CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Traffic crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists have risen since 2005 in Charlotte due to distracted drivers, jaywalkers and miles of busy city roads without crosswalks and sidewalks.
The increase happened even as pedestrian and bicycle fatalities nationally dropped or remained flat over the last decade. The city also says the overall number of wrecks on city-maintained roads has declined in recent years.
An Observer analysis of N.C. Department of Transportation data identified 12 hot spots for pedestrian-involved accidents.
The highest concentration of pedestrian-involved accidents happens uptown. Most other problem areas are in low-income communities, where residents are more reliant on walking and public transportation.
Fourteen people have been killed walking or bicycling since January, at a pace that could equal last year’s total of 24.
Victims included a Wells Fargo executive walking to work uptown, a Garinger High School senior walking to a school event and two boys walking with their father beside a road without a sidewalk.
Two pedestrian deaths happened Saturday.
Early Saturday, 46-year-old Ricky Neal was walking across Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte when he was struck and killed by a car. The driver, Racquel Belinda Mallory, 38, was arrested and charged with driving while impaired.
Later in the day, police say, Jesse Ryan Brackett, 21, died of injuries suffered Friday night when a car driven by a 25-year-old woman veered off North Sharon Amity Road, hitting Brackett and another pedestrian, and then slamming into trees.
The crashes reflect how large sunbelt cities such as Charlotte, Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix grew in the automobile age and now rank among the most dangerous places for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Charlotte leaders have long sought to transform the city into a walkable and bike-friendly community. Shortly after announcing a new bike-sharing program earlier this month, Mayor Anthony Foxx joined residents and other officials for a brief bicycle ride through uptown.
A strategic plan the city has adopted would build 375 miles of sidewalks by 2035.
A recent move to fund the effort failed when the City Council rejected a capital spending plan that would have used a tax hike to pay for wide-ranging improvements, including $45 million for sidewalks and pedestrian safety.
City Council member Claire Fallon remains upset that the board last month rejected a $660 million version of the capital spending plan.
Fallon said a lack of sidewalks where she lives in northeast Charlotte makes it difficult for residents who do not own cars to walk to stores and restaurants or even to catch the bus.
Overall, about 480 miles of main thoroughfares and 1,600 miles of local roads lack sidewalks.
“We have wonderful highways, but you can’t get on one without a car,” Fallon said.
A spokesman for Foxx referred questions about the Observer’s findings to the Charlotte Department of Transportation. The agency sent prepared responses but declined repeated requests for an interview.
An Observer analysis of records for nearly 3,300 traffic crashes in Charlotte involving pedestrians and bicyclists from 2005 to 2011 found:
• Motor vehicles struck walkers and bicyclists in 522 accidents last year compared with 454 in 2005. 2009 marked the lowest number of pedestrian-involved wrecks, with 385.
• Pedestrian crashes were concentrated uptown and along main thoroughfares, often in low-income neighborhoods, which experts say mirrors a national trend.
• Records do not attribute blame but suggest that the most common contributing factor was jaywalking. More than one-third of pedestrians hit were in the road but outside of a marked crosswalk. Next was driver inattention in about 19 percent of incidents and failure to yield about 9 percent of the time.
In about 13 percent of crashes, walkers were hit while in a marked crosswalk.
Deaths cause alarm
A string of incidents this year brought renewed attention to pedestrian safety.
In January, bank executive Brett Morgan, 47, was struck and killed while walking to work uptown at the intersection of College and East Stonewall streets. A second uptown worker was injured in a similar crash at the intersection the next day. Both men were struck while in a crosswalk.
Since then, city transportation officials have closed a lane of traffic at the intersection to slow speeds and make drivers more attentive to pedestrians.
In February, two boys, ages 1 and 5, were struck and killed by a delivery truck while walking with their father along a stretch of West Tyvola Road, which had no sidewalk. The following month, City
Council voted to shift money from a road project that came in under budget to build one there.
In March, Brittany Palmer, an 18-year-old senior at Garinger High School was killed while crossing Eastway Drive near East Sugar Creek Road on the city’s east side. She was at a stretch of road with few crosswalks or intersections.
The Charlotte City Council later voted to install a signaled crosswalk near the crash site along with a plaque in her honor.
But intersections with high numbers of crashes remain threats to pedestrians.
Crosswalks along some major roads are far apart and often ignored. Cars zip along streets at 45 mph and sometimes speed up so they won’t have to wait for pedestrians crossing the street.
On a recent day, Kristie Graves hauled a load of laundry across Beatties Ford Road. In recent years, vehicles hit about 20 pedestrians and killed one along the 1.4-mile stretch of Beatties Ford Road from Interstate 85 to West Brookshire Freeway, records show.
Graves and her two small children streaked halfway across five lanes into the turn lane. Graves yelled for her son to halt as he appeared ready to dart into the path of oncoming traffic whizzing by at 30 mph to 40 mph.
“They need to put a crosswalk here,” Graves said after the family made it safely to the other side.
“They could’ve hit him.”
City Council member James Mitchell said the council on Monday will consider a plan that would widen sidewalks, plant trees and add crosswalk marking along Beatties Ford.
Officials proposed the idea to improve aesthetics along the business corridor, but the Observer’s findings “show there is a safety issue.”
The city builds most of its sidewalks with money from the sale of bonds. The city historically holds a bond referendum every two years to pay for sidewalks, roads, affordable housing and neighborhood improvements.
The city does not have a referendum scheduled for November.
That means money for any new sidewalk building would have to be taken from existing projects, City Council member Michael Barnes said.
Barnes said he remains upset that after council members rejected the capital spending plan, they also turned down his compromise proposal that included money for sidewalks, bicycle paths and other pedestrian facilities.
Bicyclists at risk
Of the 3,300 crashes since 2005, about 650 involved bicyclists.
Myers Park High School student Andrew Wright, 14, died in May when he missed the school bus and rode his bike to school. He lost control while weaving around trash bins on Sharon Lane, flew into the street and was hit by a tractor-trailer.
His mother, Bernadette Christi, said she’d like to see something done to improve safety for pedestrians on days when trash is collected.
“The only place for people to put the trash cans is on the sidewalk, and then there really is no room for bikers, and it really puts them at risk,” she said.
Charlotte leaders and bicycling advocates have long envisioned a more bike-friendly city. Charlotte Center City Partners’ 2020 Vision Plan recommends creating a “True City of Bikes,” with more bike pathways and other amenities.
The group recently unveiled the state’s first bike-share program, which allows people to rent a bike in and around uptown.
Robin Farina, a nationally known cycling champion who owns Uptown Cycles, a shop near Bank of America Stadium, said Charlotte has made strides in recent years to improve safety and promote bicycling but remains far behind leading cities such as Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis. Farina trains six to seven days a week, sometimes riding more than 100 miles a day.
“I feel like I am always looking over my shoulder,” Farina said. “I come back very frustrated.
“I feel like I am taking my life into my own hands.”
The Charlotte region ranked 17th most dangerous for pedestrians out the nation’s 52 largest metro areas with 208 fatalities from 2000 to 2009, according to a frequently cited study released last year by Transportation for America, a nonprofit safety advocacy group.
Orlando topped the list. Raleigh ranked 13th.
David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, said Charlotte’s ranking is not a good sign.
“Charlotte is definitely growing along the lines of Atlanta,” which ranked 11th most dangerous, Goldberg said. “You will see a worsening of that ranking as time goes on.”
Many of the cities that rank among the most unsafe for pedestrians developed mostly in the second half of the 20th century and built wide arterial roads lined with big-box stores, safety experts said.
The roads were made to move cars quickly in and out of suburbs.
“The consequence is that it is difficult for people to walk,” said Tom Crosby, spokesman for AAA of the Carolinas. “A lot of places you can’t walk with small children.”
Safety advocates said government officials historically have succumbed to pressure from motorists and developers who want traffic to move swiftly.
Now, some places are putting themselves on a “road diet,” said Marni Ratzel, Bike and Pedestrian Transportation Planner for Boulder, Colo. They have narrowed wide streets and replaced car lanes with bike lanes and medians to slow traffic and increase safety for walkers.
In Dilworth, Charlotte officials in recent years narrowed a section of the neighborhood’s signature East Boulevard, extended curbs and added crosswalks and median islands to improve pedestrian safety in an area popular with runners.
“The reaction from the neighborhood and a pedestrian standpoint is that the street is now substantially safer than it was before,” said Tom Donaldson, the president of the Dilworth Community Development Association. “The overall reaction has definitely been positive.”
The city’s transportation department keeps data on collisions only for city-maintained streets. The Observer’s analysis also included highways within Charlotte that are maintained by the state.
The city’s data show that the pedestrian crash rate on city-operated roads has fluctuated in recent years, peaking in 2008 with 15.65 pedestrian crashes per million miles driven by vehicles.
The rate was 13.19 last year compared with 8.83 in 2005.
Overall, the number of traffic crashes has declined steadily during the last four years.
But crashes involving pedestrians have “increased slightly,” averaging about 300 pedestrian crashes and 90 bicycle crashes a year on city-operated streets.
Charlotte Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Durrett said the department has prioritized a list of 200 locations where the city plans to install pedestrian crosswalk signals that show walkers how long they have to cross the street.
City Council member David Howard said Charlotte has changed its land use and development strategy to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Charlotte began requiring developers to build sidewalks with their projects.
Howard said the city has pushed for housing and business development along the light-rail line.
The plan could make residents less car-dependent.
Howard also said the city has far more bike lanes than in the past and that it takes time for drivers to adjust.
“We’re getting used to new modes of transportation,” said Howard, chairman of the council’s Transportation and Planning Committee.
“We’ve got to learn new behaviors.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.