Detroit’s streets are not safe for pedestrians.
The numbers aren’t heading in the right direction, either. Vehicular fatalities rose across the U.S. during the pandemic, but they rose at an even higher rate in Detroit. On average, more than 100 people per year have been killed in traffic accidents in Detroit over the last five years. About 20% of the worst crashes involved a pedestrian, and the outcomes were much more severe than between cars.
The city’s uniquely lethal problem is a remnant of its devotion to the automobile. But a September report from the City of Detroit — “Streets for People: Detroit Comprehensive Safety Action Plan” — offers solutions for improving street safety.
“Streets for People” offers some textbook suggestions of how to make streets safer: building curb extensions, adding pedestrian countdown timers and painting crosswalks to improve visibility. But the key to making Detroit streets safer for everyone is to slow down cars.
The report cites a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, saying, “A person hit by a car traveling 35 mph is five times more likely to die than a person hit by a car traveling 20 miles per hour.”
The city’s speed hump program, while popular among residents, can’t make enough of a difference.
The most reliable way to reach this goal on well trafficked corridors is called a road diet, which reduces the number of lanes dedicated to vehicles. Upgrading key sections of major streets will make a big difference. Nearly 35% of all vehicle accidents involving either a death or incapacitating injury occur on just 3% of the city’s streets. The city calls these dangerous streets the “High Injury Network” (HIN).
The plan outlined in the report will be implemented by multiple city departments. But it also has to be done in collaboration with the state and county — more than 60% of the HIN is made up of streets owned by Wayne County or the State of Michigan. It recommends implementing at least one improvement project each year.
Determining which streets to prioritize will be done on a 50-point rubric that grades streets on their impact to safety, sustainability and equity. While the report doesn’t offer grades, street-level numbers provide a good idea of which street upgrades will have the biggest effect.
Here are six suggestions for streets most in need of a road diet.
7 Mile Road
No less than five sections of 7 Mile Road appear on the city’s HIN map, ranging in length from half-mile to more than 3-mile stretches. With 160 severe crashes since 2017, it may be the most dangerous corridor in Detroit.
What makes it so dangerous is not entirely clear, but the most common types of incidents involve pedestrians and “angle” crashes, when one car rear ends another or hits it on the side, usually at an intersection.
The section of 7 Mile with the most accidents, between Greenfield and Manor roads, has five lanes and could definitely use a diet.
The second deadliest street in Detroit is Gratiot Avenue, with 147 severe accidents in the past five years. The report doesn’t single out any section of the nearly 9-mile corridor, suggesting it’s dangerous throughout its entirety.
Gratiot is probably the street most ripe for a diet. Outside of downtown, Gratiot has seven wide lanes — three in each direction plus a center turn lane. Given that width, it’s no surprise that it’s the most dangerous street for pedestrians.
A recent planning initiative in the 7 Mile/Gratiot area emphasized street safety, recommending resurfacing neighborhood roads to offer alternative routes for pedestrians and cyclists. Gratiot is managed by MDOT, so a comprehensive improvement of the corridor would involve collaborating with the state.
Grand River Avenue
Gratiot’s sibling on the other side of town isn’t quite as deadly, but still poses significant danger, especially for pedestrians. It, too, has seven lanes for much of its length.
But the Grand River corridor could prove to be a blueprint for how to successfully redesign a road in collaboration with the state. An $8 million streetscaping project for a 2.8-mile stretch of the road was completed in 2020. The section now has five lanes for vehicles, protected bike lanes, curb bump-outs and improved markings for pedestrian crossings and stop bars that indicate where to stop at a red light.
McNichols, like 7 Mile, is mostly a four-lane street for its duration and also quite deadly. A particularly dangerous 3.65-mile stretch from the Southfield Freeway to just past Marygrove College saw 64 severe crashes over the last five years.
Once again, this road could prove to be a model for how to implement a road diet and improve safety. A streetscape project completed last fall between Marygrove and University of Detroit Mercy reduced traffic to two lanes, and added a single parking lane, protected bike lanes, bus stop islands and more. It also took place alongside several new business and residential developments.
Davison’s 2-mile stretch of surface street between I-96 and the Lodge Freeway is a surprising addition to this list. But this five-lane corridor saw 34 severe accidents since 2017 — one of the highest ratios of accidents to length in the city.
The city says this stretch of Davison is used more by cars than pedestrians relative to other roads in Detroit, and street upgrades might not have the biggest impact on pedestrian safety. It’s also managed by MDOT, so the city won’t be able to unilaterally implement changes. But it is a “Tier 1” equity zone, meaning it has a high concentration of disadvantaged groups.
The most dangerous north-south road on this list is also the most dangerous largely residential corridor: a 3.27-mile stretch of Greenfield Road from 7 Mile to nearly I-96. There have been 42 severe accidents on the road since 2017.
Greenfield has between four and five lanes with outdated markings that don’t clearly delineate pedestrian crossings or street parking, nor are there any bike lanes. No streetscape improvements have been announced for Greenfield, which is managed by the county.
Reach AARON MONDRY at email@example.com or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Sign up for The Dig.