Detroit planning officials warn the city is experiencing a “traffic violence epidemic” that’s making streets more dangerous for pedestrians, bicyclists and the city’s majority-Black neighborhoods.
James Hannig, deputy director of Complete Streets for the city’s Public Works Department, updated a City Council committee Monday on plans to address a rapidly escalating rate of serious crashes in Detroit. Hannig said a new safety action plan created through months of public meetings and surveys found speeding is a major problem throughout the city, especially on avenues like Gratiot and Grand River that were designed for higher traffic volumes when Detroit’s population was much larger.
“By far, people shared that they were most concerned about their safety on the streets … when they’re walking, biking, using transit, and they’re concerned about speed, especially on the streets where they live,” Hannig said. “The speed of vehicles is what generally correlates with the severity of crashes. The more that our streets allow for people to go fast, the more likely that those crashes are becoming increasingly more severe.”
Deaths on Detroit’s surface streets spiked between 2019 and 2020, increasing by 50% in just one year. There were 150 deaths reported in 2020 – the deadliest year on Detroit’s streets since at least 2004. Fatalities dropped to 123 in 2021, but still remain 31% higher than 2019.
There were 539 people killed in traffic crashes and 3,012 serious injuries reported in Detroit from 2017 to 2021. On average, 108 people are killed each year in Detroit crashes, while 495 are seriously injured.
Crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists are less frequent but tend to be much more dangerous. Pedestrians were involved in 3% of all traffic crashes but represented 24% of crashes resulting in death or serious injuries from 2017 to 2021. Last year, there were 92 serious crashes involving pedestrians and 14 serious crashes involving cyclists.
Hannig said the city is seeking $30 million in federal funds to improve its most dangerous streets over five years. He said that a grant application was submitted last week for funding set aside by a bipartisan infrastructure law signed in 2021.
Dangerous streets identified by the city include major sections of Grand River and Gratiot avenues heading west and east from downtown, as well as sections of Seven Mile Road, Greenfield Road and Wyoming Avenue, to name a few. The largest concentration of intersections with high rates of serious crashes are located along Eight Mile Road and Woodward Avenue.
Gratiot is the longest continuous roadway in the group. It’s nearly 100 feet wide from curb to curb, with few marked crosswalks and underused lanes making speeding common. A design example in the master plan shows solutions could include adding dedicated lanes for buses and raised bike lanes that separate cyclists from vehicle traffic.
Detroit’s most dangerous streets tend to be wide, with high speeds, lots of traffic and few pedestrian crossings. Most of the streets (66%) are owned by either Wayne County or the Michigan Department of Transportation and 77% pass through a historically disadvantaged community.
Charles Thomas is president of the Belmont Community Council, which represents a neighborhood of around 843 homes on Detroit’s northwest side. The community is immediately bordered by two high-injury streets identified by the city, Fenkell Avenue and Greenfield Road, and it’s close to a handful of other dangerous roadways. Thomas said reckless drivers are a common hazard in the area.
“There are definitely issues for pedestrians and folks in the community being able to feel safe traveling to and from their homes,” he said. “There are disturbances at night, the community is kept awakened because of the noise that is generated by (cars performing) donuts and swerving. It just doesn’t feel as safe as it should be.”
Detroit planners on Sept. 14 released a safety action plan that outlines a citywide approach to improve transportation routes. It’s part of a larger “Streets for People” infrastructure master plan released this month, which Hannig described as the city’s game plan to address dangerous crashes over the next decade.
The city is aiming to complete at least one corridor safety project per year using a combination of improvements like adjusting lane striping and signal timing, installing new signage, curb extensions and pedestrian refuge islands. The city’s transportation master plan states at-risk areas will be prioritized for traffic calming projects, like speed humps.
Up to 3,000 speed humps are expected to be installed this year, after 5,550 were installed in 2021. Detroiters can request a speed hump on their street, or to have them removed, through an online form. A map of all speed humps and upcoming projects can also be found on the city’s website.
Mary Slappy, vice president of the Farwell Advisory Council on Detroit’s east side, said the width of Outer Drive, Mound Road and other streets in the area encourage reckless driving. Speed humps installed on less busy streets within the last three years have helped make neighborhoods safer, she said.
Thomas added that there’s a high demand for speed humps in neighborhoods that experience late-night drag racing and other hazardous behavior.
“It’s a culture where folks are just speeding, which is not safe because there are kids out in the community,” said Thomas, adding the speed humps slow things down and stop signs within the communities could also be a help. “We have to set up certain types of barriers and ways to enforce (laws) and change the driving habits of the drivers.”
Detroiters surveyed during the master planning process said they don’t feel safe using their streets, Hannig said. Residents noted that Detroit lacks a culture of traffic safety, and reported potholes, overgrown and obstructed sidewalks, unswept bike lanes and other signs of disrepair that create barriers for disabled Detroiters.
Thomas said traffic enforcement needs to be a part of any plan to address road safety. Drivers won’t change their bad habits – especially if they feel like they won’t be held accountable.
“Folks are not adhering to the law in terms of waiting for the light, waiting for pedestrians and things of that nature,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of driving straight through red lights. It’s dangerous at intersections. I don’t know if there is any one solution, but the main thing is enforcing those laws and putting more visible patrol officers out.”
Survey results showed Detroiters are dissatisfied with their transportation options, but recent projects have made it easier to bike, walk, take public transit, and enjoy the street. Still, others reported that some of the new street designs are confusing. Detroiters also have expressed concerns about air pollution from transportation.
Detroit has some of the highest traffic fatality rates in the country. Detroit ranks No. 2 among large cities for traffic fatalities and No. 3 for pedestrian fatalities when adjusted for population, according to the The National Highway Traffic Safety Association.
Detroit’s safety action plan states this “quiet crisis” particularly affects indigenous, Black, and Hispanic/Latino people.
More than half of all serious crashes occured in historically disadvantaged communities, as defined by the Department of Transportation, which represents 57% of Detroit’s population. Black Americans are twice as likely to be killed while walking compared to whites, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Traffic deaths across the country are at a 16-year high, rising 7% between 2019 and 2020, according to the NHTSA. Early estimates show a 10.5% increase of traffic deaths in 2021, the largest annual recorded leap. NHTSA estimates 42,915 Americans died in crashes last year.
The data also shows streets are becoming even less safe for pedestrians, with deaths reaching a 40-year high in 2021. Pedestrian deaths on American streets and roads nearly doubled from 4,109 in 2009 to 7,265 in 2021.
Detroit has 2,800 miles of streets, 4,800 miles of sidewalks and 238 miles of bike lanes and greenways. Most streets (92%) are owned by the city, while Wayne County and MDOT own the rest.
Detroit’s streets were built for a much larger 20th Century population. The master plan notes that wide streets “have become speedways that are expensive to maintain and dangerous, particularly for people walking and biking.” Declining population trends present an opportunity to rethink how excess space on city streets is used, the plan notes.
“By and large, our streets were designed to serve a level of traffic that no longer exists and is unlikely to return,” the plan states.