Huey Randle Jr. lived down the street from my grandmother for 47 years. The 66-year-old Black Vietnam War veteran was a staple in his community, regularly seen out and about on daily walks. For his daughter Chiquita, he was a rock, always willing to help her when needed, regardless of the task.
Almost every day since he moved to his home in the Southern California suburb of Gardena, Randle took a two-block walk along Western Avenue to the local convenience store for an evening drink and snack. As the area became increasingly clogged with car and truck traffic over the years, walking always made the most sense — it took just 15 minutes round-trip.
But early last month, Randle made the trek for the last time. As he walked home, crossing the wide five-lane street, he was struck and killed during a hit-and-run collision. His life and death underscore a sobering and growing reality for Black Americans. From 2010 to 2019, Black pedestrians were 82 percent more likely to be hit by drivers than white pedestrians, according to a new report from Smart Growth America, an urban development advocacy group.
And last year, despite COVID-19 restrictions that kept drivers off the road and the small-scale adoption of car-free streets in some cities, the number of Black people who died in traffic collisions rose by 23 percent compared to 2019, the largest increase in traffic deaths among all racial groups.
Charles T. Brown, the founder of the urban planning firm Equitable Cities, told Grist that these disparities are the result of deliberate policy decisions with long historical roots.
“For generations now, we’ve prioritized the needs of automobiles, while ignoring the needs of all other modes of transportation such as bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users,” he said. “Communities of color have been especially dissected and made unsafe and unhealthy.”
In total, an estimated 38,680 Americans died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year. It’s the largest total for traffic deaths since 2007, and nearly every racial group saw some increase in fatalities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those deaths, nearly 20 percent were Black victims, while Black people represent just 13 percent of the U.S. population.
“Even with fewer people driving as we saw with COVID-19, we’ll still see greater disparities in traffic crashes until we have a reparations-style infrastructure investment in Black, Latino, and Native American communities,” Brown said. This is because the likelihood of a person of color being injured in a traffic collision has direct ties to decades of racist urban planning.
As road and highway development skyrocketed after World War II, the arterial highways of major metropolitan areas were designed to cut through low-income, Black, Latino, and Native communities. At the same time, those groups were less likely to own cars and more likely to need public transportation as a result of a large wealth gap. Although people of color became more likely to bear the brunt of automobile traffic and pollution, as pedestrians they were offered fewer safety protections: Federal automobile safety regulators fail to consider how likely specific cars are to kill a pedestrian in a collision. Vehicles in the U.S. are only required to meet crash safety standards to protect people inside the cars — not those that might find themselves in those vehicles’ paths.
The COVID-19 pandemic only intensified the problem. Coronavirus precautions left Black and Latino workers less likely to be able to work from home than other groups. With public transit frequently running at diminished capacity, this meant more Black commuters were left to walk and therefore more susceptible to traffic collisions, according to Brown.
Black people’s inflated risk of dying in traffic collisions stems from many other racial disparities, like residential segregation and income inequality. Studies have also shown that direct acts of interpersonal racism and implicit bias play a role: Drivers are significantly more likely to yield to a white pedestrian in a crosswalk than to a Black pedestrian. Police chases, which most commonly happen in dense communities of color in urban centers, create added risk. In Chicago, two-thirds of all police chases end in a car crash — many of them fatal. On top of all that, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement some state legislatures are making efforts to enable drivers to strike pedestrian protestors blocking roadways.
According to Smart Growth America, the U.S. South — which has the largest share of Black residents and where seven of the ten poorest states are located — is the most dangerous place to be a pedestrian. Across the country, the fatality rate in low-income neighborhoods is nearly twice that of middle-income neighborhoods and almost three times that of higher-income neighborhoods, the report found. Low-income neighborhoods with a large percentage of people of color are less likely to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks, and street design to support safer, slower speeds. They’re also more likely to be situated in industrial corridors home to more traffic from diesel trucks and freight trains and high levels of air pollution.
As far as solutions, Brown is calling for a holistic approach to revitalize infrastructure, including lowering speed limits, investing in public transit, and narrowing streets in urban communities. But that’s just a start; he told Grist that cities need to be fundamentally rebuilt to not rely on automobile use.
“Right now it’s imperative that we make it safer for people to drive,“ he said, ”but we need to make these investments so it’s easier for a modal shift to take place, meaning that we eventually have a higher percentage of people biking, walking, and taking public transit in our communities.”
In the meantime, as the country mulls over President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposals, Brown said there needs to be a bigger emphasis on the trauma and damage inflicted by those behind the wheel, given that the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t release demographic data for those driving the cars that result in fatal collisions.
“Why is no one asking, ‘who is striking pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists?’” he asked. “In any other case where you have nearly 40,000 people being killed, you would know who is killing them.”