Being a pedestrian in Phoenix is dangerous business. This is a place that comes by its reputation as a car-friendly city honestly. Phoenix pedestrians account for just 2 percent of collisions, but 42 percent of fatalities. That’s the fourth-highest share of overall traffic deaths in the country, behind three cities with much more walking — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
But Phoenix city officials are beginning to reassess the position of pedestrians in the transportation hierarchy, taking steps to help protect the city’s most vulnerable road users. The city’s goals are lofty: a 10 percent reduction in pedestrian deaths each year, with zero by 2020.
The actual pedestrian safety ideas the city is pursuing, however, are not nearly as bold as what officials are doing in, say, Chicago, which has also set the goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths. Phoenix’s pedestrian safety plans rely heavily on education — both of pedestrians (especially the school-aged) and of motorists, not so much on changes to street design.
One of Phoenix’s main tools to improve the safety of walking is a special style of traffic signal developed by engineers in neighboring Tucson. Phoenix is installing ”High Intensity Activated Crosswalks,” or HAWKs, as they’re called, at some of the intersections that are most dangerous to pedestrians but might not warrant a full traffic signal, said Kerry Wilcoxon of Phoenix’s Traffic Department. The HAWKs are activated when the pedestrian presses the signal, giving vehicles a yellow and then a red light and pedestrians a clear path through the roadway.
But downtown advocate Sean D. Sweat, a representative of the Central City Village Planning Commission, says the city could be doing a lot more.
“To me, HAWKs are a bandaid to a more fundamental problem with the street,” he said. “I don’t think they — our streets transportation department, our City Hall — right now actually gets it. They talk the talk, but we’re not seeing it on the ground.”