Walking the Walk

For AOL’s Rented Spaces

“See that?” says Jane Solomon, a mother of school-age twins, pointing to an intersection that has a chipped-paint crosswalk and no traffic light in her Washington, D.C. neighborhood. “Death trap!”

As kids head back to school, making that crosswalk safer is more important than ever. The intersection is but one trouble spot along this 3.5-mile stretch of Connecticut Avenue in Washington where there have been more than 100 pedestrian injuries, including three fatalities, since 2000. Traversing the six-lane thoroughfare is especially perilous during rush hour, when a middle lane reverses direction and drivers ignore the 35-mph speed limit.

That situation galvanized Solomon and two friends to form Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action (CAPA) last year. Their mission: to make this major commuter artery, which cuts through a residential section of Northwest DC, safer for foot traffic.

They’re not alone. In communities across the country, pedestrian task forces are working to protect residents, homeowners and renters alike.

The idea for CAPA began percolating when Solomon’s neighbor, Robin Schepper, heard that DC Safe Routes to School was looking for pilot schools to develop programs that made it easier for local kids to walk and bike to school. Schepper, a mother of two, spearheaded the initiative in 2008 at her children’s school, Murch Elementary, located a block off Connecticut Avenue. The program did so well that a year later Murch won the organization’s highest award.

Their accomplishments — which included increasing police traffic enforcement and getting seven new blocks of sidewalks built — didn’t just benefit schoolkids. After Murch’s Safe Routes program got endorsed by a neighborhood advisory commission and won support from the city council, Schepper and Solomon teamed up with Marlene Berlin, pedestrian advocate for Iona Senior Services, who proposed forming CAPA.

“Did you know that many of the seniors in the neighborhood do their errands while Murch crossing guards are on duty?” Berlin told them. “The guards serve more than the students.”

In fact, it turned out that just about anyone who used the busy corridor shared their safety concerns, even people who confessed to jaywalking or speeding on it. As word spread, their coalition grew to include other concerned citizens, law enforcement, local schools and businesses (who particularly depend on foot traffic), and such urban-planning advocacy groups as Coalition for Smarter Growth and Ward 3 Vision.

Many ideas were proposed to improve pedestrian safety, including installing speed cameras, creating mid-block crosswalks, lengthening pedestrian crossing times and synchronizing traffic signals. But since any one change would affect the entire length of the avenue, they need a holistic approach. Which meant they needed more data.

The women received a grant from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center to conduct a pedestrian audit, which they completed last spring, thanks to some 80 volunteers who interviewed pedestrians and observed targeted intersections and segments. After an engineering firm analyzes those results, CAPA will work with the District’s Department of Transportation to develop a master pedestrian plan in 2011, and secure federal and city funding to implement the plan in 2012.

“Our hope is to turn a lose-lose for traffic flow and pedestrians into a win-win,” says Berlin. The solutions might be as simple as giving pedestrians a few seconds head start across an intersection and granting cars a few more follow-up seconds to make turns. “Right now, you have frustrated drivers, and terrified pedestrians holding their breath and scurrying across the street, battling for the same 20 seconds during a light change.”

Solomon points out that this public-private partnership is ideal for cash-strapped cities, which not only get in-depth urban studies done at no cost to taxpayers but also get direct input from the people on the ground — the citizens who are out there dodging cars and pedestrians every day. About 69,000 pedestrians are injured in traffic accidents yearly in the U.S.; more than 4,300 are killed.

“Walking or biking to school reduces fuel consumption, pollution and traffic congestion while boosting fitness,” points out Schepper, who has recently gone on to become executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!campaign. “Walkable communities are safe communities.”

They’re better communities to own or rent in, too — according to a study by CEOs for Cities, neighborhoods that boast “walkability” also tend to have higher property values.