It’s a Two-way Street: Pedestrian Safety and Infrastructure

By Sarabeth Lowe, MPH

Ms. Lowe is a Communication Specialist at the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.

Whether you’re cruising on a set of wheels or on your own two feet, you’ve likely reaped the benefits of your neighborhood’s sidewalks, biking paths, and trails—all examples of pedestrian infrastructure. Conversations surrounding this facet of the built environment have become a hot topic.1 Safety advocates, lawmakers, and community members have sounded the alarm bells on the high rates of pedestrian injuries and fatalities for decades.2,3 Still, thousands of people die annually trying to cross roads in the United States (US), making it an enduring policy issue in cities and towns of all sizes and one of the most persistent and pervasive public health problems in the US.2–4 

Pedestrian safety is a two-way street, but people on both ends—government officials and those behind the wheel—have a responsibility to advocate for safer streets.5 Equipping yourself with knowledge and awareness about this topic is one of the best preventive measures you can take. Before you dust off your bike for the summer, here’s what you should know about pedestrian safety and infrastructure.

That was Then, This is Now: Pedestrian Safety at a Glance 

In 2009, roadside safety took an unexpected turn. Pedestrian deaths began an unexpected increase after a 30-year decline. 3,4,7 These numbers continued to climb and were a particularly troubling issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the latest publicly available data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, a non-profit organization that tracks pedestrian deaths in the US, drivers struck and killed at least 7,508 people walking in 2022—the highest number since 1981 and an average of 20 deaths every day.6,8 Since then, traffic deaths have continued to decline modestly. In April 2024, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that 42,514 people died in crashes in 2023, a decrease of 3.6 percent from the year before.7,9,10 Still, our streets are far from safe; 2023 marked the third straight year with more than 40,000 roadway fatalities.

Despite the surge in pedestrian deaths between 2020 and 2022, the pandemic left behind an unexpected legacy: awareness of the importance of safe places to walk, bike, and play.11 Resounding research shows that accessible and welcoming outdoor environments, such as parks and campgrounds, can improve physical, mental, and social wellbeing.11–15 Pedestrian infrastructure does more than just link these spaces together; it’s a core component of building networks that connect healthy and active communities where people can play, exercise, and mingle.

What is Pedestrian Infrastructure? 

Broadly speaking, pedestrian infrastructure describes a network of safe, comfortable, and convenient systems, structures, and facilities that accommodate pedestrians.15–17 While most of this infrastructure is related to pathways for cycling and walking, such as bike lanes, sidewalks, and traffic circles, other elements include landscaping, signage, and lighting. These pathways and features help form the foundation of liveable communities. Building and maintaining these systems and structures has numerous benefits, including improved sustainability and livability. However, the potential for improved public health outcomes is one of pedestrian infrastructure’s biggest claims to fame.

Benefits and Outcomes

Higher rates of physical activity. People of all ages and abilities benefit when there are added opportunities for active transportation.18,19 According to current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, but a 2022 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey reported that 25.3 percent of this population was physically inactive, meaning they did not do any physical activity outside of their regular job.20,21 Pedestrian infrastructure can provide people with convenient and accessible ways to incorporate physical activities into their daily lives. Every step counts. Just walking an additional 1,000 steps each day—roughly half a mile—can help lower the risk of all-cause mortality.22

Improved roadside safety. Pedestrian infrastructure helps people get out of their cars and, thus, spend less time in their vehicles. Research shows that the risk of getting into a car accident increases with the average amount of travel time each person spends in a car.23 There is also a sense of “safety in numbers” when it comes to people using active transportation. Studies have found that motorists are more aware and drive safer where there are greater numbers of people walking.24,25 Similarly, a 2022 evaluation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed the risk of motor vehicle and pedestrian or cyclist crashes decreases as the number of people walking or cycling increases.25

