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Sprawl Kills

Traffic fatalities are one of the leading causes of death in cities across the globe, and it’s worst where there’s most sprawl.
Southern California sprawl. Image: Wikimedia

Sprawl makes for an unfortunate living environment, not just because it is fairly reliably drab and dull. Sprawl actually kills. Traffic fatalities are one of the leading causes of death in cities across the globe—according to the World Health Organization, 1.3 million people are killed by vehicles each year—and it's worst where there's most sprawl.

"That's what the research shows: Urban sprawl is bad for traffic safety, period," Ben Welle, a Senior Associate for Health and Road Safety at the World Research Institute, told me on the phone this morning. "Urban sprawl is directly linked to fatalities across all people using the road."


WRI has just released a report that examines traffic statistics in cities around the world, and the findings are fairly unambiguous: Sprawling, car-centric cities kill more people than dense, pedestrian- and mass transit-friendly ones. "Compact Stockholm and Tokyo have the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world—fewer than 1.5 deaths per 100,000 residents," it notes.

There are striking differences within the US, too; in New York, for instance, there is an average of just over three annual fatalities for every 100,000 residents per year, combined with more than six in LA and nine in Atlanta.

"The most dangerous places are in suburban and exurban locations," Welle told me (no wonder the Pope hates them). "Taken together, when you have places that are more walkable, more connected to mass transit, you have less people traveling on the road, and for the people that are, you have safer conditions." (The suburbs also make you fat, which is dangerous for another raft of reasons, but that's not covered in the report here.)

Sprawling cities in developing countries like Brazil and India are much worse than Atlanta—in Fortaleza, for instance, there are a stunning 27 deaths for every 100,000 residents each year. That's an epidemic.

Typically, cities have gone about addressing traffic fatalities with awareness efforts like "buckle-up for safety" and "wear-your-helmet" campaigns. But most of those killed are non-vehiclists; they're pedestrians and cyclists. And WRI's report, called "Cities Safer By Design," argues that the more important contributor to traffic safety is sound urban design. Denser cities, more pedestrian enclaves, safe access to mass transit, and, most importantly, slower traffic.


The organization condensed its findings into a dispatch called "7 proven principles for designing a safer city," the first of which is "avoid urban sprawl." The second is to slow down road traffic. "Faster speeds are a recipe for traffic fatalities," Welle says. It's simple physics, he adds; in cities, cars go slower, and fewer people are killed when they're hit by them.

The entire list, sort of a best practices of the safest cities, is as follows:

1) Avoid urban sprawl

2) Slow down road traffic

3) Ensure main streets are safe for everyone, not just cars.

4) Create dedicated spaces for pedestrians.

5) Provide a safe, connected network for cyclists.

6) Ensure safe access to high-quality public transport.

7) Use data to detect problem areas.

These guidelines are especially important in a world that's putting more cars on the road than ever—even, it appears, in the US, where driving was long thought to be on the decline. Welle suggests that we look to Stockholm's Vision Zero, which has but urban planning at the forefront of its fight to eliminate traffic deaths, and has succeeded wildly in designating good pedestrian spaces, limiting cars in urban areas, and supplying ample access to transit and bikeways.

Taken together, it's the start of a worthy blueprint for designing that elusive city: one that won't kill its own residents just for trying to get around.