Chart of the Day: Occupant and Non-occupant Fatalities by Mode

Here’s a chart that was tweeted out today by Alex Cecchini, who argues that US cities should be doing much more to grade separate transit modes and make them safer.



You can read the Twitter exchange here.

While writing an article on light rail safety a few months ago, I researched some of the factors that come into play with pedestrian and transit designs. These include the perception of risk, street and station design, perception and distraction issues, and signal timing.

There have been a few fatal crashes along the light rail lines over the past few years, most recently two fatalities in two days back in December. Just as with cars, there’s a basic conflict between having at-grade high-speed transit next to complex walkable spaces and streets.

Of course, there are huge differences in safety records within this data. For example, check out this article in Planetizen that compares safety records of high-transit versus low- or non-transit neighborhoods:

The study, The Hidden Traffic Safety Solution: Public Transportation, reveals that transit-oriented communities have about a fifth the per capita traffic casualty rate (fatalities and injuries) as automobile-oriented communities. This means public transit cuts a community’s crash risk in half even for those who do not use public transit. Public transportation communities spur compact development which reduces auto miles traveled and produces safer speeds.

18 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Occupant and Non-occupant Fatalities by Mode

  1. Julia

    I agree with Alex that we need to address fatality rates from LRT, but I disagree that the most reasonable means of doing this is grade separation. In my view, and as you addressed in your earlier article, a great deal of risk comes from the roads we’ve designed around our transit lines, particularly east of the U of M for the Green Line and most of the Blue Line. We continue to design streets for cars (rather than people) directly adjacent to transit lines.

    Anyone who walks in the U.S. knows at a gut level the dangers of cars, but far fewer of us have equivalent experience with LRT. This means when we’re on car-centric streets with multiple lanes of drivers whipping past, with no safe/comfortable spaces for those walking, we can easily make mistakes in assessing where the greatest risk is coming from. Our brains process the slower speed of the train as safer than the known-risk of the speeding car; it’s hard to process at that same level that the train cannot brake as quickly. Add in the noise of danger coming from so many directions on incredibly car-oriented streets like University east of the U of M, as well as the lack of nearby human-scaled experiences, and we’ve got a mess where we can’t easily/accurately maintain the level of vigilance our streets are pushing us into.

    Grade-separation doesn’t address, for example, the fact that our signalization for walking AT LRT stations is unclear and requires beg buttons. Grade separation wouldn’t make it so that the seven-lane Olson Memorial Highway is safe or pleasant to cross. People must still return to the street level and interact with these quasi-highways and desolate streetfronts. I’d far far rather see us implement Complete Streets, improve zoning, and not run LRT along functional highways and 4 lane death roads.

    If we force all LRT/streetcars to be grade separated, my sense is that we run into additional barriers and costs to putting it in, and that’s not what we need. I’d wager that when Mpls and St Paul were crisscrossed with streetcars, the fatality rate was lower due not only to streetscapes and street design that were oriented towards those on foot rather than in cars, but also because they were normal and individuals perceived their potential dangers more accurately and at that gut level.

  2. Joe

    Aren’t the non-occupant numbers for cars seriously thrown off by rural driving? Modes aren’t grade-separated there, but there is no one else around to be killed that isn’t in a car.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Definitely. I did a follow-up chart a while back that talked about this:

      Aggregate data is tough to put transit and driving on relative terms for non-occupant deaths since, as you note, a large chunk of miles driven (and trips taken) take place on roads where pedestrians and cyclists are adequately removed. So I tried to limit the data to VMT by mode on local streets – places where, even in small towns, pedestrians could be out and about. Transit (buses) still came out well behind cars for non-occupants, though this data was done using vehicle miles, not passenger-trips or passenger-miles.

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    I’m not in disagreement with the psychology behind safety, and its impacts on risk assessment in certain situations. I think it’s a big factor and we need more work, and Julia (plus Bill’s MinnPost article go into some great ways to think about it). I also don’t necessarily think grade-separation is *the* solution, but *a* potential solution that has many co-benefits to making transit faster, more reliable, more frequent, and cheaper to operate per rider in addition to safety benefits. But I can almost guarantee that if we built the Midtown Greenway rail project, pedestrian/bike injuries and fatalities would be much lower than the Green Line, Nicollet Ave Streetcar, even standard buses due to its design.

    I’m also not suggesting Metro Transit isn’t doing their part to improve safety – they are!

    I don’t think the risk assessment caused by our street designs (that do indeed put car convenience first) is the only, or even the majority, of the reason for the difference in safety levels. If it were, it wouldn’t explain why non-occupant death rates by urban buses are also much higher than cars. Buses run on the same streets as cars, in the same lanes, and are arguably more predictable than most cars (professional drivers, regular arrivals, predictable noises that alert people to what a bus is doing). There isn’t the separation of risk assessment like you describe with the rail environment vs the road environment. Bus size and weight play a factor in how severe collisions are, just as the shape, weight, and stopping ability of trains play a part in their non-occupant fatality rates.

    Finally, I think I should clarify that while I’m being a little nitpicky of this line of advocacy, I definitely believe places built around high-quality transit will have better a transportation safety record overall. When I wrote this post I stated that more peds/cyclists would die if everyone in a car switched modes to LRT for all of their trips. Of course, that would never happen. People who live in neighborhoods served by transit, and with land uses that complement it, are far more likely to replace short daily driving trips with walking or biking (this is the reason I think the SWLRT and other Environmental Impact Studies are flawed in their emissions calculations). The Planetizen article underscores this.

