Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Increasing pedestrian safety for children in Tacoma is a matter of equity

Third grader crossing guard Marquis Trimble enthusiastically assists Lorenne Mendoza as she and others cross the street at Bryant Montessori in 2013.
Third grader crossing guard Marquis Trimble enthusiastically assists Lorenne Mendoza as she and others cross the street at Bryant Montessori in 2013. Staff file, 2013

Recently I crunched the numbers on pedestrian-involved crashes in Tacoma, finding that there were 502 in the city between 2010 and early September of this year.

What I didn’t know at the time is I wasn’t the only person poring over this data, which is now available from the state Department of Transportation.

As it turns out, Liz Kaster of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s Active Transportation Community of Interest (I’ll explain what the long name means in a moment) was up to something very similar.

Her effort is part of an attempt to help bring what are known as “Safe Routes to School” programs to all of Tacoma (I’ll explain those in a moment, too).

Kaster focused specifically on those ages 18 and under, and found that between 2010 and 2014 there were 153 youths hit while walking in Tacoma and another 69 youths hit while riding a bike.

That’s a total of 222 incidents of varying severity. That means that during this period someone 18 and under walking or riding a bike in Tacoma was hit by a car every eight days.

Now Kaster is turning her attention to addressing this problem.

She works for the Puyallup Watershed Initiative, a Russell Family Foundation-funded organization that aims to improve the health of the environment and people around the region. One of its projects is to get folks from across the city and county working together to create more safe opportunities for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit riders.

What Kaster found went beyond just raw numbers and data. The locations of where these accidents occurred revealed a troubling trend. Broken down by City Council districts, their rate of occurrence was significantly higher in districts with a larger percentage of people of color.

For instance, in District 1, which includes much of Tacoma’s North and West ends — and some of the least diverse Census tracts in the city, according to 2010 data in USA Today’s diversity index — there were 27 crashes between 2010 and 2014. In District 2, which includes the Stadium District, downtown and Northeast Tacoma, there were 29.

Meanwhile, in District 4’s East Side and South End neighborhoods, which include several of the most racially diverse Census tracts in the city, there were 56 such crashes.

In District 5, Tacoma’s southern-most district — home to two of the top three most racially diverse Census tracts in the city — there were 57 such crashes.

And in District 3, representing Hilltop and neighborhoods around the Tacoma Mall, there were 53.

The takeaway: The farther you get from Tacoma’s largely white neighborhoods in the North End, the more often kids on foot or on bike are getting hit by cars. Census tract data also show that the same areas where kids are getting hit more often are some of the city’s poorest.

Which brings us back to schools. As a 2013 study by researchers from UC Berkeley, USC and Claremont Graduate University showed, children from lower-income schools are more likely to walk to get to class.

That’s where the Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s Active Transportation arm, aided by Kaster’s research, could help make a difference with its recently launched Safe Routes to School effort.

Having had success in districts and individual schools from the Bay Area to rural Wisconsin, Safe Routes programs go beyond the similarly named “Safe Walking Routes” that each elementary school in the district already has in place. Combining in-school education, sidewalk and crosswalk improvement, and traffic enforcement, the goal, as Kaster tells me, is creating something that’s “comprehensive and not piecemeal.”

As usual, the trick will be paying for it.

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Diane Wiatr, Tacoma’s active transportation manager, says Sheridan Elementary school received a state grant to undertake a Safe Routes to School program, but that funding expired after the 2013-2014 school years. The city has also successfully applied for Washington Traffic Safety Commission grants for flashing school-zone beacons in the past, according to Jennifer Kammerzell, a senior engineer with the city’s Public Works Department.

When it comes to building a district-wide Safe Routes to School program, a combination of grants, city and district funding, and even revenue from school zone speed enforcement cameras (that don’t yet exist) are all possibilities.

Until sustainable funding is identified, nothing’s going to take shape.

But there have been positive signs. Kaster tells me she’s recently had productive conversations with two council members, and City Councilman Robert Thoms reports he plans to speak with her early next week.

Whatever happens, though, what’s most important is to not lose sight of what the data makes all too clear.

As Kaster says, where we go from here has to be, “grounded in conversations about equity.”