No Accident! Traffic and Pedestrians in the Modern City

As most of our regular readers are well aware, World Streets is no friend of speed in cities. To the contrary, it is our firm position that a considerable number of the basic objectives associated with sustainable mobility and sustainable cities can be achieved if we do no more than to reduce top speeds in and around our cities in a strategic and carefully thought-out way. The great technological virtuosity of traffic engineers and technical planners permit us to do this, while at the same time retaining a well working transportation system, a healthier city, and a viable local economy. Listen to what John Rennie Short and Luis Mauricio Pinet-Peralta have to tell us on the subject.

No Accident: Traffic and Pedestrians in the Modern City

Authors: John Rennie Short and Luis Mauricio Pinet-Peralta. Department of Public Policy, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD, USA

This paper considers the rise of traffic accidents in the creation of the modern city. The notion of accidents is deconstructed. There is a brief review of current literature on mobilities and then evidence is presented of the shifting configuration of vehicle-pedestrian accidents. The epidemic of traffic accidents of cities in developing world is noted and explained. The incidence of pedestrian traffic accidents is shown to reflect socio-economic characteristics such as age, class and status. A review of the literature provides evidence of the ways to ameliorate pedestrian injuries. Walksheds are suggested as a focus of concern. The creation of a more pedestrian-friendly city is proposed.

The Modern City

At the heart of modernity is the connection between speed, the machine and the city. In his 1909 manifesto of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) glorified the man at the wheel and the beauty of speed. He associated speed with courage in action and slowness with stagnant prudence. His glorification of the speeding automobile in the city prefigures its subsequent centrality to urban development.

Cities were reimagined and then reengineered to promote high speed. Virilo (1986; 1995; 2005) tells a story of the destruction of the sociability of the city by the logic of acceleration. In a more nuanced interpretation, Latham and McCormack (2008) explore the ways in which the speed and the ‘countervailing eddies of slowness’ define the experience of the city. However, in terms of urban traffic and the marginalization and displacement of the self-propelled human body, Virilio’s image of the city as a site of acceleration seems closer to the mark. In this paper, we will explore one of the little discussed consequences of this transformation, the risk of bodily accidents in what are described as ‘traffic accidents’.

The modern city is designed largely around the use of motor vehicles despite the inherent risks in machine-body coexistence, part of the brisk pace of city life. Indeed, in the immediate prehistory of automotive ascendancy, the Futurists downplayed any risks and celebrated machine-body meshing as a means to a high-speed, dynamic superhumanity.

Such eventual transformation was made possible, according to the Futurism’s founding myth, when poet Filippo Marinetti emerged from a ditch after crashing his beloved Fiat, spewing mud and apparently, the Manifesto of Futurism, which begins ‘We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness’ and famously continues ‘We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’ (Flint, 1972, p. 41).

By the early 1930s, Le Corbusier further enshrined swift automobility, proposing his ‘autostrades’ as concrete ribbons threading skyscrapers’ canopies, elevated above mere city streets and devoid of pedestrians for optimum vehicular velocity. Speed and the fantasy of infinite mobility were at the heart of modernism and its physical embodiment in urban modernity. Norton (2008), for example, tells the story of American cities; at the beginning of the twentieth century, city streets had a variety of users, people as well as cars, and multiple users, a place for children playing, people walking, neighbors chatting.

From the 1900s to the early 1930s, a battle was fought between, on the one hand, the multiple users and interests decrying the onslaught of cars on streets and the growing dominance of auto traffic, the term ‘death cars’ was frequently used, and on the other hand, automotive interests which continually invoked freedom as a rallying cry. The automotive interests won. From our perspective today it seems a foregone conclusion but the 25-year period in the early twentieth century reminds us of the battle for alternative conceptions of the primary purpose of city streets.

This urban restructuring of the city streets as pathways for automobiles with pedestrians shunted to the sidewalks has a high human cost. High-speed machines mangle bodies and kill pedestrians and yet these costs are largely absent from urban studies and discussions of urban safety.

