Southeast shoulders one-third of city's pedestrian-vehicle fatalities 

Don't walk

click to enlarge South Academy Boulevard has seen several recent fatal encounters between pedestrians and vehicles. - REGAN FOSTER
  • Regan Foster
  • South Academy Boulevard has seen several recent fatal encounters between pedestrians and vehicles.

Last year, 48 people died in traffic collisions, an all-time record for Colorado Springs.

Thirteen of those 48 were pedestrians — almost three times the average number of annual pedestrian deaths in Colorado Springs over the previous nine years, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation. Three of those pedestrians died at the same intersection — South Academy and Astrozon boulevards — in separate incidents occurring over less than two weeks. A few months earlier, another pedestrian died a few blocks farther south, at the intersection of South Academy Boulevard and Hancock Expressway.

Do four pedestrian deaths in one year on South Academy prove it’s unsafe for people to walk in this area of the city? We found that between Jan. 1, 2017, and Oct. 26, 2019, 10 of 29 total pedestrian fatalities in Colorado Springs occurred either south of Platte Avenue and east of South Hancock Avenue, or in the Knob Hill neighborhood.

That means slightly more than a third of pedestrian deaths occurred in areas people generally define as the city’s Southeast. Last year, almost half of the deaths — six of 13 — occurred there.

Law enforcement, city officials and transportation experts suspect that the area’s high pedestrian fatality rate is at least partly driven by higher numbers of residents without cars who walk or rely on public transportation, coupled with high-speed roads such as Academy Boulevard that slice through the Southeast, making it challenging for people to safely cross the street.

Meanwhile, plans to make improvements to Academy Boulevard to bolster pedestrian safety have been in the works for years, and they’re not slated to be finished any time soon (more on this below).

click to enlarge This makeshift memorial at the corner of Academy and Astrozon is one of three marking the spots where as many pedestrians were killed last year. - REGAN FOSTER
  • Regan Foster
  • This makeshift memorial at the corner of Academy and Astrozon is one of three marking the spots where as many pedestrians were killed last year.
Since last year’s spike in fatalities, local law enforcement has taken steps to improve traffic safety throughout the city.

A speeding enforcement grant from CDOT paid for Colorado Springs Police Department officers to dedicate an additional 1,000 hours to enforcing speed limits on city streets between October 2018 and September of this year. Officers issued nearly 2,400 traffic citations during that period, and the grant funding covers two additional years.

It’s probably too early to tell whether that funding has improved traffic safety, but the city has seen slightly fewer fatalities so far this year. As of Oct. 26, there had been 37 traffic deaths in Colorado Springs, compared with 39 at this time last year, according to a police spokesperson.

Out of six fatal crashes involving pedestrians as of Oct. 26, two occurred in the Southeast — one near Platte Avenue and Boulder Street, and another at South Academy Boulevard and Pace Drive, near the Sand Creek Library.

Detective Chris Frabiele, who works on CSPD’s Major Crash Team, says part of his team’s work involves tracking where crashes occur and devoting police resources to high-collision spots. Academy Boulevard sees a large percentage of both fatal and non-fatal crashes, Frabiele says.

He cites high speeds and distracted driving as two factors contributing to fatal collisions, and thinks increased awareness by both pedestrians and drivers could save lives.

And where you have higher concentrations of pedestrians, fatalities tend to be more common, Frabiele says — such as in the Southeast, where more people take the bus or walk to work or school. He pointed out that while downtown sees more pedestrians, speeds are low enough that fatalities are less common.

Last year, Frabiele says, the pedestrians who died were found to be at fault in all but two of 13 fatal collisions. Regardless of who was at fault, people on foot usually don’t stand a chance of surviving a high-speed crash.

“The pedestrian is always going to lose,” he says. “Because it’s a game of mass and weight.”
It’s not just Colorado Springs — pedestrian fatalities are increasing nationwide, and the victims are disproportionately older people, residents of low-income neighborhoods and people of color, according to a recent report by Smart Growth America.

The group analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on pedestrian fatalities between 2008 and 2017, and found the number of people struck and killed while walking increased by 35 percent during that time frame.

“Even after controlling for differences in population size and walking rates, we see that drivers strike and kill people over age 50, Black or African-American people, American-Indian or Alaska-Native people and people walking in communities with lower median household incomes at much higher rates,” the group noted in a 2019 report titled “Dangerous by Design.”

