We’re happy to present this guest essay from Joel S. Hirschhorn, author of Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money and former Director of Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources at the National Governors Association. He can be reached through SprawlKills.com.


Analyses of the failure of all levels of government to prevent or effectively manage the Katrina calamity in New Orleans have generally missed a crucial point. Alongside bias against poor people and African-Americans is automobile apartheid, born of fifty years of suburban sprawl. First-class citizens drive motor vehicles, second-class Americans walk, cycle, or ride public transit. Certainly many of the latter are poor, but millions more are middle-class Americans.

When emergency response largely ignores the plight of second-class citizens, no one should be surprised.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Automobile apartheid means anyone who wants mobility through walking, cycling, or public transportation suffers discrimination in a built environment designed for automobiles. In the past 20 years, as automobile addiction has increased, sprawl has run rampant, the number of trips people take by walking has decreased by more than 42 percent, and obesity has skyrocketed.

Personal freedom and independence should mean more than the ability to go wherever one wants, whenever one wants. Americans should also have the freedom to travel how they want. When cars are the only option, freedom is diminished.

Government has largely ignored public safety for second-class citizens. In the past 25 years some 175,000 pedestrians have been killed on America’s roadways. Though Americans make less than 5 percent of their trips on foot, 12 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians. Some 60 percent of those deaths occur in places where no crosswalk is available.

Though few students walk to school, in 1999 nearly 900 children ages 14 and under were killed and 25,000 injured in pedestrian accidents with vehicles. Each year about 175 children are killed by vehicles in between school and home.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And there is bad news at the other end of the age spectrum: Americans 70 and over suffer the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities.

Sprawl-intense Sunbelt areas are the most dangerous for pedestrians. Atlanta’s pedestrian fatality rate increased 13 percent from 1994 to 1998, and the 1998 rate was over twice that in Portland, Ore., New York City, and Philadelphia.

Automobile apartheid also has a social-justice dimension. The Atlanta pedestrian-death rate was 4 per 100,000 for African-Americans, 10 for Hispanics, and less than 2 for Caucasians.

While New Orleans’ illustration of automobile apartheid stands out, government officials have long enforced it in more subtle ways. The traffic-studies chief of Prince George’s County, Maryland once said: “The street should be strictly for cars.” New York City’s Department of Transportation deactivated 77 percent of the pedestrian walk-push buttons at intersections and left the signs telling pedestrians to use them. For 25 years cars whizzed by hapless pedestrians waiting for a useless walk button to stop traffic.

In early 2003, Georgia’s Department of Transportation disclosed it was against having trees between sidewalks and streets because sidewalks are “auto recovery zones.” The commissioner said “the protection of intermittent foot traffic should not come at the expense of a motorist’s life.” Apparently air bags and seat belts are not good enough for first-class citizens.

Though we know how to make safer streets for pedestrians through traffic-calming techniques, most governments spend a paltry sum on this compared to road maintenance and expansion. A five-year study in Oakland, Calif. found that children living within one block of a speed hump are 50 to 60 percent less likely to be injured by a car than those whose streets lacked humps. Oakland installed 1,600 speed humps and child-pedestrian deaths and injuries dropped 15 percent from 1995 to 2003.

Reducing vehicle speeds is nearly always a low priority relative to moving traffic. Yet the probability of a pedestrian being killed when struck by a vehicle traveling at 15 mph is just 3.5 percent. It rises to 37 percent at 31 mph and 83 percent at 44 mph. If streets are to serve people, car speeds must be reliably reduced.

Long before the recent spike in gasoline prices, millions of Americans abandoned sprawl and sought homes near transit stations, closer to work, and in pedestrian-friendly communities. Now we need government to fairly serve all citizens: Reduce subsidies for automobiles and focus more on public transit.

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute analyzed rail transit in the U.S. and found that its economic benefits ($53 billion) were roughly four times higher than the total cost of national subsidies ($12.5 billion). In Portland, Ore., 75 percent of light-rail riders say they could drive but choose transit. In Salt Lake City, 45 percent of light-rail riders were new to public transit; in Denver it was 39 percent.

Americans are smarter than their elected representatives. A 2004 national survey by Associated Press found that 51 percent of respondents judged public transportation a higher priority for government than building roads; 46 percent favored roads. In the congested Atlanta region, a survey found 61 percent think the long-term cure for traffic congestion is expanding mass transit and creating communities that allow for shorter trips; just 22 percent supported new road building.

Let those Americans who choose to stick to heavy-vehicle use deal with traffic congestion and high costs. Give others an opportunity to break their automobile addiction.