Metro Detroit’s roads, frankly, suck, with their almost unavoidable potholes — the infrastructure is terrible enough that it inspired a whole gubernatorial campaign slogan. But the focus on fixing road issues for drivers sidelines funding and plans for better infrastructure for pedestrians, which became alarmingly clear earlier this month when a man was injured after falling through a pedestrian bridge over the Lodge Freeway in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

Pedestrian safety is a significant concern in the Motor City, where about 23% of households don’t have access to a car, according to U.S. Census estimates. People walking and biking in and around Detroit face a litany of safety risks, whether on sidewalks, roads or the bridges above them. Wayne County had 596 pedestrian-involved crashes in 2020, the most in Michigan and three times as many as the second-highest total, in Kent County. For years, mobility advocates have asked officials to prioritize walkers and bikers, particularly by funding infrastructure improvements that make roads safer for everyone, rather than move cars faster. 

That Spruce Street Bridge had already been one of 15 pedestrian bridges in Metro Detroit with a “poor” rating, requiring inspection every six months. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) told BridgeDetroit the Spruce Street Bridge was scheduled to be inspected a couple weeks after its partial collapse. MDOT is currently completing inspections of all 69 pedestrian bridges in Detroit. A second bridge in poor condition, over I-94 north of Wayne State University’s campus, was shuttered earlier this week

Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, said there is a link between the lack of investment in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure like bridges, crosswalks and well-maintained sidewalks and ramps, and safety for everyone using the roadways. Both require money and political will.

“The poor condition of these bridges absolutely undermine their value,” Scott said. “After this latest incident, I’m hearing from more people that they don’t feel safe riding or walking over these bridges.”

Those bridges are in theory designed to serve pedestrians, shortening the distance between crossings over the city’s numerous freeways and keeping walkers out of dangerous intersections with high-speed on- and off-ramps.

“Streets are typically designed to prioritize the movement of vehicles over the safety of all road users,” Scott continued. “Road agencies, planners and funders shift the safety burden onto the users rather than take responsibility.”

Scott and others advocate for Complete Streets+, road design that prioritizes safety and accessibility for everyone who uses them. In recent years, Detroit has incorporated some elements of Complete Streets recommendations into its road work, including streetscape projects on Livernois Avenue and more than a dozen other corridors, expanding protected bike lanes (though some cyclists say some are still unsafe) and erecting hundreds of speed humps. Complete Streets projects often reduce the number of driving lanes or narrow them, forcing drivers to slow down and lowering the risk of serious crashes. 

Complete Streets is one tactic to meet many road safety advocates’ ultimate goal: zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries, a mission they call Vision Zero. (Another, similar road safety framework is the Safe System approach.) 

Vision Zero is an international project, with initiatives adopted in a couple dozen U.S. cities. It’s something Scott hopes to see in Detroit, and it has some official support: Detroit City Councilmember Latisha Johnson recently requested a resolution be adopted that would push for its adoption (as reported by Detroit Documenters). She urged:

the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the Director of Public Works to adopt a ‘Vision Zero’ strategy and implement an action plan to reduce traffic fatalities to zero in the next 10 years through better engineering, education and enforcement. …

The approach recognizes that while mistakes are inevitable, we have a responsibility to design and operate a transportation system that mitigates the associated risks. It is important to recognize that Vision Zero, while aspirational in its nature, is a fundamental shift in how we think about and work on roadway safety.

Scott said Vision Zero Network representatives will attend the Detroit City Council Green Taskforce’s Transportation and Mobility Committee meeting June 21. 

National traffic statistics released this month show the country’s roads are less safe now than they have been in quite some time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported nearly 43,000 people died in traffic crashes on U.S. roads in 2021, the highest in 16 years. Preliminary 2021 crash data collected by the ??Governors Highway Safety Association suggest the overall number of pedestrian deaths nationwide was 7,485, the highest in 40 years. Michigan has not publicly released its own 2021 data, but the state saw 175 pedestrian deaths in 2020, a 17% increase from 2019.  

“We need to especially target roads where the most crashes are occurring,” Scott said. “This is not done today. High crash roads are not prioritized. While bicyclists and pedestrians make up nearly 20% of Michigan’s road fatalities, MDOT spends only 1.4% of their safety fund on pedestrian safety improvements — and 0% on bicyclist safety.”

As for the bridges, the latest collapse has spurred some momentum for pedestrian safety improvements on the infrastructure side. On Tuesday, City Council adopted a resolution introduced by Councilmenber Gabriela Santiago-Romero urging MDOT “to ensure and maintain that pedestrian bridges are in good condition, and to refrain from removing pedestrian bridges from communities as a means of lowering maintenance costs.”

Scott pointed to the plan to bring wireless electric vehicle charging to a one-mile stretch of Michigan Avenue in Corktown. The state has allocated $1.9 million for the project and highlighted it as an example of the administration’s commitment to innovation in transportation and infrastructure. Just north of the site, however, he said there is a pedestrian bridge that lacks ramps that meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. 

“That is so inequitable,” he said. “You want Michigan to be the leader in mobility, but you don’t want to put in ADA ramps for your bridges?”

Scott said the Detroit Greenways Coalition has asked for ramps to be added to pedestrian bridges for “a long time,” and there now might be movement on the political side, whether in City Council or the state Legislature.

“It seems that MDOT doesn’t want to do it on their own. But if they’re forced to, they will. …So we want to see if we can’t force them to do it.”

Detroit Documenters contributed reporting.