relaxed and you let your guard down. Pedestrians do the exact same thing,” Breen said. “They’ve crossed the street thousands of times in the same spot, either legally or illegally, and they too relax and let their guard down. The difference is as a driver you get a fender bender. As a pedestrian, you’ll lose your life.”

Pedestrian crashes in urbanized cities are worse in the Southwest than any other part of the country, said Breen, mostly because cities in the Southwest were largely built after World War II when automobiles ⁠— and the commute to suburbs ⁠— become more prevalent. 

“Streets started to be built for cars and not people,” Breen said. “In these urbanized areas people who walk out of necessity become the highest number of victims. There’s a great inequity.”

Complete Streets

Charleston Boulevard is one of the oldest roadways in Las Vegas and one of the deadliest for pedestrians. The City of Las Vegas is currently in the beginning stages of upgrading the road by widening sidewalks, installing shade trees, and upgrading and installing crosswalks with flashing LED traffic signals as part of the city’s complete streets initiative. 

In 2012, the RTC adopted a Complete Streets Policy, which allowed the RTC to allocate funds to local jurisdictions to make streets safer and more friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Additionally, state legislation assigned donations when registering an automobile to a complete-streets fund for the RTC to allocate to infrastructure projects that improve walking and biking.

“It’s a refreshing new philosophy because just a few years ago— less than ten— it was just all about the cars,” said City of Las Vegas Traffic Engineer Gena Kendall. “It’s not anymore. We still have a lot of infrastructure that we need to update and improve for all road users, but the philosophy now throughout the entire valley is complete street and multi-mobile and pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly.”

A sidewalk on South Maryland Parkway that does not meet requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act due to multiple obstructions. “Many of our streets are not ADA compliant,” said City of Las Vegas Traffic Engineer Gena Kendall.

Large swaths of Charleston are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act either, said Kendall, and are too narrow or have major obstructions like telephone poles, streetlights and utility boxes.

“There are so many examples up and down that corridor of sidewalks that are not ADA compliant because there’s a pole right in the middle,” Kendall said. “Things that we would not at all accept today with today’s standards.”

Roadways are not just hostile to low-income communities, but also the city’s most vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities. The city is in the process of identifying all areas of the city, one street at a time, that are not ADA compliant for upgrades.

“In the low-income areas we see a lot more walking and a lot more transit bus use,” which increases pedestrians’ exposure to collisions with cars, Kendall said. “We know that’s where the needs are. They have more children that walk to school too.”

“We don’t find out what they need a lot of the times,” Kendall said. “ A lot of the time they won’t contact us and we don’t know what their needs are. They’re not as vocal as the people who live in Summerlin, for example.”

Built for cars

Between 2011 and 2015 the RTC listed the Maryland Parkway as one of the top streets for pedestrian crashes. The intersection of Maryland Parkway and Reno Avenue was also listed in the top ten cross streets for pedestrian crashes. The bus route along Maryland Parkway sees approximately 9,000 transit riders daily and 32 percent of all households in the corridor have no vehicle available to them. 

Thanks in part to upgrades including more crosswalks to provide more pedestrian safety which are nearing completion Maryland hasn’t been on a “top” list in recent years.

But upgrading and improving pedestrian safety on major roadways has its challenges. The roads are usually older and are built for cars rather than pedestrians, with property and buildings that are built right up to the sidewalk. The back of a sidewalk is typically the end of the cities’ right-of-way, and in order to put in a bus turnout and other safety features local governments must acquire private property.

The City of Las Vegas spends millions to acquire property rights in order to build in pedestrian safety features. As an example, the city estimates a $14 million price tag to buy right-of-way acquisition for improvements along Charleston as part of their Charleston Complete Streets Project from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Rancho Drive. 

City engineers across municipalities are reimagining city infrastructure from the ground up, diverging from those in the past. The City of North Las Vegas recently completed upgrades along Tonopah Drive, adding a concrete and landscape buffer area so a bike lane could be placed between the sidewalk and the road. City engineers later realized the design prevented street sweepers from cleaning the lane, causing maintenance issues.

“We’re learning as we go,” said Mike Hudgeons, a North Las Vegas City traffic engineer. “But the intent was safety and it’s definitely an effective measure for that.”

Hudgeons said North Las Vegas’s roads were built with cars in mind first, leaving pedestrians at the wayside. 

“Everything was to get to point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible focusing primarily on vehicles,” Hudgeons said. “With these plans, we’ll construct a bicycle network,” he said, adding that making roads more pedestrian-friendly makes them safer for everyone without leaving anybody out.

Still, traffic officials say complete street designs, including narrowing roads and reducing speed limits, must play a balancing act with demands for faster and higher capacity roads. 

“The public doesn’t always perceive it positively when you take away a roadway and replace it with a lane for bikes and pedestrians,” said Kendall, the City of Las Vegas traffic engineer. “It doesn’t always get received positively,” especially along arterial routes people use to commute to work in high numbers.

Getting a project approved when public opinion favors faster lanes, and traffic congestion is universally reviled, can be difficult.

“We live in a democracy and the way people feel matters, and when they call city council and express their opinions, and those are the people that I report to,” Kendall said. “When they’re not on board it’s really hard to get those projects improved by our council, as you can understand.”

Traffic officials and pedestrian safety advocates like Breen with the UNLV Traffic Safety Coalition say complete streets are the future of urban roads, touting their added economic, safety, and environmental benefits to polluted cities. 

“We can’t just keep adding lanes,” Breen said. “It is our quality of life that we’ve given up in pursuit of getting places further and faster.”

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies.