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Riverside, a Death Trap for Pedestrians? A Closer Look Yields Different Results

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Pedestrian crosses Magnolia Ave in Riverside. Photo: Ed Fuentes
Pedestrian crosses Magnolia Ave in Riverside. Photo: Ed Fuentes

Details and logic filled a study supporting spending increases for walking and cycling paths, but the message got lost in a presentation with warnings of pedestrians dying in the streets.

Leading into Memorial Day weekend, a number of media outlets reported the Inland Empire is saddled as one of the most dangerous metropolitan regions for pedestrians. The reports were based on findings by Transportation for America, a Washington-based coalition that guides lobbying for Federal funds.

It became fodder for dramatic transportation headlines, and the study had enough categories allowing other cities to claim ownership that their region is a deathtrap for walkers.

"Caution: Walking may be hazardous to your health," said the Detroit Free Press. "Florida Is a Great Place for a Walk -- If You Want to End Up Dead," wrote Palm Beach New Times. "Report: Streets Pose Mortal Threat to Pedestrians," warned Wired's Autopia.

Locally, the winner was inland. "If you're in the mood for a walk, you might want to steer clear of the Inland Empire," opened a KPCC report on the study.

Yes, the Inland Empire, sometimes identified in news reports as just Riverside, did earn a prominent place on the lists, including a number one ranking for the West.

But if readers of the report looked both ways before stepping in the literal crosswalk of the study, you will see it was compiled to encourage federal spending on pathways for cyclists and pedestrians.

While the Los Angeles-Long Beach region recorded more than twice as many vehicle-related pedestrian fatalities than the Inland Empire in the same period, disparity comes from the report's focus on relatively low walking rates in relation to the number of pedestrian deaths, thus creating "pedestrian danger indexes."

In the case of the Inland Empire, or more accurately the federally-defined 27,000 square-mile Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area, the region ranked at the top of the Western metro chart PDI with 938 deaths.

The report, dubbed "Dangerous By Design," is not a new report, but an update of a previous study released two years ago.

"It is in the same series of reports as the one in 2009. This one covers the whole decade," said David Goldberg of Transportation For America to KCET. "We wanted to call attention to the issue in advance of Congress taking up the multi-year transportation authorization in the next few weeks."

"Some in Congress are calling for eliminating support for bicycle and pedestrian safety," he continued, "and we wanted to note that federal funds and guidelines have produced a dangerous situation which can't just be passed off a 'local problem.'"

While the report contends that spending more money on better design would reduce the number of pedestrians who are killed and injured, it implies all roads are a death march. The study's common factors in regions with urban sprawl focused on lower-density areas with wide, high-speed thoroughfares "built within the last 50 years."

Yet, in the case of the Inland Empire, data includes roads first built to be connectors between inland city's main business and civic cores, past farmland and orchards. Unlike roads built in the last few decades, most of the major highways date back to the late 1800s, when the inland cities were founded and grew into their own citrus empires.

Main Arteries

Many Inland Empire arteries were not built for speed, but for looks. Some are lush entryways with medians and long walks between crosswalks. Ontario's Euclid Ave, also State Highway 83, passes through the middle of town, while Mission Blvd is a rumbling road that that runs alongside the rails. Riverside's throughways include Van Buren, Victoria, and Magnolia boulevards, all which cut through the core of Riverside.

And like San Bernardino's former Route 66 and Highway 99, some of the routes are multi-lane roads through commercial regions.

"Despite the magnitude of these avoidable tragedies, little public attention -- and even less in public resources - has been committed to reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries in the United States," the report states. "On the contrary, transportation agencies typically prioritize speeding traffic over the safety of people on foot or other vulnerable road users."

Bring in the Bike Czar

Ironically the Riverside City Council recently recommitted civic plans supporting cycling as alternative transportation and fitness by agreeing to hire a bicycle consultant, a Bike Czar of sorts, that will work directly with the local cycling community and the city to increase the city's measured steps already underway. The position is funded by AB 2766 grant monies specifically to be used to fund air pollution reduction efforts, and will train city staff and hunt for resources to develop a public bike riding culture.

In 2009, the same year as the report from Transportation For America was first released, the League of American Bicyclists awarded Riverside a Bicycle Friendly Community Award in recognition for the city's 2008 Bicycle Master Plan.

While Riverside only makes up a portion of the study region, it should be noted how just one potential rural "road of death," Riverside's Victoria Avenue, has been the subject of a major restoration beginning in 2008, including installation of parkway and median landscape restoration, enhanced street and bicycle lane sweeping, and walking and bike path rehabilitation and maintenance. "Safety for drivers and outdoor enthusiasts has been prioritized, including limits on commercial freight traffic," said the city's spokesperson Cindie Perry, speaking about a series of cycle-driven projects. "Pedestrian accidents dropped by 25%, and importantly, cycling incidents drop by 22% in the city of Riverside."

Media coverage over the course of the weekend was impressive, but attention spans may not increase spending on pathways if the subject is death in the streets. Outreach for federal spending, or as Goldberg says "Congress", may have lasting effect if a study would cite how pathways on the open road have been a solution, or if there were news reports on what other cities have done to enhance the riding or walking experience.

Stories like the City of Los Angeles being lobbied by cyclists and making change, the Los Angeles River as the subject of urban dreamers, and cities like Riverside already undergoing change, should at least be part of the information being pushed. That backstory of improved paths existing, or underway, would in turn support the findings of the report.

Instead they ran the risk being run over by the loaded PR truck carrying a packaged freight of fear.

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