A recent book with the title The Safe City (Berg et al., 2006) makes for interesting reading, as much for what it does not include as for what it does include. While issues of terrorism and crime abound in the book, one issue receives scant attention despite the book’s title, which is the risk of bodily injury and fatality from traffic accidents. Such neglect is not uncommon in the recent urban literature where terrorist campaigns and crime waves dominate safety issues, yet there is a huge silence on the issue of traffic safety and especially pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

There have been a number of commentators who have drawn attention to the issue of traffic and pedestrian safety (Hass-Klau, 1990), numerous empirical studies (e.g., Chapman et al., 1982; Graham & Glaister, 2003) as well as the continuing concern of such commentators as Mayer Hillman (Hillman, 1993; Karpf, 2002). However, the issue has failed to gain traction in the wider and broader urban studies literature. And yet the issue is of some importance.

Across the world almost over 10 million people are crippled or injured each year, and approximately 1.2 million people are killed every year due to road accidents, approximately 3,250 people every day, (Peden et al. 2004). That is the equivalent of a World Trade Center disaster on the world’s roads each and every day. One writer even refers to a global epidemic of road deaths (Dahl, 2004). The total economic cost is estimated at 1 percent of the GNP of low-income countries and 2 percent in high-income countries (Jacobs et al., 2000).

No Accident

Even the quickest review of recent and classic urban texts reveals little consideration of this issue. Why the silence? Two reasons stand out. First, there is the notion of the accidental, of random events that are to be endured rather than explained.

The term ‘accident’ is revealing; it initially meant an event, anything that happens. Now the word commonly refers to an unforeseen event, a mishap. But the predictable covariance of road deaths with social phenomena belies this connotation of ‘accident’. The young and the vulnerable and the poor and the marginal are more likely to be hit by a car than the rich and the powerful. While road deaths have declined among rich countries, they have increased among poor countries.

These statistics suggest an ordered causation rather than random occurrences. Road traffic accidents are not mishaps but events that are both explainable and preventable. The relative silence shrouding this serious issue is itself a political act. The incidence of pedestrian fatalities and injuries is skewed toward the more marginal and vulnerable members of society. Yet this consistent finding has failed to capture the attention of most critical theorists.

Most pedestrian fatalities occur in poor countries and have greater impact on the poor, the young and the old. Pedestrian injuries are just one strand in webs of multiple deprivations that bind people in disadvantaged positions. To see traffic fatalities and injuries through the lens of marginalization theory is to offer a very different perspective on them as accidents (see Cutler & Malone, 2005).

Second, there is the silence accorded to all events that have a constant background quality. The fact that road traffic accidents happen all the time makes them blend into the fabric of the taken for granted.

Too regular to generate much notice, they become mere white noise rather than events to be analyzed. Their very consistency and regularity allows them to fade into an unexamined, rarely discussed space. The urban spectaculars such as the collapse of the World Trade Center, overwhelms and ultimately silences the murderous regularity of road traffic fatalities and injuries.

Road traffic ‘accidents’ are taken for granted cost of contemporary urban living, a seeming inevitability that allows attention to be drawn to the more unusual, rare events; they are just too mundane, too anonymous, too ordinary to generate much interest. However, the rising concern with the everyday ordinary nature of the lived urban experience should prompt a reconsideration of road safety and risk.

The ‘ordinary’ quality assigned to road traffic accidents is, if you excuse the unintended pun, no accident: there is also a vast array of interests concerned with making them ordinary. These interests include the motor vehicle manufacturers, road builders, construction companies as well as a society that does not want to question the fatal costs of a culture and cities dominated by fast moving vehicles. The current usage of the term ‘accidents’ to refer to fatal and damaging machine-body interactions in the city is incorrect, misleading and deceptive in shifting the phenomenon from social outcome to random event.

Perrow (1999) introduced the notion of ‘normal accidents’ that may be unforeseeable yet are inevitable. Perrow based his initial work on the near meltdown of Three Mile Island. Drawing a wider perspective on high-risk technologies, he argues that accidents occur when systems become more complex and interconnected. These conditions are increasingly met in cities where traffic patterns are more complex and a variety of users share busier roads. The ubiquitous nature of motorized transport in many cities, in comparison to the obvious singularity of nuclear power station renders it, in the minds of many, as safe or relatively innocuous.

Yet a heavy piece of metal – the average weight of a US car in 2006 was 4142 lbs. (1878 kg) – traveling at even 30 miles per hour, operated by someone, perhaps listening to the radio, drinking coffee or using his cell phone, times the thousands of other drivers on a road in the average city constitutes a complex technological system with lots of room for human error. The result is a relatively high risk of being involved in a car crash. Our need for urban vehicular traffic has in part blinded us to its inherent and inevitable risks to health and safety. Popular perceptions of risks, in general and in relation to traffic accident risk in particular, are based more on intuition and judgment, rather than objective assessments (Slovic, 2002).

