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Albuquerque ranked second in the nation for pedestrian deaths despite city initiatives

Rick Murataya_KUNM Nash Jones.jpg
Nash Jones
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KUNM
Rick Murataya says he was hit by a car crossing an Albuquerque street. Since then, he's struggled to get around as a pedestrian and transit commuter. He says it's challenging to cross the six lanes of traffic on east Central Ave. before the lights change and that he wants the city to make the International District neighborhood safer for pedestrians.

A new study ranks New Mexico as the most dangerous state in the nation to be a pedestrian, and the state’s largest city as the second most deadly metro area for those on foot. While Albuquerque’s numbers dipped some during the early pandemic, its rates have nearly doubled over the last decade despite new initiatives to bring them down. The danger is rooted in road design and the burden is not being shouldered equally by residents.

As Rick Murataya sits in his walker on the corner of Louisiana Blvd. and Central Ave. on one of Albuquerque’s deadliest stretches of road for pedestrians, he knows how dangerous it can be to cross the street. He said he was the victim of a hit-and-run in a crosswalk on Montgomery Boulevard, near an area where he’d set up camp because of its relative safety.

“I split my head open, broke my ribs, fractured my back and then messed up my knees,” he said. “So, now I have problems walking and it sucks because, I mean, I'm a runner. And now I'm like — I can't even barely get across the road.”

Murataya mostly commutes on foot and by bus using his walker on east Central Avenue, where he said he sees lots of speeders and distracted drivers. He said his wife worries about him crossing the road’s six lanes before the light changes.

HAWK Signal Central Ave.
Nash Jones
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KUNM
A pedestrian crosses at a HAWK signal installed on Central Ave. in Albuquerque's Nob Hill neighborhood.

“But she goes, ‘Well look man, just take your time and let them wait; they have to wait,’” he said. “And I'm like, ‘eh, I wouldn't be too sure about that,’ you know?”

He said he likes the mid-block signaled crosswalks, called “HAWK (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk) signals," the city has installed on Central Avenue in nearby Nob Hill, like the one between Amherst and Tulane drives.

“That one’s convenient and that's a good timed light,” he said. “It allows me to walk across the street without rushing.”

It’s not surprising the part of Central running through Albuquerque’s International District is more dangerous than the wealthier and whiter Nob Hill, according to the 2022 Dangerous by Design report from the nonprofit Smart Growth America.

“This is not an epidemic that is being felt equally,” said Assistant Vice President for Transportation Strategy Steve Davis. “Like so many other public health or quality of life crises that we face.”

The report shows Native Americans are more than three times as likely than their white peers to be killed in a crash while walking. Black pedestrians are killed at double the rate of white people. And people walking in neighborhoods where residents have lower income are also at higher risk. The International District has a lower percentage of white residents than surrounding neighborhoods, according to the 2020 Census, and its residents have some of the lowest incomes in the city.

The report has a map for each metro area, with a dot for every pedestrian killed through 2020.

“The density of the dots in a handful of places in Albuquerque are really just stunning,” said Davis. “Per mile, it may have some of the most dangerous corridors in the country.”

On average, nearly 4.2 pedestrians are killed in Albuquerque per 100,000 residents annually, according to the report. Davis said the worst stretches of road, including east Central Avenue and Coors Boulevard at I-40, have key similarities.

“They are all designed to move cars as fast as possible, and as many vehicles as possible, while stopping as little as possible,” he said. “But they all run through environments that are complex. They're mixed use, they have a ton of curb cuts, they have a ton of turns.”

Davis said this sets drivers up to fail, “because we are telling them two very conflicting things, which is ‘This road is designed for you to go really fast, you don't have to give it your full attention.’ And, at the same time, we're saying, ‘There's a ton of people here, be ready for complexity,’” he said. “And it naturally leads to traffic collisions and deaths.”

In light of the city’s high rates of pedestrian deaths, Mayor Tim Keller in 2019 signed an executive order to become part of the Vision Zero pledge to end all traffic fatalities. Valerie Hermanson took over as the initiative’s coordinator in January.

“These are very challenging statistics,” she said of Albuquerque’s disproportion rates of pedestrian fatalities highlighted in both the Dangerous by Design report and the Albuquerque Area High Fatality and Injury Network map that her program uses to inform their priorities. “And that is a very big reason why we have the Vision Zero program, is to work on these challenges.”

The program is now two years into its five-year Action Plan, which marks the end of the first phase of its roll-out. The plan indicates that certain actions should have been accomplished at this point, such as new pedestrian crossings, reconstructed corridors and signal modifications. Hermanson told KUNM that she doesn’t have “any kind of reporting” on which of the items listed in the plan have been completed, adding that a newly-hired consultant is determining which of the tasks will be easiest or most impactful first. Hermanson said that assessment should be done in the next 8 to 10 months.

“As far as the Vision Zero Action Plan, it's great for aspirational actions that we're going to work toward,” she said. “As far as the timelines, they're a little tricky because there is no dedicated funding to implementing all of these actions. However, we are hitting on a lot of them already.”

Hermanson said that through Albuquerque’s updated Complete Streets Ordinance they’ve focused on “low cost, high impact” projects like adding bike lanes, removing parking near intersections to improve visibility, adding crosswalks when repaving roads, and re-striping.

She said some bigger projects have recently gotten approval too, including a “road diet” on Louisiana Boulevard between Gibson and Lomas boulevards — where roads are narrowed by adding more sidewalk or bike lanes. The move was recommended in a 2020 safety study and, according to Hermanson, is due to start next year.

However, Hermanson said another road diet that was recommended in a safety study on east Central is on hold until smaller projects are completed there. The study, citing the neighborhood’s demographics and disproportionate crash rate, declares that “addressing safety in this area is a social justice issue.”

Hermanson said the projects were green-lit last week and include two signaled crosswalks between intersections — one near San Pablo Street by the new International District Library and the other near Conchas Street.

Murataya, who admits to jay walking because of the half-mile distance between some lights, said those “HAWK signals” will help him feel safer.

“It’ll get me to where the bus stops are a lot quicker,” he said. “You know, because even though every day I do my stand-ups and my sit-ups to strengthen my legs, it’s not helping.”

Hermanson said that data on the impact of these improvements on Albuquerque’s pedestrian death rate will take years.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays, 5-7 p.m.). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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