For Pedestrians in Phoenix, 2021 Has Been Deadly

I-17, which runs between Phoenix and Flagstaff, ranks as one of the most dangerous highways in the country.
I-17, which runs between Phoenix and Flagstaff, ranks as one of the most dangerous highways in the country. Adam Fagen via Flickr

New data released last week by the city of Phoenix paints a grim portrait of traffic fatalities on the city’s roads (which are already regularly ranked as some of the most dangerous in the country).

In the first six months of this year, pedestrian, cyclist, and motorist fatalities have all spiked, putting the city on track to outpace deaths in 2019 and 2020, according to a Wednesday presentation by the city's street transportation department.

“To put it bluntly, based on this data, Phoenix is the worst large city nationally for traffic fatalities,” Kini Knudson, street transportation director, said Wednesday.

Phoenix ranks third in the country for total traffic deaths, after Los Angeles and Houston, according to U.S. Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. But, per capita, Phoenix sees more traffic deaths than any other city of its size — although smaller cities like Memphis and Albuquerque outrank it.

Based on the number of deaths in Phoenix this year, the problem appears to be worsening.

After years of rising traffic fatalities — which reached a recent peak of 230 deaths in 2018 — Phoenix saw a slight dip in deaths in 2019, even while the number of crashes increased.

But the pandemic reversed that trend: In 2020, motorist deaths in Phoenix increased 30 percent from 2019. This tracks with national trends, Knudson says: Cities nationwide saw more traffic fatalities, even despite fewer cars on the road. The reasons for this, both in Phoenix and nationally, are not yet clear, although some have speculated that the emptied roads spurred riskier driving.

Still, while motorist deaths went up, pedestrian and cyclist deaths decreased in Phoenix during the pandemic. Last year, Phoenix drivers killed three cyclists and 69 pedestrians.

That trend did not last long. In just the first six months of this year, four cyclists and 52 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents, alongside 58 motorists. If deaths in the second half of this year are similarly high, 2021 could surpass 2018 to see the highest number of traffic fatalities in the past six years.

For local transit advocates, the data serves as yet another reminder of the problem in Phoenix. And critics worry that the city has been slow to address the problem.

“We need to act more aggressively,” said Ryan Boyd, spokesperson for Urban Phoenix Project, an urbanist advocacy group. “The way we’ve been doing things is not working, nor is it working quickly enough.”

This summer, beloved Phoenix resident Hans Hughes, who worked for years as a Downtown Phoenix Ambassador, was struck by a drunk driver on his bike, and later died — sparking an outpouring of grief, alongside renewed calls for bike safety in Phoenix. In September, a crowd of more than 200 cyclists rode in the streets for Hughes and to draw attention to the issue. But so far, the city's reaction has been muted.

City staffers presented the city’s current approach on roadway safety at the committee meeting this week. Called the “Road Safety Action Plan,” this latest initiative mainly consists of crunching data and holding public forums, in order to arrive at a “system of recommendations” on the issue by next fall.

Boyd called the plan “more of the same” from the city. “The plan is so moderate and incremental that — it’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to be what reverses the trend,” he said.

Knudson said Wednesday that the plan will determine "how we are going to act" on the problem, and "provide guidance and direction" to the council on the issue. Its conclusions, though, are still a year away.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk