Race and Class Inform Disparities in Road Deaths
All crises are not created equal
As the skies dumped rain on a night in 1997, a mother, her teenage daughter, and two of the daughter's friends did what many people do when it rains: They went to the movie theatre. Navigating the downpour, they made their way up North Lamar, when an intoxicated driver struck their car. The mother died on impact and her three passengers were left with various injuries. That night continues to haunt City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and her family 25 years later – her mother wasn't the driver, but her sisters were two of the car's passengers.
"One of my sisters suffered a closed head injury, a broken orbital, broken jaw, broken nose, broken collarbone, broken clavicle, broken ribs, broken sternum, broken hips and pelvis and tib-fib ... and lived in a coma for almost eight weeks," Harper-Madison said. "[She had] to learn how to walk and talk and eat, because of the closed head injury." Her other sister walked away needing 37 stitches in her face.
The crash's toll extended beyond the physical ailments. Harper-Madison is six years older than her sisters and served as their guardian at the time. That night she was working when her sisters asked her boyfriend if they could go to the movies. Unsure of what to do, he said they could go, and he still hasn't forgiven himself for that decision, Harper-Madison said.
Harper-Madison does not like driving. That night in 1997 is high on the list of reasons why. "Because of all the trauma around cars and traffic violence that I've experienced, personally, it makes me anxious to be in a car [and] to drive a car," she said. She would much rather get around on foot, with public transit as a backup. Most importantly, she wants the "safest possible option."
Traffic deaths in the United States have declined since the mid-1990s, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But the number of traffic deaths began to rise in 2020. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced the first quarter of 2022 was the deadliest first quarter on the roads since 2002.
Austin has mirrored the surge in severe crashes nationwide, and its Black population continues to bear that burden most acutely. According to the latest U.S. census data, the city's Black residents account for just under 8% of the total population. Every year since 2018, the Black population has accounted for over 14% of combined serious injuries and fatalities from traffic crashes.
"It's not just the goal of making it in balance with the share of population," said Lewis Leff, the Austin Transportation Department's transportation safety officer. "It's to reduce fatalities and serious injuries for everybody, but when there is this disparity, you have to question why that is, and if there's something we can do differently to ensure that we get better outcomes for everybody in the future."
Consequences of History
According to a 2021 ATD report, Black drivers and pedestrians were twice as likely to be involved in a crash resulting in a serious injury or fatality than their share of the population between 2016 and 2020. Black cyclists were also overrepresented to a slightly lesser extent. A recent Smart Growth America report titled "Dangerous by Design" yielded similar results. It found three Black pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people between 2016 and 2020 compared to 1.8 for Hispanic and 1.5 for white pedestrians.
The same 2021 ATD report detailed some of the factors that have led to these disparities. It noted "the substantial role that historical transportation and land use decisions have played in causing racial inequities in Austin." These decisions included the city's 1928 plan, which codified segregation by creating a "negro district"; redlining, discriminatory lending supported by the federal government beginning in the 1930s; and the construction of I-35 in the 1960s, which physically divided the city's east and west sides. Since, the Eastside has suffered from unsafe streets – the city has identified several "substandard roads" east of I-35, including Johnny Morris, Ross, Bradshaw, and Nuckols Crossing roads.
But a legacy of redlining also ripples into auto safety. Leff said Americans typically build wealth through homeownership. When redlining policies took that option away from communities of color, it removed one of the keys for upward mobility. These historical decisions continue to play out today. "The ability to buy or lease a new car every three or five years, you get a much safer car every time you do that, whereas if you have a 10- or 15-year-old car, we've done some analysis, and it shows older cars show up more frequently in severe crashes," Leff said.
He added that another factor to consider is Austin's unhoused population, which tends to be disproportionately people of color. According to the 2021 ATD report, 15 of the 23 pedestrians killed on I-35 in the previous two years "were suspected to be people experiencing homelessness, and 9 of those (60%) were people of color."
Tara Goddard, an assistant professor of urban planning at Texas A&M, agrees that historical discrimination has continued to impact road safety. "Certain communities have been forced, redlined, ghettoized into different areas, and then those areas don't have the same investment in safer sidewalks or better lighting, or better, safer crossings," she said.
