The town of Chapel Hill is working on a modest crosswalk improvement at the intersection of MLK JR Blvd and North Street. You can read about it here. Anyone who has driven, walked or ridden a bike through this area can attest to it being challenging. However, for those surrounded by metal and dozens of air bags, it is simply an area where they might just pay a little more attention.

For someone attempting to cross here by foot, it is very challenging as vehicles are approaching from many angles:

  • Vehicles trying to merge on to MLK from N. Columbia Street
  • Cars trying to turn left onto N Columbia from MLK, cars turning into or out of North Street
  • And simply cars racing past, especially downhill on MLK.

There is a lot to like about the improvement, and the town should be commended for taking this action, especially because this road is managed by the NCDOT, which always adds extra time and bureaucracy to projects on their roads.

An arial view of Martin King Blvd, indicating the location of new crosswalk treatments being built by the town

Everybody is cheering, right? Well nope, they are not. Sadly, on various socials, where the project was announced, we are seeing rants, grumbling and complaining. Some by people who haven’t even examined the details of the project.

We have spent a century making roads faster, wider and more efficient for people in cars. Immeasurable millions of dollars, often for marginal gains. Eliminating minutes, or even only seconds from someone’s commute.

Meanwhile, this build out and traffic flow optimization has been DEVASTATING for people walking. Pedestrian deaths are on the rise, despite supposedly ‘smarter’ and more sophisticated cars.

The numbers of pedestrian deaths from motor vehicle crashes have increased 59% since 2009.

A graph illustrates the increase in pedestrian deaths

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, 6,516 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roadways in 2020 (Figure 1). This is the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in over 30 years and represents a 59% increase since 2009.

A common retort to this statistic is to blame the victims. Often we hear that pedestrians walk around like zombies, constantly gazing at their phones. However, mobile phone usage in Europe is as high as in the US, yet pedestrian fatalities have been dropping significantly, while they continue to rise in the US.

A graph, comparing the change in pedestrian deaths between European countries and the United States

So, what is different? Numerous studies are analyzing why, and we will need to accept and respond to the cited conclusions. What we do know is people are dying, and the place they are most likely to die while walking in Chapel Hill is along the MLK Jr. corridor.

The town’s Vision Zero Task Force has identified the MLK Jr corridor as a focus area to address pedestrian safety. Partly, because it is the source of a large percentage of injuries and fatalities. I have been a member of this group since it was formed, and regularly receive the latest stats and also the efforts the town is taking to address pedestrian injuries and deaths.

If you need more compelling reasons as to why eliminating pedestrian fatalities is important, I suggest you watch this 5 minute video of when Crystell Ferguson, Community Navigation Manager Inter-Faith Council Community Services spoke to Chapel Hill Town Council about a recent traffic death on MLK, where Christian Ball, a former IFC resident who had just managed to get their life back in order, and is now gone.

This is a good beginning. Many of these are needed on MLK, and elsewhere in town. Everyone deserves to walk across one of our town’s streets or roads without the fear of harm coming to them. Instead of complaining to the town, we should be thanking the staff, and encouraging them to develop and build more of this. If you agree, why not drop the town a word of thanks and encouragement. I explain how in this article.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

John Rees lives in Chapel Hill. His day job is an enterprise architect for a big IT company. He was, until very recently, a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and former chair. He serves on...