In this paper, after reviewing some mobilities literature and presenting some general background data, we will concentrate on pedestrian injuries, because they are marginalized by recent urban safety scholarship: there is no rush to publish or comment on everyday traffic accidents involving pedestrians as there is to pontificate in the wake of 9/11. Then we will review a range of recent papers that explore the causal connections between urban design and traffic ‘accidents’. We will introduce the notion of ‘walkshed’ as a unit of analysis and conclude with intimations of more progressive changes.

The paper is part review and part an attempt to right the balance in discussions of urban traffic. As the more affluent move around by car and limousine, the pedestrian becomes the minor player in transport discussions, and as cities are restructured to fit the needs of the car, the needs of the pedestrian are even less considered. But even the car driver has to step out of the car at times.

While not everyone drives a car, most of us are pedestrians at some time. However, as soon you step out of your car in many if not most cities, you become a second-class citizen: it is as if your full rights only exist when you drive a car.

Walk in the city, and you are pushed to the sides of the road, a telling phrase and metaphor. When a car hits a child it is often treated as an accident, when a child hits a car it is considered vandalism. When Short (1989) writes in The Humane City of cities designed as if only some people matter, he references specifically car drivers in contrast with pedestrians. Cities are biased toward the needs of the drivers rather than the rights of the pedestrians, despite the obvious inequality. A heavy metal object traveling at even relatively low speeds does more damage to a human body than the body does to the car. People get killed and maimed; cars merely get scratched and dented.

. . . (Body of paper follows here. We jump for now to the authors’ conclusions. See below for links to full article.) . . .


Across the globe there is an epidemic of traffic injuries and fatalities that is particularly marked in low- and middle-income countries. Almost 90 percent of traffic fatalities occur in low- and middle-income countries. The most vulnerable are pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. The poor, the young and the old are at especially high risk.

Injury control and prevention strategies as part of a broader and deeper reorientation of cities away from a car-dominated culture toward a vehicle-pedestrian sharing culture can have significant impacts on morbidity, mortality, risk of injury and population health. These strategies include:

* Limiting and controlling speed through active and passive measures that target drivers’ decisions on how fast to drive and road conditions that indirectly force drivers to reduce their average speeds;

* Organizing traffic away from residential areas, limiting inner city and business area traffic flow, and encouraging alternative modes of transportation that focus more on health benefits and non-motorized road users;

* Continuing public information programs targeting high-risk groups and vulnerable urban populations;

* Integrating urban planning and development and public health to design built environments that promote healthier lifestyles rather than safer behaviors.

Pedestrian injuries are not accidents. They are preventable. If the vulnerability of the human body was the determining factor, then it is unlikely we would design our transport system the way we have.

‘Accidents’ reflect and reinforce social differences: they are less accidents and more manifestations of wider and deeper inequalities in society that reflect the relative power of a vehicle-dominated as opposed to a pedestrian-dominated culture.

We need an anti-Marinetti to write a program for the future in which the city reflects the needs of the pedestrians and the frailties of the human body rather than the needs of the drivers and the power of their vehicles. It is perhaps fitting then that the same country that produced Mainetti is also home to the CittaSlow movement.

# # #

For the full text
, referencess and graphics of this thought-provoking twenty page paper, please click here to :

– The Modern City
– No Accident
– A Wider Context
– Urban Design and Road Safety
– The City as Urban Walkshed
– Conclusion
– References
– List of Tables

# # #

Source: The full text of this article was published in: the journal Mobilities, Volume 5, Issue 1 February 2010 , pages 41 – 59. It is reprinted here with the kind permision of the authors.

The authors:

John Rennie Short is an expert on urban issues, environmental concerns, globalization, political geography and the history of cartography. He has studied cities around the world, and lectured around the world to a variety of audiences. He is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland (UMBC). He can be contacted via

Luis Mauricio Pinet Peralta holds a Ph.D in Public Policy, Health Specialty, with a background in Emergency Health Services, Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine. He is a Research Associate of the Department of Public Policy, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD. He can be contacted via

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s