From Goddard's perspective, this is a solvable problem. Putting money toward neighborhoods that have historically had less infrastructure investment could go a long way in reducing severe crashes. She noted that wealthier neighborhoods tend to have connected sidewalks, while some places in Texas have no sidewalks at all. Those neighborhoods are also more likely to have curb cuts, or ramps from sidewalks into streets, that make roads safer for people in wheelchairs. "These are drop in the bucket infrastructure improvements compared to what we spend on these other projects," Goddard said, comparing their cost to highway widening projects.
She added that current design standards prioritize automobile efficiency and speed over everything. "This is not rocket science. We actually know how to make people safer," Goddard said.
Goddard conducted a 2016 study in Portland, Oregon, looking into the racial bias of drivers yielding to pedestrians. White and Black participants wore the same clothing and attempted to cross the street at the same intersection. Black pedestrians were passed by twice as often and had to wait 32% longer than white pedestrians. A similar study by University of Nevada, Las Vegas researchers expanded on Goddard's research and found the bias to be worse in high-income compared to low-income neighborhoods.
Many road safety advocates identified displacement as another potential cause of the disparity in severe traffic crashes. As rising housing costs push some Black Austinites out of the city limits into its suburbs, they might have longer commutes forcing them to spend more time on the most dangerous roadways, like I-35. Safe Streets Austin Board Member Jay Blazek Crossley is skeptical of that explanation and worries it's led to investment in roadways that mainly benefit wealthy suburbanites.
Among other explanations, Crossley points to inequities in who makes road project decisions in the Austin area. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the region's planning board largely responsible for allocating federal funding, is structured in a way that gives more power to Williamson County than Travis County, he said. The state's leadership is not better. "The Texas Transportation Commission is an all-white panel," he said.
Crossley and Goddard separately brought up the possible role of essential workers, who are more likely to be people of color nationwide. Because those workers couldn't work remotely, they would have spent more time on the roads, and also might be more likely to commute during the more dangerous nighttime hours. Road safety advocates are awaiting more comprehensive studies on the topic, because pandemic lockdowns – although Austin never totally "locked down" – are in the very near past.
Room for Optimism?
The goal of Vision Zero is of course not to ensure death and serious injury are spread equally across race and class, but rather to bring all death and serious injury to zero. Nonetheless, given the disparity in roadway crashes, it will be important to pay particular attention to the segments of the population most impacted.
Equity has become a greater focus for the city's transportation projects in recent years. In that 2021 report, which Leff noted is likely to be updated soon, ATD outlined some of the policies it put in place to try to rectify the disparity. One example cited by the report is the city's Local Area Traffic Management Program, which required the community to input requests for traffic calming projects. That former program yielded 87 projects, of which only 18 were east of I-35.
The updated Speed Management Program makes determinations based on citywide need. It also includes equity considerations in its evaluation process, such as the percentage of people in poverty and the percentage of people of color.
ATD has also had success with targeted efforts to make dangerous areas safer. For example, in collaboration with the Texas Department of Transportation, it implemented a median on I-35 from 51st Street to Rundberg Lane that makes it more difficult to see across. In the two years prior to its implementation, four pedestrians each year had died trying to cross that stretch, a good portion of them living in nearby encampments, according to Leff. Since its implementation in August 2020, only one person has died.
Federal initiatives have also fostered some hope. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has made road safety a clear goal, referring to the current rise in deaths as a "crisis." Crossley and Leff noted that much of the funds available in the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last year include equity considerations.
The Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant program in particular will focus on projects that address road safety. "The law also directed the Department, when selecting projects under the program, to consider other factors in addition to safety, including equitable investment in the safety needs of underserved communities," read a U.S. Department of Transportation news release announcing $1 billion available SS4A funds in 2022.
ATD and CAMPO are on track to submit applications for Safe Streets for All grants on September 15. "It's very explicit about investing in areas that are defined by the USDOT as historically disadvantaged areas or underserved areas, so I think they've got a requirement of at least 40% of the funds will be going to those locations, and we're going to aim for something higher than that," Leff said.