    In any case, Twitter is a bad medium for getting complex thoughts across!

    1. Julia

      Thinking on your points, but busses still disproportionately travel on poorly design, car-oriented streets (like Franklin or Hennepin or Penn) compared to cars. They also don’t have flexibility in when/if to travel; their drivers can’t sit out icy conditions or 1AM downtown drunks behaving unpredictably. Additionally, they serve MANY functions besides just driving. They’re giving directions to tourists, collecting fares (not always willingly), chatting with lonely people, waking up nappers, keeping people quote enough, dealing with fights, keeping an eye open for harassment, AND dealing with dangerous and rude drivers while trying to stay exactly on schedule. Also we make them share lanes with people biking often.

      So I’m still going dangerous because of our car-oriented design choices, which includes chronically underfunding transit to the extent that we only have one person staffing each vehicle and serving all these functions.

  4. Matthew

    What is the original source of this chart? What dataset is it built on?

    You cant just publish a chart that turns common sense on its head with zero citations.

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Yeah, we do need source references, even for a casual little broadside. But Alex, aside from that, does the LRT column include streetcars? When young, cartoonist Al Capp lost a leg to a streetcar. In Nuremberg Germany I saw a slightly inebriated man get hit by one. Rails on the street have inherent hazards, and the rail vehicles don’t stop as quickly as buses.

    Apparently the Green Line has a higher frequency of non-occupant accidents than the Blue Line, because of the streetcar-like layout of the former. Do we have a statistic on this?

    Lots of little angles to all this. For instance, much heavy rail is tunneled (New York) or elevated (Chicago). Right there you have potential hazards with track pits, third rails, people falling from elevated platforms, etc.

    Fascinating and important topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      See post just above for reference to the full article with citations.

      No, LRT does not include streetcars. National Transit Database (NTD) data separates out modes quite well. Streetcars, monorail, trolleybus, bus rapid transit, motor bus, and light rail are all called out separately based on reporting requirements.

      I’m not sure whether we can say whether the Green Line actually has a higher frequency of non-occupant incidents yet. There were a few high-profile ones early on, but they have since declined. The Blue Line has been in operation for over a decade yet still has them despite its layout. I’d say from a data standpoint it’d be best to wait a bit more before drawing too many conclusions. “Streetcars” had far fewer passenger miles than LRT or Heavy Rail in the NTD dataset, but it’s worth pointing out there were 0 fatalities (total, not just non-occupant) for the year I used (2011). But in general, I agree with your assertion that trains are harder to stop than buses, and buses are harder to sop than cars. Their mass makes any collisions with pedestrians and cyclists more severe than one with a car as well.

      And yes, different transit types, particularly grade separated, introduce different risk factors. As I noted in the linked post, ~2/3 of non-occupant deaths on heavy rail in the US are suicides, and about 40% of LRT are suicides. That ratio is much lower for buses (~5% of non-occupant deaths with motor buses are suicides) despite their fatality rate being lower. In other words, one could make the case that grade-separated rail is very safe for non-occupants, and it wouldn’t take much to prevent suicides (plus other accidental deaths related to falling on the tracks).

  6. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Speaking of grade separation, it’s lacking on the City of Minneapolis’ latest atrocity: the Franklin Avenue bridge renovation. A few minutes ago, at approx. 4:20 pm as I drove westward across the bridge, I saw two idiot cyclists riding abreast on the pedestrian portion of one of the mixed use pathways while another idiot cyclist rode towards them–presumably in the wrong direction–on the cyclist portion of the same pathway. A grade separation between the pedestrian and cycling portions would help. Even better, a grade separation and a guard rail to protect pedestrians from speeding bicycles.

    1. Janne

      I’m going to call out the construction process on the bridge, and unawareness by observers.

      Only half of the bike lane is open, at this point. Can you imagine opening a major highway with lanes in only one direction? That’s essentially what has happened here. Given the lengthy detour, it’s no surprise someone might choose to ride the wrong way to get across the river. I hope Hennepin County hurries up and finishes/opens the other direction, too!

      No need to blame the victims, here.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Are both bike/ped sides open yet? I think they were when I crossed yesterday, but they were not last weekend, when users non-motorized users in both directions had to share.

      1. Janne

        No, they are not. And, the south side is signed to detour to the north side. I rode over it today, just to confirm.

        1. Rosa

          how is that supposed to work? It’s almost impossible to cross Franklin safely there.

          I’ve had the last few weeks off, but this bridge closure really has made my life difficult. I do Powderhorn or Seward to the Westgate station right at rush hour at least once a week usually, and with the kid on his bike the detour down to Lake is really time-consuming plus the ramp to go north on the east side of the river is pretty nervewracking – it’s fine for me by myself, but 1) cars block the curb cuts at the top of the ramps and 2) the choices for going down both require at least some riding in the river road before you can get over onto the bike trail.

          You’d think, since car traffic can detour to I94, they’d have opened the bike/ped stuff before the car lanes.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I must have just been going the right direction this weekend.

          When both sides are open, I don’t think there’s going to be much of an issue with bikes and peds being on the same grade. 17 feet is a lot of space.

  7. Rosa

    and it’s even worse for pedestrians and wheelchair users, of course. The sidewalk up the hill on Franklin was closed a lot this summer too. The pedestrian bridge over 94 parallel to Franklin is 100% not wheelchair accessible, it’s all stairs on one side. The Marshall bridge has the same issue on the east side, the north side has a very narrow sidewalk and the south side is stairs. I’m sure people in wheelchairs already know this, as a cyclist I had never noticed. But it’s pretty bad.

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