The News-Press, Jan. 18, 2017
For more than a decade, Lee County has consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians and cyclists both in Florida and nationwide, and Florida has ranked the most dangerous state in the country. The “Dangerous by Design” 2016 report, released by Smart Growth America on Jan. 10, takes it to the next level by ranking our community as the worst in the country, with Florida continuing as the worst state in the country.
It is important to note that this report is a look backwards (2005-2014), assessing pedestrian deaths in those years. It does not take into account recent efforts throughout Lee County to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. It does, however, provide a clear-cut justification for the many efforts to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety in Lee County over the past seven years, as complete streets policies were adopted throughout the county.
The report clearly demonstrates the urgent need for increased public and private investment in pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure to make Lee County’s transportation system safer for all users. The policies are in place, and the plans are ready to go. What is needed now by all municipalities, the county, and the state is implementation -- the investment of adequate funding detailed in these plans. It cannot be business as usual -- safety improvements need to be on the ground as quickly as possible.
A chronic culture of danger for area walkers and bikers threatens not only residents and visitors; it undercuts our economy; threatens our ability to attract and retain businesses, workers, and families to live and work here; undermines our tourism marketing; and underlines a growing safety gap driven by socioeconomic conditions and geographic patterns.
Investments in complete streets and bike/ped strategies not only make our streets safer for all users (including motorists), they make good economic sense. Today, more and more people want to live and work in walkable communities, yet Lee County lags far behind in offering them. We know from research that sidewalks and shared use paths increase the value of homes in those neighborhoods. Bottom line: Investing in creating and maintaining walkable communities is a win/win strategy.
It's also time for Lee County jurisdictions to focus on equity. Our most economically disadvantaged communities are the ones suffering the disproportionate share of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, yet investments don't match the documented dangers. For example, much work has been done over the past five years with the Tice community with thorough identification of problems and community-supported recommendations to policymakers. However, to date, only small efforts have been taken by policymakers to implement and fund the changes requested by the community and needed to make this vulnerable community safer for walkers and cyclists.
Safety is not only driven by infrastructure and investment, but also by education and enforcement. Of particular concern is the growing epidemic of distracted driving, where technology far outstrips legal protections to keep drivers’ focus on the road. We need to change drivers’ behavior. Stronger state laws and enforcement are needed to fight distracted driving.
This report comes at an opportune moment for Lee County. The $10 million federal investment in the MPO's Complete Streets Initiative project has just been completed, with 13 miles of additional walking/ biking infrastructure connected to our existing network. In addition, Cape Coral has been awarded almost $6 million in state funds to construct shared use paths and sidewalks on Kismet Parkway; these will eventually connect with and be part of the statewide trail system.
Now is the time for local jurisdictions to build on these substantial federal and state investments in our community. Local jurisdictions need to invest in further improvements that will meet the complete streets goals these projects support -- to reduce bike/ped fatalities and injuries, increase usage of the bike/ped facilities, grow bike tourism, and increase the economic benefits to the community.
We cannot stand still. We either move forward to make our infrastructure safer for bikers and walkers, or accept higher pedestrian and cyclist death rates as more citizens move here and then suffer a subsequent economic downturn when people begin to realize their quality of life is slipping because investments have not been made to make roadways safer for everyone. Now is the time to embrace change by funding a safer future (our specific recommendations are at bikewalklee.blogspot.com).
We must all work to make our roadways safer, as drivers and pedestrians, officials and advocates. We should not tolerate being dubbed the worst in the country in any criteria – certainly not in something as essential to one’s quality of life as safety.
BikeWalkLee is a community coalition raising public awareness and advocating for complete streets in Lee County — streets that are designed, built, operated and maintained for safe and convenient travel for all users: pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Information, statistics and background online at BikeWalkLee.org