Published in The Emancipator (a joint venture between the Boston Globe and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research); co-written with Alex LaSalvia
That intersection was the site of the tragic death of 53-year-old Torrance Hodges, who was struck by a van while crossing the street in April.
“We watched the whole thing from our second floor,” Thornton said. “It was very, very sad.”
It’s not just chance that a road like Gallivan Boulevard runs through one of Boston’s most racially diverse neighborhoods. For decades, highways and roadways were constructed with little regard for increased traffic in Black communities. Sometimes they were intentionally built to divide and isolate those communities.
Across the U.S., Black and Latino pedestrians are more likely than White pedestrians to be struck and killed by cars when walking around their communities.
That’s the conclusion from The Emancipator’s analysis of national and city-level pedestrian fatality data from 2016 through 2020, which compared the locations of those deaths with neighborhood-level race and ethnicity data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 census. The analysis includes neighborhoods of the five largest U.S. cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix — as well as Boston.
The following maps breakdown racial disparities of pedestrian deaths in those cities. The analysis includes interactive and searchable maps.
Overall, there were more pedestrian fatalities in neighborhoods with greater racial and ethnic diversity — and, specifically, communities with lower proportions of White residents. This was true when analyzing data by census tract — a relatively small neighborhood-like area, an area that was usually home to between 2,500 and 8,000 people — or by county, or even by city-defined community regions like the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles or Boston’s South End.
There were many census tracts that saw no pedestrian fatalities from 2016 through 2020. But they were disproportionately inhabited by White people, 77% of whom lived in a fatality-free census tract.
Black people are 12.1% of the U.S. population, according to 2020 Census estimates, but 19.1% of the pedestrians killed; Latinos are 18.7% of the population and 19.2% of the pedestrian fatalities. By comparison, White people who are not Latino make up 57.8% of the U.S. population but 45% of the pedestrian fatalities from 2016 through 2020.
Asian Americans and people with multiracial backgrounds are less likely to be killed while walking than their prevalence in the nation’s population would suggest.
Even if the large percentage of pedestrian fatalities whose races were unknown or unreported were reclassified according to national proportions, Black and Latino people would still be disproportionately more likely to be killed while walking.
Dangerous roads put pedestrian lives at risk for the comfort of driving
People of color, those with fewer economic resources, and people with mobility limitations – such as those who need wheelchairs, walkers or other help getting around – are all at risk of being killed while walking, said Rebecca Sanders, founder of Safe Streets Research and Consulting and lead author of a study published last year that examines racial disparities and other related factors of pedestrian deaths.
“They don’t like feeling unsafe, but they don’t have another option,” she said.
The racial disparity in U.S. pedestrian deaths doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Cities and towns have been built to give cars priority, Sanders said. Even places touted for prioritizing pedestrians block pedestrian routes with major arterial roads — high-capacity roads that aren’t freeways but often have two lanes in each direction. Many of those arterial roads are state highways that cut through cities at the expense of pedestrian safety, Sanders said.
“If you want to go for a walk to a restaurant or a grocery store, you have to cross a major arterial to get there,” Sanders said.
Those wide roads with fast-moving traffic are where most pedestrian deaths occur, said Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle who is now executive director of America Walks, a pedestrian-advocacy non-profit. Those arterial roads have fewer crosswalks spaced farther apart, and higher speed traffic than smaller, narrower neighborhood roads.
“Guess where those multi-lane arterials are found most often?” he asked. “It’s part of the deeper racial and ethnic inequalities in America.”
Freeways and arterials have long been pushed through Black neighborhoods, particularly during the highway boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Developers built apartment buildings along those roads, putting large numbers of people right in front of heavy, fast-moving traffic, McGinn said.
“Many times these wide arterials have no sidewalks at all. You’ll see a dirt path by the side of the road,” he said. But the dirt path, which emerges from persistent foot traffic, is important evidence: “We know people are there.”
Poles and signs found alongside roads are also indicators of risks of fast-moving traffic. They’re built to reduce the danger to errant drivers. “We design the poles to be breakaway poles because we know cars will leave the roadway and hit them,” McGinn said. “And then we tell people to walk right there.”
“We subsidize the driving comfort of some with the risk of death and injury or health issues for others,” he said.
Structural inequity makes pedestrian danger a race and class issue
Pam Jiner wants to “be able to walk to a practical destination, do what you need and make it back home safely.” But that simple goal is hard to reach.
Jiner is a community leader in Montbello, a neighborhood in the northeast section of Denver, that was built in the mid-1960s. The community had no sidewalks on key roads leading to a major intersection until 2020, Jiner said.
Montbello, home to almost 40,000 people, was once majority Black but is now 77% Latino.
And while Jiner has encouraged everyone in her community to get outside into nature, exercise, and see neighbors, she added, “we get out there and see all the obstacles that are in our way.”
To Jiner, the solutions are so simple it’s sad she has to point them out: “When you build a school, build crosswalks. When you build a park, build stop signs and crosswalks. Senior living facilities all deserve bus stops with shelters, covers over them.”
