Don’t walk!

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Southeast shoulders more than a third of city’s pedestrian fatalities

By Faith Miller
The Southeast Express

Last year, the city experienced a record number of traffic fatalities, with 48 people killed in deadly crashes.

Of those 48 deaths, 13 involved pedestrians — almost three times the average number of annual pedestrian deaths in Colorado Springs over the previous nine years, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation. Three of those people died at the same intersection — South Academy and Astrozon boulevards — in less than two weeks. Another woman died a few blocks further south, at the intersection of South Academy Boulevard and
Hancock Expressway.

Do four deaths in one year on South Academy reflect a lack of pedestrian safety in this area of the city? The Southeast Express sought to answer that question by speaking with experts and analyzing CDOT data on pedestrian fatalities.

We found that between Jan. 1, 2017, and Sept. 1, 2019, 10 of 28 total pedestrian fatalities in Colorado Springs occurred either south of Platte Avenue and east of South Hancock Avenue, or in the Knob Hill neighborhood.

That means slightly more than a third of the city’s pedestrian deaths happened in the areas people generally associate with Southeast. Last year, almost half of the deaths — six of 13 — occurred in those places.

Law enforcement, city officials and transportation experts suspect that the area’s high rate of pedestrian fatalities is at least partly driven by higher numbers of residents walking or using public transportation, coupled with high-speed roads such as Academy Boulevard that cut wide swaths through Southeast while making it challenging for people to safely cross the street.

Meanwhile, plans to make improvements to Academy Boulevard that would presumably improve pedestrian safety have been in the works for years, and they’re not slated to be finished anytime soon.

“The good news is, we know how to fix it. … It’s pretty simple. Most people know what a sidewalk is, or a crosswalk.” — Emiko Atherton, director of Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition

A pedestrian waits to cross the intersection at Academy and Astrozon boulevards. Last year, this was the city’s deadliest intersection, with three pedestrians killed in less than two weeks. [Express photos/Regan Foster]

A top priority

Since last year’s spike in fatalities, local law enforcement has taken steps to try to improve traffic safety throughout the city.

A speeding enforcement grant from CDOT paid for Colorado Springs Police Department officers to dedicate an additional 1,000 hours to enforcing speed limits on city streets between October of 2018 and September of this year. The officers issued nearly 2,400 traffic citations during that period, and the grant funding extends an additional year.

It’s probably too early to tell whether that funding has improved traffic safety, but the city has seen slightly fewer fatalities so far this year. As of Oct. 16, there had been a total of 35 traffic deaths in Colorado Springs, compared with 39 at this time last year, according to a police spokesperson.

Out of five fatal crashes involving pedestrians as of Oct. 16, two happened in Southeast — one near Platte Avenue and Boulder Street, and another at South Academy Boulevard and Pace Drive, near the Sand Creek Library.

Detective Chris Frabiele, who works on CSPD’s Major Crash Team, said part of policing involves spending more time at intersections where officers observe higher numbers of crashes.

Officers track high-collision spots and maintain more of a presence in those areas, he said. One example: “We see a large percentage of our crashes on Academy … fatalities included.”

He cites high speeds and distracted driving as two factors contributing to fatal collisions, and thinks lives could be saved by both parties paying more attention.

And wherever you have higher concentrations of pedestrians, fatalities tend to be more common, Frabiele said — such as in Southeast, where more people rely on public transportation, or walk to work or school. Whereas in the downtown area, which also sees more pedestrians, speeds are low enough that fatalities are less common, he pointed out.

Last year, Frabiele said, the pedestrians who died were found to be at fault in all but two of 13 fatal collisions. But regardless of who was at fault, people on foot usually don’t stand a chance of surviving a high-speed crash.

“The pedestrian is always going to lose,” he said. “Because it’s a game of mass and weight.”

Slightly more than a third of the city’s pedestrian deaths happened in areas … generally associated with Southeast.

A national problem

It’s not just Colorado Springs — pedestrian fatalities are increasing nationwide, and the victims are disproportionately older people, residents of low-income neighborhoods and people of color, according to a recent report by Smart Growth America.

The group analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on pedestrian fatalities between 2008 and 2017, and found that the number of people struck and killed while walking increased by 35 percent during that time frame.

“Even after controlling for differences in population size and walking rates, we see that drivers strike and kill people over age 50, Black or African-American people, American-Indian or Alaska-Native people and people walking in communities with lower median household incomes at much higher rates,” the group noted in a 2019 report titled “Dangerous by Design.”

Smart Growth America devised a metric called the Pedestrian Safety Index to rank cities and states for pedestrian safety. It accounts for the number of deaths per 100,000 people in a given year, as well as walking rates in a given community.

The Colorado Springs metro area, which had an average of 0.8 deaths per 100,000 people each year, ranks as the 97th most dangerous community for pedestrians in Smart Growth America’s analysis — but it’s possible that when the next round of federal data on traffic fatalities is published, the city could move up in the ranks.

Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, which encompasses Colorado Springs, ranks in the top 20 districts in the country for the largest increase in pedestrian fatalities between 2008 and 2017, according to “Dangerous by Design.”

But many municipalities saw an increase of some amount in the past decade. Emiko Atherton, director of Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition, said there’s a number of factors driving this trend — one being what she calls the “suburbanization of poverty.”

As people become displaced from urban areas or higher-income neighborhoods where they can no longer afford to live, Atherton said, “they end up in communities that are sometimes the least walkable.”

