Rio de Janeiro is breathtaking. It just takes a walk along the boardwalk of the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, for example, to be completely absorbed by the city’s natural beauty and the thousands of people enjoying these sites. There you will see generations of families and happy dogs; street vendors selling their goods; and runners, cyclists, and skaters dodging meandering tourists. Before arriving, however, beachgoers must take their life into their own hands crossing the busy Avenida Vieira Souto before they can settle in on their beach towel and snap that perfect photo of the Morro Dois Irmãos (“Hill of Two Brothers”) looming above.
At any point between the waterfront buildings and the boardwalk, there are streets at least six lanes wide with 70 kmph (43 mph) speed limits. This high speed limit in an area with significant activity shocked international experts during last week’s road safety training organized by EMBARQ Brasil, PTV Group, and the University of Newcastle in Rio. “This number does not make any sense,” said a surprised Paulo Humanes, a Portuguese adviser to PTV Group.
The speed at which vehicles regularly pass feet or even inches by pedestrians and cyclists is frightening and sometimes deadly. Rio’s traffic mortality rate – at 15 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year – is the highest among 23 surveyed metropolises according to 2012 data from the Brazilian Ministry of Health. By comparison, São Paulo’s mortality rate was 13 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012.
This problem extends nationally. In 2012 alone, Brazil experienced 44,812 traffic deaths. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the country currently has the fourth most annual traffic deaths in the world. “If we consider the rate of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, Brazil is second only to Nigeria, which is fifth in absolute numbers,” warns Luis Antonio Lindau, President and Director of EMBARQ Brasil.
The country’s high fatality rate is directly related to street speed limits. Some of Rio’s peer metropolises – like New York, Tokyo and London – have managed to reduce the number of fatal crashes to around 2 per 100,000 inhabitants. These cities share a 50 kmph (31 mph) speed limit.
“What usually kills is not the speed, but the difference in speeds between travelers. If a car hits a bike at 80 kmph (50 mph), the probability of the cyclist surviving is practically zero. Unfortunately, this is the reality that we find here in Brazil,” explains Humanes.
Common in most countries, a 50 kmph (31 mph) speed limit saves lives. This speed greatly reduces the probability that a collision will be fatal. As a car’s speed rises, the risk of death increases exponentially. According to WHO data, a pedestrian has a 36% chance of being killed when struck by a car traveling 40 kmph (25 mph). But if the vehicle is traveling 60 kmph (37 mph), the probability jumps to 98% – almost a zero percent chance of survival.
In addition to high vehicle speeds, Rio’s beachfront offers another major risk to pedestrians and cyclists: reversible lanes. Based on the time of day, lanes change direction as a way to relieve congestion during peak hours. This move was widely criticized by experts during last week’s road safety training, because reversible lanes confuse pedestrians – even those accustomed to the area – and drivers. “The prioritization of vehicular traffic in a site with great movement of people is inconsistent, since it generates many conflicts, putting pedestrians and cyclists at risk,” says Marta Obelheiro, Coordinator of Health Projects and Road Safety for EMBARQ Brasil.
Designing roads to save lives
More people die in Brazil in traffic accidents than in many wars, motivating experts around the world to seek effective solutions. Expert recommendations at the road safety training represent a departure from the traditional education and enforcement efforts that treat the behavior of drivers and pedestrians as the sole cause of crashes. Rather, solutions should revolve around designing roads that protect pedestrians and cyclists. Streets and avenues should be people-oriented, giving priority to more sustainable modes of mobility like active, non-motorized, and mass forms of transport.
Repainting pavement to make roadways seem narrower for cars, creating pedestrian refuge islands and medians, and creating more pleasant pedestrian spaces are all ways to reduce speeds and ensure the safety and comfort of people who choose sustainable means of transport. These actions are part of the concept of “complete streets,” which focuses on improving comfort and safety for people through modifications to street design.
Complete streets are designed to ensure secure access for all road users – be they pedestrians, cyclists, motorists or transit users of different ages and abilities. Experts suggest that a complete street should include the following attributes, with flexibility for local requirements:
- Speeds limited to 50 kmph (31 mph) in areas of general circulation
- Traffic calming measures
- Universal accessibility
- Clear, pedestrian-oriented signage
- Useful urban infrastructure (bins, benches, lighting, sidewalks, etc.)
- Security monitoring in specific places
- Short cross walks and refuge islands for pedestrians
- A limited supply of free parking
- Bike paths and/or lanes
- A range of preferred/exclusive bus services
- Easy access to public transport and public transport stops
Complete streets principles also discourage reverse lanes and counterflow designs, such as those on Rio’s Avenida Vieira Souto.
These recommendations are being implemented in some Brazilian cities. Rio should follow suit to make its world famous beachfront – and other streets throughout the city – safer and even more enjoyable. Who knows, in the not-too-distant future, the “Marvelous City” could surprise the world not only for its beauty, but also by eliminating all preventable deaths.