Instead, she saw roads where “pedestrians are putting themselves in danger” when they attempted to cross or while on sidewalks. Sometimes she would go for walks with local officials, where she would show off a new sidewalk, but they gasped in horror at how dangerous the environment remains for pedestrians. They would tell her, “you have sidewalks but it’s still not safe,” she said.
Jiner drew a parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement, saying public policies that put pedestrians of color at risk are further evidence of systemic racism.
She’s not the only one.
Jonathon Stalls, a self-described “walking artist” who walked across the U.S. over eight and a half months in 2010, and wrote a book about it, agreed. He said he saw what his friend and fellow Denver resident Jiner mentioned — structural racism tied to pedestrian safety —as “a consistent thing across the country.”
In his efforts to encourage people to walk or “move the way we’re made to,” Stalls paid close attention to the cars on the roads he walks along as well as other pedestrians.
He spoke of seeing older adults on their own and parents clenching the hands of young children, navigating multi-lane arterial roads or standing on the three-foot-wide cement platforms dividing the lanes of traffic. “The way that they’re standing and shaking and huddling is really loud to me,” he said. “They’re surrounded by hundreds of cars flying in all directions.”
Stalls said he’s fortunate not to have been hit by a car in all of his walking, but he’s had “a lot of close calls.” And on his nation-crossing walk, he saw roadside memorials to pedestrians killed “all the time.”
Stalls chronicled various walking experiences through PedestrianDignity, his TikTok account. Some of his videos might be comical if they weren’t so scary.
In one video, Stalls narrated his attempt to walk from a bus stop to a grocery store just blocks away. He showcased a beautiful, wide, smooth sidewalk perfect for pedestrians, including people using wheelchairs or walkers. But then he got to the property line, and the sidewalk stopped. A fence ran across the route, forcing him into the road alongside heavy vehicle traffic.
Timing his move carefully, and making clear he does not recommend anyone follow his example, Stalls ran past heavy underbrush and foliage that had overgrown the curb, spending eight seconds in the actual roadway before reaching relative safety: a stretch where the brush had been cleared, revealing a dirt path just inches wide. At least it was beyond the curb.
‘Make noise and get attention’ to spur progress for pedestrians
People aren’t powerless when it comes to pushing for improved conditions for pedestrians.
Guerrilla traffic cone placement, road blockades, and street art are just some of the methods people are using to reclaim the streets in their neighborhoods. Countless pedestrian safety groups have sprung up nationwide — there’s probably one in your neighborhood, and if not, there are resources for you to start one.
Change comes when communities make noise and create “a little bit of inconvenience,” said Ed Parillon, a bike and pedestrian safety advocate and member of Safe Street Rebel in San Francisco. Safe Street Rebel is an advocacy organization focused on direct action such as organizing people to stand in bike lanes to create barriers between cars and cyclists. The group has elevated issues like public transport investment and protected bike lanes.
“We still have a long way to go,” Parillon said, but protected bike lanes weren’t “even part of the conversation when I moved to San Francisco in 2008.”
In San Francisco, the difference in pedestrian safety in Black and Brown neighborhoods versus White affluent neighborhoods can be stark. Parillon lives in the Mission District, which doesn’t have the same walkability as the wealthier, whiter neighborhood of Noe Valley.
“It was really striking when I was walking around with my kids there versus in the Mission,” Parillon said. “You feel the safety on the street, you feel the lower stress levels when you’re walking places.”
Parillon credited spaces like Streetsblog, a news site advocating for the end of car dependence since 2006, for sparking his interest in advocating for safer pedestrian conditions. He recommended getting involved with local organizations focused on street safety.
“If you are someone from a minority community and you want to point out some of the street conditions that are dangerous in your neighborhood, I do think that there’s a lot of focus on that now,” Parillon said. “Get out there and make noise and get attention, because that’s the only way that this stuff makes progress.”
The Emancipator analyzed data from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Boston.
Fatal crash locations were compared with city limits, and assigned to census blocks, which were in turn assigned to community subdivisions, as defined by city officials. Three cities — LA, Chicago and Boston — called the community subdivisions “neighborhoods,” but they were called “community districts” in New York, “super neighborhoods” in Houston, and “villages” in Phoenix.
There were 33,375 records in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s database of pedestrian fatalities from 2016 through 2020. Of those, 2,058 — 6% — were injuries and not fatalities. It was not possible to know where deaths occurred based on 167 of the records, 0.5%, because the latitude and longitude information was “unknown,” “not reported” or “not available.” When matched with census tracts, three had no census tract to match to, leaving 31,147 pedestrian fatalities from 2016 through 2020 to analyze.
When calculating pedestrian fatality rates by census tract, some tracts had very low populations, or even zero. So the analysis excluded tracts with fewer than 1,895 people — 5% of the maximum tract population of 37,892.
In the analysis within cities, the potential errors were very small: Phoenix’s share of crashes with unknown or unreported locations, 4.6%, was the highest among the six cities. And small proportions of each city’s reported crashes were non-fatal. Overall, just 9.6% of all the crashes reported in these six cities were excluded from the analysis.