Smart Growth America devised a metric called the Pedestrian Safety Index to rank cities and states for pedestrian safety. It accounts for the number of deaths per 100,000 people in a given year, as well as walking rates in a given community.

The Colorado Springs metro area — which had an average of 0.8 deaths per 100,000 people each year — ranks as the 97th most dangerous community for pedestrians in Smart Growth America’s analysis, out of 380 Metropolitan Statistical Areas designated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Colorado Springs, ranks in the top 20 districts in the country for the largest increase in pedestrian fatalities between 2008 and 2017, according to “Dangerous by Design.”

But many municipalities saw an increase of some amount in the past decade. Emiko Atherton, director of Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition, says there are a number of factors driving this trend — one being what she calls the “suburbanization of poverty.”

As people become displaced from urban areas or higher-income neighborhoods where they can no longer afford to live, Atherton says, “they end up in communities that are sometimes the least walkable.”

These suburban areas, often designed with big arterial roads lined with “your Best Buy and Target and big parking lots,” don’t bode well for the safety of people who don’t have cars and stand a higher risk of being struck and killed while, say, running across the street to catch the bus, Atherton explained.

Another factor, she says, is that people are buying “bigger, deadlier cars” such as trucks and SUVs, meaning pedestrians struck by vehicles have a lower chance of surviving.

“The good news is, we know how to fix it,” Atherton says of the rising fatality rate. “It’s pretty simple. Most people know what a sidewalk is, or a crosswalk.

“It just takes the political will to get those in there, and to say, ‘We’re going to commit to the safety of our constituents, and because of that, our communities are going to be safer. They’re going to be more economically resilient. They’re going to be more livable, and they’re going to be more healthy.”

Atherton’s group provides a blueprint for cities interested in improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists called the Complete Streets Policy. It stresses making streets safe and accessible for everyone, and encourages adding infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation such as walking and biking.

The city’s Academy Boulevard Great Streets Plan cites those aspects of Complete Streets as goals for re-envisioning that major roadway. But that plan has been in the works for a while.

It was sparked back in 2007, when then-Mayor Lionel Rivera led a roundtable discussion that imagined Academy Boulevard as a “Great Street” — transforming the section of the roadway between Maizeland Road and Milton E. Proby Parkway “into a more accessible and vibrant focus of this community and its neighborhoods and businesses.”

In 2011, the Great Streets Plan was adopted as part of the city’s comprehensive plan. Since then, public transit has improved, as Mountain Metropolitan Transit has added bus stops and service hours, and seen large increases in ridership as a result.

Still, roadway infrastructure hasn’t changed much since 2011. The design process for some Academy Great Streets improvements — funded by the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority — is slated to conclude in 2020, with construction to begin in 2021, city spokesperson Kim Melchor says. Those changes, which could include additions such as sidewalks and traffic signals, are meant to improve infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists and bus users along South Academy between Airport Road and Bijou Street, and from Fountain Boulevard to Milton E. Proby Parkway.

Out of the Great Streets Plan came a second subplan of sorts, aimed at improving the Hancock Expressway and South Academy intersection — but that project isn’t fully funded yet, and the city is “actively pursuing additional federal grant dollars,” Melchor says in an email.

“One of the challenges, I think, with the Academy/Hancock intersection, is you’ve got these high-speed ramps in the corners,” says Traffic Engineering Division Manager Todd Frisbie. Removing those ramps would, in theory, “make that intersection easier for pedestrians to get across and through.”

When asked whether the way the Southeast was planned — with wide, high-speed corridors in an area where higher numbers of people walk or take the bus — makes it challenging to improve multimodal transportation, Frisbie says:

“Traffic engineering’s job here is to try to make our intersections and our roadways as safe as we can,” adding, “We’re looking at ways to reduce the chance [drivers] make a mistake that can result in a serious crash... so we don’t worry about whether we’re more challenged than another city because of our planning. This is what we have to work with.”

But Frisbie points out a challenge for traffic engineering in the Southeast that goes beyond planning. While residents of other areas in Colorado Springs often call the city when they have concerns about a certain intersection or aspect of traffic safety, he says the division doesn’t often hear from Southeast residents.

“I can’t imagine that, you know, the traffic challenges are any less in that area than anywhere else,” he says.

The interactive map below shows pedestrian-vehicle fatalities in Colorado Springs from Jan. 1, 2017 through Oct. 26. Incidents occurring in the Southeast are colored in red.

Click on each icon to view the date of the corresponding incident and the age of the pedestrian killed.

Source: Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado Springs Police Department

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