Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Reducing pedestrian crashes by 65%: Walk Wilmington urges council to consider more sidewalks

Consulting firm Alta Planning is recommending the city invest additional money into pedestrian infrastructure to reduce the number of annual crashes involving walkers and bikers. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — The city is updating a 14-year-old plan with the goal to prevent future injuries to walkers and bikers.

READ MORE: 10 years later, multi-use paths between UNCW, WB to break ground

Wilmington has consistently ranked as having one of the highest pedestrian crash rates in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. A pedestrian plan presented to the city to reduce the rate noted many accidents occur in areas with greater concentrations of minority residents and higher poverty rates compared to the countywide average.

From 2001 to 2005, there were 32.52 pedestrian crashes per 10,000 people within city limits. The number of pedestrians injured or killed by a vehicle when on foot has decreased since a 2009 study. Between 2010 and 2020, there were 48 crashes per 100,000 people. However, it’s important to note in between the two studies, the total population has increased by around 20,000. 

Between 2016 and 2020, the city averaged 75 incidents and three fatalities per year, for a population around 115,000.

In 2019, Wilmington placed first in the state for pedestrian crashes.

“The goal is to drop down and not be a leader in that,” Alta Planning Vice President and East Regional Director Matt Hayes told city council Tuesday.

Durham-based Alta Planning was hired for $142,500 in early 2022 to upgrade the city’s 2009 pedestrian plan. Half was paid for by an NCDOT integrated mobility division grant and the other was matched by the city. 

Fourteen years later, more than 200 sidewalk, roadway and crossing projects have been funded, designed or completed. But that’s only half of the recommended improvements noted in the decades-old strategy.

The city has continued to invest in bike and ped paths since. In the 2014 transportation bond, $18.6 million was allocated for sidewalks, trails, bike and ped projects and crosswalks. Additional multi-use paths have been implemented alongside state transportation projects.

However, more connectivity is still needed, according to Alta. Results showed many new sidewalks have been incorporated in suburban neighborhoods, leaving gaps in an overall city trail system. Urban roadways have the least pedestrian infrastructure and are also the most likely to be locations for accidents.

Data collected indicated most accidents actually occur on a small percentage of roadways — 50% of crashes happened on 10% of city roads, including main hubs such as Market Street, Kerr Avenue, College Road, Third Street, Carolina Beach Road and Oleander Drive. 

The study shows Wilmington’s low-wealth communities are more likely to encounter gaps in the sidewalk network since the infrastructure in some of those areas is sparse; many sidewalks can be found in newer subdivisions instead. 

Alta’s findings also revealed people who have to walk to work and stores out of financial necessity are at a greater risk of being hit — 91% of crashes happened in areas where the poverty rate is above the county average of 11.9%. 

The updated Walk Wilmington Plan suggests installing sidewalks to avoid having to cross major roadways, in turn further reducing crashes by 65% to 89%. 

For example, the deadliest roadway is Wooster and Dawson from Third Street to Oleander Drive, with 62 reported collisions from 2011 to 2021. Thirty-three incidents involved pedestrians alone, while 29 involved bikers. Of the victims in this area, 70% were Black.

Walk Wilmington suggests focusing on projects along 10 priority corridors, most high- to mid-capacity streets:

  • Market Street from 23rd Street to Darlington Avenue; Darlington Avenue to Lullwater Drive; and Lullwater Drive to College Road
  • Kerr Ave from Market Street to Wilshire Boulevard
  • College Road from Oleander Drive to Jeff Gordon Drive
  • Third Street from Red Cross Street to Wooster Street
  • Wooster and Dawson Street from Third to Oleander
  • Oleander from Independence Boulevard to College Road
  • Oleander Drive from Forest Park Road to Victory Gardens Drive
  • Carolina Beach Road from Northern Boulevard to Sunnyvale Drive

The above roadways handle 560 to nearly 4,000 pedestrians and 100 to 550 bikers on an average weekday. 

Most of the high-priority connections are near grocery stores, schools and healthcare facilities but lack traffic control to mitigate intersection collisions. At least half of all crashes in Wilmington occur at intersections, according to NCDOT’s data within the pedestrian plan. 

Hot spots, according to NCDOT’s data, were UNCW, downtown, Carolina Beach Road and Oleander Drive from 2011 to 2020. It consisted of significant crashes, factoring in systemic risk factors, such as roadway type, land use, population density, time of day and demographics.

Pedestrian victims were also disproportionately Black compared to the overall proportion of Black residents in Wilmington.

NCDOT’s data noted the highest percentage of accidents resulting in serious injury or death were on roads with 40 to 45 miles-per-hour speeds. Based on Alta’s data, pedestrians hit by vehicles traveling at that speed have a 35% chance of survival, whereas residents hit by cars traveling 25 mph have an 89% chance of survival.

Based on public feedback from May 2022 to February 2023, Hayes said vehicle speeds, driver behavior and safety were top concerns expressed by the community.

Additional improvements that decrease the risk of accidents include enforcing lower vehicle speed limits, installing pedestrian refuge islands across major streets and constructing signalized crossings. Estimated costs for pedestrian improvements can range from $18 to paint a high-visibility crosswalk to a half-million dollars for a full traffic signal on a four-lane road. The total cost to the city to make recommended improvements has not yet been finalized.

Walk Wilmington also recommends implementing programs with community partners. For example, Alta’s plan recommends the city coordinate with UNCW and Wilmington Police Department to count non-motorized traffic. Results would provide the city a better understanding of walking patterns and high-activity areas, and help with tracking changes over time to prioritize projects.

A partnership could also be engaged with the school district to encourage students to walk and bike. According to the Walk Wilmington plan, if 8% more children living within 2 miles of their schools were to walk or bike, the air pollution reduced from not taking a car would be equivalent to removing 60,000 cars from the road for one year, nationally.

Alta posed to council members the economic benefit of increased accessible pedestrian paths.  According to research from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, sidewalks and bike paths create 36% more jobs than building highways.

The study presented a financial benefit to the public when more pedestrian-safe transportation options are available, particularly saving drivers gas money. Driving 4 miles per day costs the average person $905 per year in fuel and vehicle wear and tear, according to a 2019 study by AAA.

Alta began developing the plan in March last year, first compiling the city roadways’ existing conditions before developing a draft network map and report. For nine months, the firm gathered stakeholder and community feedback from a survey, an online map, open houses and attending local events.

The draft plan was released in February for feedback, and city council is expected to adopt the pedestrian plan at its July 18 meeting. Following will be additional planning and design, as well as strategically locating funds while prioritizing projects.

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