Come October, Anchorage might be an easier place to walk or bike on local streets. A set of rule changes passed by the municipal Assembly on Tuesday will eliminate penalties for jaywalking and ease restrictions on how cyclists can travel through intersections. Those changes, which are more incremental than earth-shattering, should still have a positive effect on those who choose to get around town via non-motorized means.
Anchorage is well-known for its expansive and well-developed trail network, which accommodates thousands of recreational and commuter pedestrians, runners and cyclists. When it comes to the city’s streets and sidewalks, however, the situation is far less friendly to non-motorized users. In areas outside Anchorage’s downtown core, implementation of crosswalks, walk signals and other pedestrian-protecting infrastructure is far from uniform, and the result is an unacceptable toll of pedestrians being struck by drivers — many of them at intersections.
For cyclists, the picture isn’t much better. The trail network can help riders move across town in a few protected corridors, but once cyclists emerge onto the streets, they often face the choice of riding on the road at the mercy of passing traffic or on a sidewalk not well-designed to accommodate riders and walkers simultaneously. Even in the few locations where there is a designated bike lane on the street, cars regularly encroach, turn across it and even pass illegally using that space.
The rule changes passed by the Assembly (and, in a rare instance of comity between the branches of the municipality, endorsed by Mayor Dave Bronson) should go some distance toward making walking and bike travel easier for Anchorage residents and visitors alike. Data suggests that giving cyclists more latitude to proceed through intersections and decriminalizing pedestrians crossing away from intersections should reduce serious accidents.
This might seem unintuitive: If rules about when non-motorized road users can cross streets and intersections are relaxed, won’t that make the roads more dangerous, not less? But studies have shown conclusively that measures that decrease the amount of time pedestrians and cyclists spend at and around intersections decrease their likelihood of being hit by a vehicle. Despite the traffic-control measures present at intersections, national traffic studies have shown that pedestrians involved in collisions are hit at intersections almost as often (25% of cases) as when crossing at an unmarked location (26%). The most revealing statistic, however, is how frequently pedestrians are hit by vehicles when they’re not crossing the road at all, but alongside the road on the shoulder or sidewalk (nearly 50% of cases). In short, the causal factor in many of the most serious vehicle-pedestrian crashes has little to do with the pedestrian at all, but instead drivers who are distracted, speeding, under the influence or some combination of the three. And it’s a problem that’s getting worse: According to data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian deaths on U.S. roadways increased 77% from 2010 to 2021, a faster increase than any other category of traffic fatalities.
As with the revisions to Anchorage’s zoning code, we live in a different time than when this city was built, and if we wish to make this place inviting and accommodating to as many people as possible, we need to be responsive to changing trends and needs of the people who live here — and those we wish to attract. It’s an existential imperative that we reverse Anchorage’s population outflow, and that means implementing code changes and new infrastructure that allow the kind of transformation cities like Oklahoma City have seen. None of the changes on their own are enough to turn the city around overnight, but they add up: Oklahoma City saw an influx of 100,000 new residents between the 2010 and 2020 census, growth that the city’s mayor chalks up to quality-of-life increases for residence. Multimodal transportation and making the city more walkable has been a big part of that strategy.
A wise man once said that if you’re coasting, you’re going downhill. Anchorage can’t afford to coast, and improving safety and ease of transportation for non-motorized road users is a little step that should pay dividends. The Assembly, Mayor Bronson and his administration should seek out other similar data-driven avenues for cooperation to make this a more attractive place to live, work and play.