These suburban areas, often designed with big arterial roads lined with “your Best Buy and Target and big parking lots,” don’t bode well for the safety of people who don’t have cars and stand a higher risk of being struck and killed while, say, running across the street to catch the bus, Atherton explained.

Another factor, she said, is that people are buying “bigger, deadlier cars” such as trucks and SUVs, meaning pedestrians struck by vehicles have a lower chance of surviving.

“The good news is, we know how to fix it,” Atherton said of the rising fatality rate. “It’s pretty simple. Most people know what a sidewalk is, or a crosswalk.

“It just takes the political will to get those in there, and to say, ‘We’re going to commit to the safety of our constituents, and because of that, our communities are going to be safer. They’re going to be more economically resilient. They’re going to be more livable, and they’re going to be more healthy.”

This makeshift memorial at the northeast corner of Academy and Astrozon is one of three marking the spots where as many pedestrians were killed in fewer than two weeks last year.

Paving the way

Atherton’s group provides a blueprint for cities interested in improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists called the Complete Streets Policy. The policy stresses making streets safe and accessible for everyone, and encourages adding infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation such as walking and biking.

The city’s Academy Boulevard Great Streets Plan cites those aspects of Complete Streets as goals for re-envisioning that major roadway. But that plan has been in the works for a while.

It was sparked back in 2007, when then-Mayor Lionel Rivera led a roundtable discussion that imagined Academy Boulevard as a “Great Street” — transforming the section of the roadway between Maizeland Road and Milton E. Proby Parkway “into a more accessible and vibrant focus of this community and its neighborhoods and businesses.”

In 2011, the Great Streets Plan was adopted as part of the city’s comprehensive plan. Since then, public transit has indeed improved, as Mountain Metropolitan Transit has added bus stops and service hours, and seen large increases in ridership as a result.

Still, roadway infrastructure hasn’t changed much since 2011. The design process for some Academy Great Streets improvements — funded by the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority — is slated to conclude in 2020, with construction to begin in 2021, city spokesperson Kim Melchor said. Those changes should improve safety along South Academy between Airport Road and Bijou Street, and from Fountain Boulevard to Milton E. Proby Parkway.

Out of the Great Streets Plan came a second subplan of sorts, aimed at improving the Hancock Expressway and South Academy intersection — but that project isn’t fully funded yet, and the city is “actively pursuing additional federal grant dollars,” Melchor said in an email.

“One of the challenges, I think, with the Academy/Hancock intersection, is you’ve got these high-speed ramps in the corners,” said Traffic Engineering Division Manager Todd Frisbie. Removing those ramps would, in theory, “make that intersection easier for pedestrians to get across and through.”

When asked whether the way Southeast was planned — with wide, high-speed corridors in an area where higher numbers of people that walk or take the bus — makes it challenging to improve multimodal transportation, Frisbie demurred.

“Traffic engineering’s job here is to try to make our intersections and our roadways as safe as we can,” he said. “We’re looking at ways to reduce the chance [drivers] make a mistake that can result in a serious crash… so we don’t worry about whether we’re more challenged than another city because of our planning. This is what we have to work with.”

But Frisbie points out a challenge for traffic engineering in Southeast that goes beyond planning. While residents of other areas of the city are more likely to call the city when they have concerns about a certain intersection or aspect of traffic safety, he says the division doesn’t often hear from Southeast residents.

“I can’t imagine that, you know, the traffic challenges are any less in that area than anywhere else,” he said.

More than infrastructure

Michelle Grant’s 40-year-old sister, Essence Grant, was stuck and killed late at night last October, while crossing Academy Boulevard at Hancock Expressway.

When it comes to addressing the societal factors that played a role in her sister’s death, Grant believes protecting pedestrians involves more than just installing streetlights or adding crosswalks.

Essence Grant, who was schizophrenic, had been living on the streets for the past several months — after the facility where she’d been staying determined she was competent to take her medication on her own and allowed her to go home, Michelle Grant said. Essence was “like a butterfly,” her sister said, and preferred the freedom of life on the streets to staying with family or taking her medication.

Michelle Grant believes her sister was walking to a homeless encampment in the parking lot of King Soopers when she was killed.

Grant connects pedestrian fatalities to the city’s growing homelessness problem — and the lack of a safety net for people facing mental illness, like her sister, whom she feels the state let slip through the cracks.

“You have to give these people somewhere to go. But if you don’t have anywhere for them to go, what do you expect them to do?” Grant said. “How do you expect them to live? … If you’re not giving [mentally ill] people help, then you’re locking them up in jail cells.”

Grant says the lack of adequate street lighting may have played a role in her sister’s death, coupled with the high speeds on Academy Boulevard.

“It is hard to maneuver in a speed limit that’s … 45, 50 miles an hour down that street,” she said.

Frisbie, the city traffic engineer, said that while his division isn’t responsible for street lighting, it can make recommendations for areas that could use lighting improvements. Reducing speed limits is another “tool in the toolbox” the city has to improve safety.

A citywide traffic safety analysis that’s now underway should help Frisbie’s division determine what changes to make, he said. One possible solution: adding “leading pedestrian intervals” to give people crossing the street a head start before cars can move into an intersection.

Frisbie said people who want to give feedback on traffic safety — places the city should add pedestrian crossings or traffic signals, for example — should call Traffic and Transportation Engineering at (719) 385-5908. They can submit a citizen request via the GoCoSprings mobile app or by visiting gocosprings.com.

“It’s a large city, so we rely on our citizens from time to time to let us know if they have a safety concern or if they have an issue with something,” he said.

faith@csindy.com

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