Looking out a streetcar window at cyclists in Amsterdam. Photo used with permission from Flickr user deltrems.
Looking out a streetcar window at cyclists in Amsterdam. Photo used with permission from Flickr user deltrems.

Last month, in an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, rural Oregon’s most prolific streetcar critic, Randal O’Toole, asserted that a streetcar is a safety problem.

Transportation safety is a serious matter: highway fatalities are the leading cause of death for Americans 8 to 24 years of age and the leading cause of work-related injury death.  In the last year reported, there were over 32,000 highway fatalities. The American Automobile Association notes, “… the societal costs associated with motor vehicle crashes significantly exceed the costs of congestion.”

However, there was just one fatality related to light rail or streetcar for every 1,600 people who died in a car or truck. In 2011, there were nearly five times the traffic fatalities in San Antonio as there were light rail or streetcar fatalities in the entire U.S.  So, a discussion about transportation safety in San Antonio shouldn’t start with a streetcar. Once again, Mr. O’Toole, streetcars are not the problem nor are SUV’s the solution.

The San Antonio metro area traffic fatality rate is 50 percent greater than the average of the 50 largest metropolitan areas. A resident of San Antonio is twice as likely to die of a traffic accident than a resident of, for example, Portland.

metro crash rates streetcar

While it would be a stretch to say that a streetcar would definitely make San Antonio a safer city, it might. Research by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute found that traffic fatality rates of cities decrease as transit use increases. “Rail transit cities have significantly lower per capita traffic death rates,” a 2004 institute report states.

Incidentally, VIA Metropolitan Transit now experiences over 138 transit passenger-miles per capita, which makes it one of the busiest “bus only” transit systems in the U.S. and in the range of the “small rail” cities in the chart which follows.

Increasing transit ridership and reducing the traffic accidents per capita are two totally compatible goals of SA2020. Another SA2020 goal, reducing the vehicle miles of travel per capita, will also make San Antonio safer. The Centers for Disease Control noted that motor vehicle death rates are higher in sprawling cities because of the higher vehicle miles. According to a report published in the American Journal of Health, “… traffic safety can be added to the other health risks associated with urban sprawl—namely, physical inactivity and air and water pollution.”

deaths versus transit usage

O’Toole mentions bicycle safety as a streetcar issue. While cars and trucks hitting cyclists cause over three-fourths of bicycle fatalities, it is true that bicycle spills happen when the wheel of the bicycle gets caught in the flange gap of a streetcar track.  However, the bicycle and the streetcar have coexisted in U.S. and European cities for over a century, and, normally, cyclists avoid this problem by just crossing the track at about a 90-degree angle.  However, streetcar cities conduct cyclist information campaigns and incorporate design features and signage in order to improve cyclist safety.

So, transportation safety is definitely an issue, particularly in San Antonio. However, rather than making the city less safe, a streetcar is likely to make it safer.

*Featured/top image: Looking out a streetcar window at cyclists in Amsterdam. Photo used with permission from Flickr user deltrems.

Related stories:

Some Streetcar Fact Checking

Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting

Downtown Tax Funding Kansas City Streetcars

Toronto: The City that Saved its Streetcar Tracks

The True Value of Streetcars in San Antonio

Bill Barker is recognized as a fellow by both the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Institute of Certified Planners.