More social connectedness. Pedestrian infrastructure can build connected communities.26–28 Walkable and bike-friendly communities offer opportunities for personal interaction and social involvement.19 This can increase residents’ happiness and instill a sense of belonging and satisfaction with their surrounding environment.29–33 These activities and relationships can boost mental wellbeing in two ways: encouraging active mobility, namely walking and cycling for transportation, and promoting the development and use of green spaces. While research on the relationship between mental health and pedestrian infrastructure is in its early stages, a 2023 review of more than 55 journal articles found that active mobility shows promising mental health improvements.27,31 Numerous studies, however, prove the positive relationships between green spaces and mental wellbeing.32 In addition to incentivizing physical activity, green spaces have been shown to improve stress levels, sleep quality, and resiliency to stress and mental fatigue.32–36

Health equity. Everyone needs equitable access to transportation, and pedestrian infrastructure is fundamental to supporting this public health endeavor.11,37,38 These networks help people meet their everyday needs, such as linking communities to common destinations, getting to school and work, and accessing goods and services.38–43 Unfortunately, social inequities caused by inadequate or substandard infrastructure make transportation justice—systems and structures that equally and equitably address the needs of all people—difficult to achieve.38,44 Research shows that areas with high poverty rates and reliance on public or active transit have “an increased risk of pedestrian crashes and are often characterized by limited, unsafe, high-speed roadway infrastructure.”45 These disparities only further entrench social and health inequities. Without safe and convenient transportation, vulnerable people are more likely to remain at risk.46,47 

A National Concern

No matter their method of travel, all people who use public roads have a responsibility to do so safely. Government agencies, community groups, and individuals each play a role in determining how safe the transportation network in their community will be.5 Demand for effective interventions has inspired people to act. Numerous public health experts, policymakers, grassroots organizations, and nonprofits have come together to advocate for safer streets and improved pedestrian infrastructure. The US Department of Transportation (DOT), the federal agency responsible for implementing safety regulations for all major modes of transportation, has spearheaded several initiatives and campaigns that aim to protect pedestrians.

In January 2022, the agency released its National Road Safety Strategy, which outlines its approach to working with stakeholders to significantly reduce serious injuries and deaths on US highways, roads, and streets.48,49 They’ve centered their efforts around a Safe System Approach, a holistic method that “builds and reinforces multiple layers of protection to…prevent crashes,” and “minimize the harm caused to those involved when crashes do occur.”50 Unlike earlier efforts, this comprehensive approach encompasses both human mistakes and vulnerabilities. It focuses on five objectives:48–51 

Safer people: Encourage safe, responsible driving and behavior by people who use our roads and create conditions that prioritize their ability to reach their destination unharmed.

Safer roads: Design roadway environments to mitigate human mistakes and account for injury tolerances, encourage safer behaviors, and facilitate safe travel by the most vulnerable users.

Safer vehicles: Expand the availability of vehicle systems and features that help to prevent crashes and minimize the impact of crashes on both occupants and non-occupants.

Safer speeds: Promote safer speeds in all roadway environments through a combination of thoughtful, equitable, context-appropriate roadway design, appropriate speed-limit setting, targeted education, outreach campaigns, and enforcement.

Post-crash care: Enhance the survivability of crashes through expedient access to emergency medical care, while creating a safe working environment for vital first responders and preventing secondary crashes through robust traffic incident management practices.

Traveling Safely 

The CDC reports and collects fatal injury data on traffic-related motor vehicle and pedestrian deaths each year. According to the agency’s provisional data from 2018 to 2023, pedestrian deaths tend to peak in March before dipping in April. They begin to increase again in June and peak in October.52 With this in mind, the US DOT has published recommendations you can take, as a driver and pedestrian, to stay safe. 

Motorists. Stay alert. Always be on the lookout for pedestrians, and never drive under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Be aware of inclement weather and use extra caution when driving in hard-to-see conditions, especially at night.2,53 Limit potential distractions, such as loud music or electronic devices, that might take your focus off the road.

Follow traffic laws. Always obey roadside laws and signs. Be aware of new or changing traffic patterns, as well as construction zones.

