At ground zero of the pedestrian safety crisis, a mayor’s traffic reform goals are put to the test
For Roni Wood, it happened just two blocks from her house. While walking with her 13-year-old son, J.T., to a local Citibank branch in Orlando, Florida, in February 2018, the mother of five was hit by a driver in a Jeep Laredo taking a right on red. Even though Wood had the signal and was walking her bike in the crosswalk on a sunny afternoon, the driver claimed he didn’t see her. He smashed his car into her left side, rolling her face up the windshield—then braked, tossing her six feet in the air and leaving her “mangled to her bicycle,” as she put it, in the middle of an oncoming lane of traffic. Luckily, J.T., who was behind his mom and out of the car’s path, quickly called 911 and stepped out in front of his mother to protect her.
Wood’s smiling demeanor as she describes the scene belies the seriousness of her injuries, which she says resulted in the “most pain she’d ever had in her life.” She ended up with four broken leg bones, which had to be held together by a plate and 10 screws; spent three months in a wheelchair; and ended up with $120,000 worth of medical bills, which were covered by insurance. She lives with the injuries every day: She can’t bend down to clean the filter of her backyard pool, and she can’t wear certain shoes because her feet will swell. The driver, whom Wood says she forgives, because everybody makes mistakes, didn’t receive a ticket; it was up to the discretion of the officer on the scene to write one, and even though Wood complained to his superior, no ticket was issued. The driver’s insurance premiums likely didn’t even go up.
The week before Christmas 2011, Wendy Goodrich received a call from a nearby hospital. They said they were looking for the daughter of Rex Ammerman, her father, but no need to rush. The last part, about taking her time, made her think the worst, an assessment confirmed when she arrived and found her dad had already died. A recently retired engineer, he had been taking his daily 30-mile bike ride on the Cross Seminole Trail when, as he crossed the eight-lane State Road 436 with the light, he was hit by a driver who didn’t notice the signals and later told officers at the scene that “I simply did not see him.” He was killed on impact. A monument now sits at the crosswalk he used, a single bicycle wheel topped with a white circular sign reading “drive safely.”
“Nobody wants to be in a situation when they need to receive that phone call because someone made a stupid mistake or was a distracted driver,” Goodrich says.
Orlando’s deadly reputation for unsafe streets
These horrific crashes only hint at the toll that traffic takes on pedestrians and cyclists in and around Orlando, which Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design reports have ranked most dangerous for pedestrians in all but one edition since 2009. There are roughly 25 to 30 collisions involving pedestrians every day in the greater Orlando region, according to Florida Highway Patrol Corporal Brian Gensler, who works for a unit that specializes in traffic homicides.
Like other American cities, Orlando has distracted drivers, drunk drivers, traffic congestion, suburbanization, SUVs, and sprawl. But it also suffers from a design problem that’s worse here than elsewhere: Its streets are meant for cars and for speed.
“Florida was built with the idea of minimizing congestion and maximizing vehicular speed,” says Louis Merlin, who teaches urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University. “Most streets are designed for fast speeds and no pedestrian or biker access. Those two functions just don’t go together well.”
Orlando may be the worst example of what’s become a national crisis in pedestrian safety. In 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 6,283 walkers were killed on American roadways, a 28-year high. U.S. children are twice as likely to die in traffic fatalities as those in other wealthy nations, according to a 2018 study in Health Affairs.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer admits his city is facing a crisis, though he notes that the vast majority of local pedestrian crashes aren’t in Orlando proper, but in the wider region, where the city doesn’t have jurisdiction. He also notes that the total number of pedestrian fatalities in Orlando is relatively low; the Dangerous By Design rankings place the metropolitan area higher because so few people in the Orlando region walk to work, meaning even a small number of crashes will involve a relatively high percentage of pedestrians. And the city is growing at an incredible rate, roughly 1,500 residents per week, while also coping with the tourist influx of Disney World and nearby theme parks, where 75 million annual visitors traverse the region utilizing the world’s largest fleet of rental cars; he argues the additional traffic isn’t factored into budget requests for state and federal money to upgrade roads.
In 2016, Dyer appointed Billy Hattaway, an urbanist reformer who had helped reshape the state department of transportation, as the city’s transportation director. Dyer is also supporting a penny sales tax initiative, proposed by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, that would raise $600 million annually for transportation, and Orlando has joined the ranks of U.S. cities adopting Vision Zero, a campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities.
“If we have even one pedestrian accident, that’s one too many,” Dyer tells Curbed.
But pledging something and doing something are very different, especially when it comes to the multifaceted challenge of making our streets safer.
“Any other epidemic, we’d be putting money into vaccines and treatments,” says Kate Kraft, executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting safety and walkability. “For some reason, this isn’t getting the same attention.” And, Kraft says, we already have enough information to take action. “We can tell where people are going to get killed.”
How the roads in Orlando—and Florida—became so unsafe
When Orlando first topped the Dangerous by Design rankings in 2011, the media took it as a given that Florida wasn’t a great place to walk or bike. The New York Times wrote, “As any pedestrian in Florida knows, walking in this car-obsessed state can be as tranquil as golfing in a lightning storm. Sidewalks are viewed as perks, not necessities. Crosswalks are disliked and dishonored. And many drivers maniacally speed up when they see someone crossing the street.”
The spine of the region’s highway system, Interstate 4, was sliced north-south through the middle of Orlando in 1956 at a cost of $1.3 million per mile ($12.29 million per mile in today’s dollars), creating an eight-mile gash through the center of town that divided the city along racial and class lines. At a massive town hall where 2,000 citizens voiced concern about being bulldozed out of their homes, officials told residents the highway was needed in case the population had to evacuate to escape a Soviet missile attack.
