Houston’s growing traffic violence crisis

There has been a lot of attention in Houston to a glut of deaths of people riding bicycles in April – four devastating tragedies. In contradiction to Raj Mankad’s frustrated advice, I have been working on another OpEd for the Houston Chronicle calling for the City of Houston to finally  adopt a Vision Zero Action Plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries.

However, for the moment, a post about the sobering reality of Houston’s growing traffic violence epidemic, killing people riding bikes, walking, or riding in cars and trucks.

When researchers study traffic violence looking for trends, they usually group deaths and incapacitating injuries together, often referred to as “K+I”. Deaths can be considered somewhat rare and random events, while in general for every traffic death, you will see about five people suffering life-altering incapacitating injuries. These are terrible injuries, including things like losing limbs or brain damage, often having come very close to dying. Looking at the rates of these two things together can help us better understand traffic violence.

However to be clear, in Texas, traffic deaths are less rare than in most of America. Every single day in Texas, an average of ten people die using our transportation system – more than any other state.

Dying in cars, on bikes, on sidewalks, and crossing streets.

Overwhelmingly more people die or suffer incapacitating injuries while driving or riding in cars or trucks than all the other modes (data is split out generally between car or truck, walk, bike, or motorcycle).

In the City of Houston last year (2017), 48.3 people riding in cars or trucks died or suffered a life-changing incapacitating injury for every 100,000 residents, while only 1.9 people riding bicycles and 6.5 people riding motorcycles died or suffered incapacitating injuries for every 100,000 residents.

The second most common way people die in the City of Houston transportation system – after riding in cars – is walking. Last year 11.9 people died as pedestrians for every 100,000 residents.

Most people dying in the City of Houston transportation system – like across the rest of Texas – are dying while riding in cars. Every single one of these deaths is a preventable tragedy. Vision Zero is an international movement to prioritize ending these deaths – regardless of mode of transportation. There has been an unfortunate mistake often repeated that we should focus just on people dying while riding bicycles, and a misunderstanding that Vision Zero is about only pedestrians and bicyclists.

In the City of Houston, this even manifested in a tragic mistake by Mayor Annise Parker, who initiated something called Goal Zero focused on bicycling, at the same time that most large American cities were developing Vision Zero Action Plans to end all deaths – including bicycling as a normal mode of transportation along with all others. All of us are vulnerable to unnecessarily dangerous streets – including while riding in cars – and all of us deserve the freedom of a safe, multimodal transportation system.

But more and more people are dying while walking and biking

However, the rate of deaths and serious injuries of people walking and biking is rising in Houston at an alarming rate – much like has been seen across the nation. Driving in cars is also getting increasingly dangerous, although at a much smaller rate of increase.

While dying in cars remains the lead killer in the City of Houston transportation system, more and more people are dying and suffering incapacitating injuries while walking and biking. The rate of pedestrian K+I is rising faster than any other mode.

Using three-year averages, the rates of pedestrian deaths per capita have increased by 46% from 2010-2012 to 2015-2017, while cycling deaths rose 31%, motorcycle deaths rose 17%, and car deaths rose 7% in the City of Houston.

Approaching active and car transportation death parity

Something odd appears in the data on pedestrian deaths and incapacitating injuries. It appears that the rate of pedestrians suffering incapacitating injuries as opposed to deaths in the City of Houston was just 2.6 incapacitating injuries for every death. In general in the traffic violence policy data world, you can assume about 5 incapacitating injuries for every death as a rule of thumb, so this is odd. On the other hand the rate in the City of Houston for people in cars is 7.6 and people riding bicycles is 6.2.

Perhaps it makes sense that serious crashes involving pedestrians are more likely to kill the pedestrian than people in cars or on bikes, who might have a better chance of surviving yet still suffering a terrible injury.

This surprising thing leads to an even more surprising chart.

This chart is showing how many people die in cars for every person that dies while walking or biking in Houston, and apparently this stat is on a steady decline. If all trends hold true to their current course, by 2020, more people will be dying in the City of Houston while walking or biking than in cars.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that it is getting safer to drive. More people are dying per capita in cars as well, just not at such at high rate of increase as walking and biking.

This could mean several things: Many more people are choosing or being allowed the freedom for various reasons to walk and bike, exposing themselves to greater risk in a terribly dangerous transportation system, resulting in more deaths. Or somehow the risk is increasing causing more deaths per use.

However, whatever it means, it both changes the conversation about Vision Zero, while confirming one of my core beliefs – that we still must be all in this together. People are dying and suffering incapacitating injuries in all modes.

We must rebuild our transportation system to be safe for all.

Of the ten largest cities in the nation, only Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix still do not have a Vision Zero Action Plan to end ALL traffic deaths and serious injuries.

We’re dying for a plan.

[Image Credit: luna715, some rights reserved]