Slow your speed. Follow the speed limit, especially around people on the street, in school zones, and in neighborhoods where children are present. Slow down and be prepared to stop when turning or otherwise entering a crosswalk.2,5,17

Use crosswalk caution. Yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Similarly, never pass vehicles stopped at a crosswalk.53

Watch your blind spots. Be spatially aware of your vehicle and its surroundings. Also, be wary of blind spots—typically the edges just behind and to the side of the vehicle—and be extra cautious when backing up in pedestrian-filled areas.54

Visibility. Drive defensively, assuming others cannot see you.55 To ensure you are visible to other drivers and pedestrians, always turn on your car lights during inclement weather and between sunset and sunrise. Similarly, use your vehicle’s flashing or hazard lights to alert others when you’ve stopped for an emergency, especially at night.56 

Walkers and pedestrians. Stay alert. Avoid alcohol, drugs, or medications that could impair your abilities and judgment. Stay spatially aware by keeping your ears and eyes open; do not use cell phones or headphones near busy roads.

Follow pedestrian safety laws. Follow the rules of the road and obey signs and signals.

Use pedestrian infrastructure. Walk on sidewalks whenever they are available. If there is no sidewalk, walk facing traffic and as far from traffic as possible.2,53 

Use crosswalks. Only cross streets at crosswalks, intersections, or designated areas. If none of these are available, locate a well-lit area where you have the best view of traffic. Wait for a gap in traffic that allows enough time to cross safely, and continue watching for traffic as you cross.2,53,55

Keep your eyes open. Don’t just look both ways. Look for vehicles in all directions, including those turning left or right. Watch for cars entering or exiting driveways, or backing up in parking lots.2,55

Stay visible. Always wear appropriate clothing that makes you visible to passing vehicles. Wear bright colors in the daytime and reflective clothing at night or during inclement weather. Consider using a flashlight or wearing a headlight while walking in the dark.

Cyclists. Stay alert. Never ride under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or mind-altering medications. Remove or limit potential distractions. Never ride while using a cell phone or headphones.

Follow local laws. Just like drivers behind the wheel, bikers must obey signs and signals. Bicyclists must stop at red lights and stop signs and should ride with the flow of traffic.2,53 Check local laws to see whether riding on the sidewalk is legal. If walkers and bikers use the same path, always pass pedestrians with care by first announcing “on your left” or “passing on your left” or use a bell to alert them.55 

Ride defensively. Assume those around you cannot see you and ride predictably. This includes anticipating how other pedestrians and drivers might behave. For example, large vehicles, like trucks and buses, need to take wide turns and need long stopping distances. Given this, cyclists should avoid merging closely in front of these vehicles and give them a wide berth.53 The quicker you notice a potential conflict, the quicker you can act to avoid a potential crash.53,55,57 

Stay visible. In addition to wearing bright and reflective clothing, cyclists should avoid lingering in blind spots. Large vehicles tend to have huge blind spots. Avoid riding or walking behind a vehicle that is backing up, as drivers often cannot see directly behind their vehicle. 

Watch for hazards. In addition to being aware of other pedestrians and drivers, look out for hazards or situations that may cause you to fall, like toys, pebbles, potholes, grates, and train tracks.53,57 

Know the neighborhood. Before hitting the road, try to become familiar with where you will be riding. Know which areas are high risk. For example, more than three-quarters of biker fatalities occurred in urban areas as opposed to rural areas in 2020.58 During that same period, 26 percent of those fatalities occurred at intersections.

Be prepared. All bicyclists should wear properly fitted bicycle helmets every time they ride.58,59 A helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injuries resulting from a bicycle crash and is cyclists’ best line of defense. Research shows that a properly fitted helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by more than 50 percent.59

Bottom Line

Whether you’re in the suburbs or the city, everyone benefits from having access to safe places to play and walk. These changes to the built environment help ensure that all people get where they need to go while providing invaluable health benefits. Though pedestrian deaths sharply increased in the last decade, a gradual decline in the last two years shows promise. Still, building safer streets is a two-way street between the government and citizens. Thanks to numerous campaigns and grassroots advocacy, this is becoming more of a reality. 


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