Interstate 4 and its associated highways and ring roads were the crowning achievement of a group of pro-growth politicians and business leaders, including Martin Andersen, then publisher of the Orlando Sentinel. Walt Disney decided to build Disney World in Bay Lake, roughly 20 miles southeast of Orlando, in large part because of the road system Andersen and his allies had established.
Orlando exploded outward in the 1970s and ’80s: the city’s population remains just 280,000, but the region’s is 2.1 million. As in other Sun Belt cities, development grew up where land was cheap, namely large plots adjacent to state and federal roadways. That left suburban residents with only the equivalent of rural highways to connect them to nearby homes and shopping centers. In 1998, the Orange County Commission rejected federal money for a light-rail system, which urbanist and professor Bruce Stephenson wrote would ensure “the spread of a fragmented mass of paved mediocrity designed to SUV dimensions.” Lynx, a regional bus system that covers a three-county area, barely has enough vehicles to adequately provide service (nearly half the routes run just once an hour).
With no truly reliable public mass transit to speak of, it’s no surprise that those without a car find it challenging at best to get around. Smart Growth’s report has consistently found that people of color, older adults, and residents of low-income neighborhoods suffer the highest fatality rates amid Florida’s already poor pedestrian safety record (an interim 2020 Dangerous by Design report found the state the worst for pedestrian safety from 2009 to 2018).
Craig Ustler, a local developer who is working on the $1 billion walkable downtown Creative Village project, notes that even he can’t get around parking minimums and the need to devote significant land to parked cars. Existing infrastructure makes it hard to see walkability as something that can be done on anything more than a project or neighborhood level.
“We’re making I-4 wider to the tune of $7 billion, and building a loop around the city,” he says. “It’s an investment in sprawl. The urbanists see it as refortifying the Great Wall of China.”
Local safety activists point to the road systems, not the users, as the main causes of crashes and casualties. Wide streets with multiple lanes, narrow or nonexistent sidewalks, and high speed limits all contribute to the problem.
“Excessive speeding and running red lights are often more a result of design,” says Merlin. “Many times, designers and engineers have dodged responsibility and say it’s the driver’s responsibility to drive safer. We can design streets that take into account that people make mistakes.”
Busy Interstate 4 right by the exit for Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida, outside of Orlando. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Billy Hattaway’s crusade
When Billy Hattaway and his college girlfriend escaped a head-on collision in New Hampshire without injury, he chalked it up as just one of those things. But later in life, while working as a road design engineer in Florida, he was presented with the death toll on U.S. roadways in the ’70s. It was roughly 45,000 people a year, an unbelievable figure; in the entirety of the Vietnam War, the country lost just under 60,000 soldiers.
“It’s a public health crisis,” he tells Curbed. “Forty thousand deaths every year and yet nobody, not the media or elected officials, seems to care. It seems to be an accepted cost of the freedom to drive.”
To Hattaway, the answer was to prioritize safety over ease of commuting, and to put himself in a position to lead on the issue. Over decades working multiple stints with FDOT, he amassed a record of pushing for safer road design, more roundabouts, and new policies, even implementing one of the state’s first complete-streets projects in 2004 and establishing a statewide pedestrian and bicycle strategic safety plan. Jeff Speck, an urban planner and city design consultant, calls him a “hero” for his work.
Hattaway also left FDOT multiple times, feeling that at certain points, safety wasn’t being taken seriously enough, or that engineers weren’t following his orders. Two years ago, when he was working as FDOT’s secretary for District One, he saw that Mayor Buddy Dyer was looking to re-establish the role of city transportation chief, reached out to City Hall, and got the job.
“It’s remarkable how Florida DOT has slowly but surely reformed itself, in recognition of its murderous past,” says Speck, referencing the department’s moves to shrink the width of lanes and adopt a complete-streets design manual. “I’m aware of no state in the U.S. that has made more changes in its policy in recent years than Florida DOT, and they are to be congratulated and thanked for that.“
Hattaway’s multifaceted solution for solving the city’s traffic safety crisis starts with the sales tax increase, which would increase his current budget of roughly $3 million for safety projects. He wants to spend that on enforcement and road redesign for high-crash corridors across the city, implementing road diets (reducing the number of lanes to limit speeds, improve pedestrian safety, and provide access to non-car alternatives) and speed reductions from the 40 mph speed limit many roads were designed for to as low as 25 mph.
Hattaway has already used funding from red-light cameras to add more raised crosswalks and flashing lights to increase pedestrian safety. He also tested a road diet this past spring on a half-mile section of Curry Ford Road, a few blocks from where Roni Wood was hit, that has seen 16 bicyclists and eight pedestrians struck by cars in the last five years. Despite some complaints by neighbors—61 percent of emails received during the first two weeks of the demonstration were opposed to the project—he says it was a successful learning experience for future projects.
“Everything he says is what local residents hate,” says Amanda Day, a pedestrian safety advocate for Bike/Walk Central Florida, one of the region’s most active groups around traffic safety, which counts Wood and Goodrich as members. “It’ll add five minutes onto the commute, but they’ll love it when it comes to it.”
Next year, Hattaway will start an even bigger process with potential for greater impact, rewriting development guidelines for the city. Hattaway showed me an infamous photo of a series of homes on cul-de-sacs designed for cars and not walkability, resulting in two adjacent homes requiring seven miles of roads to get from one to the other.
“All the activists and politicians have blamed transportation as being a source of the problem,” says Hattaway. “This is equally a land development problem. It’ll actually save us money, but it requires political will to stand up to the development community.”