Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Economist's Notebook: Is Portland Really a Safe Walking City?

The Oregonian reports on the Transportation for American and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership's report on the safest walking cities in America. Portland was #9, but is it really a safe walking city?

Perhaps, but the methodology is seriously flawed and clearly designed to make a political point and not provide meaningful data. The way they compiled the ranking was to divide the number of pedestrian deaths divided by the number of people who walk to work. What you would ideally want is some measure of total pedestrians or, better yet, total pedestrian-hours. So proxying this by using walking to work may seem like a good idea, but I doubt that it is. Clearly walking to work is very, very highly correlated with urban density but I don't think it is terribly correlated with the population who walk for any reason at any time. So you skew the statistics and, not surprisingly very dense cities are great, sprawling cities are not. Which is, I imagine, their point.

Now, I hate sprawl as much as the next guy, but it is not necessarily bad for walking safety in general. Yes, you can't walk to get anywhere, but walking around inside of the little cloistered neighborhoods that were the rage before the new urbanism ethos kicked in is probably pretty safe. What it is bad for is walking in general. I don't think conflating the two is helpful.


Evan said...

One of the largest challenges of pedestrian advocacy (and to a lesser extent, bike advocacy) is the dearth of data. It's a lot harder to find good data on who walks where, why, and when, then it is to find those data for driving. So yes, the report is flawed, but they didn't really have an option to use another data set, as one doesn't exist.

That said, it's great to have news cover pedestrian safety, as traffic deaths (both ped and driving) are considered routine "accidents" rather than preventable crashes.

Patrick Emerson said...


I take your point, but in this instance perhaps a 'ranking' was not the best approach. Still, I agree that in terms of publicity, just talking about it is a good thing. As a parent, nothing worries me more than my children riding their bikes and walking across crosswalks amongst drivers today as distracted as they are. My child was almost run over a few years ago in his preschool parking lot by a mother on her cell phone who wasn't paying attention.