As Utah’s small cities boom, pedestrians are facing big-city traffic safety concerns
A few days later, another woman died in Logan when a truck hit her as she jogged along a road.
These incidents highlight the challenges of keeping people safe as small towns transform into small cities. The rapid growth puts more people on the roads, sidewalks and crosswalks and the community’s infrastructure and mindsets need to adapt.
Lloyd Sutton, St. George’s active transportation coordinator, sees this dynamic first-hand when he rides his bike to work. Half of his commute is on a paved trail, where he doesn’t have to interact with traffic at all, and the other half takes him on crowded streets.
“Sometimes there’s bike lanes, sometimes there's not,” he said. “You definitely have to watch out a little more when you're mixing with cars.”
Intersections, like the one on Bluff Street, can be particularly perilous. When St. George studied police data from 2010 to 2022, Sutton said, the city found that 65% of crashes involving a pedestrian or bicyclist occurred at an intersection.
The city is working to scale up safety as it grows by adding more traffic signals, paved trails and protected bike lanes, he said. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.
“Good design can fix a lot, but it can't fix everything,” Sutton said. “Education's a huge part of it.”
That means changing the way both drivers and walkers think and getting them to pay attention to things they might not have had to before. Sutton said there’s been pushback from residents, though, who say things such as green-painted bike lanes or flashing pedestrian crossings don’t feel like the small-town St. George they’ve known.
As residents face higher levels of traffic and congestion, Utah State University transportation researcher Patrick Singleton said, adjusting can be hard.
“One of the challenges that we have when small towns are growing up is we have to be patient and pay a little more attention and look out for our fellow road users,” he said.
When it comes to transportation design, researchers have a pretty clear idea of what makes a stretch of road a potential danger zone for pedestrians. Those spots are typically wide streets with four or more lanes and speed limits over 30 mph that are surrounded by retail space.
“That perfectly describes a lot of our small cities’ main streets,” Singleton said. “So that’s a big challenge. They're great destinations, especially for people driving, but they can also be big barriers for people walking.”
Bluff Street checks off those boxes.
Over the past decade, drivers have become more distracted by technology and vehicles have become larger and heavier. Those factors have combined to create a situation where pedestrians get hit more often and the results are deadlier.
Nationwide, pedestrian deaths are at their highest levels in four decades. Fifty-three pedestrians died on Utah roads in 2022, according to data from the Utah Department of Transportation. That’s up from 37 in 2018.
In Washington County, the number of severe pedestrian injuries per year has risen from three in 2013 and four in 2014 to 15 in 2021 and 14 in 2022.
The fact that Utah streets tend to be extra wide doesn’t help, Singleton said, because that means pedestrians are exposed for a longer time as they cross.
The good news is there are proven countermeasures cities can implement to help people drive safely. Even narrowing traffic lanes or adding trees along a road can subliminally influence drivers to slow down and pay attention, Singleton said.
“When we're driving, we rely on a lot of cues, including the speed limit, but also how the roadway is designed,” he said.
And the silver lining of having wide streets, he said, is that cities have more room to reconfigure the space for safety, such as adding a bike lane, parking strip or median.
St. George is designing a new traffic signal and crosswalk on another main road where pedestrians have been hit and killed multiple times in recent years. And back in 2022, the city opened a pedestrian tunnel under Bluff Street as part of its paved trail system.
St. George and Logan are also investing in their networks of paved trails to separate pedestrians and bikers from vehicles entirely. Projects like these can get expensive, Sutton acknowledges. The Bluff Street tunnel cost around $3 million, and the city got help from UDOT to complete it.
Local and state leaders are asking for input from the public, too. There’s an online survey where Washington County residents can share which spots around town feel especially dangerous and suggestions for making them safer. Utah is also in the final stages of completing its part of a federal vulnerable road user safety assessment.
Sutton said the fact that his position exists now — it didn’t a few years ago — shows that more cities are starting to make pedestrian and bike safety a bigger part of their plans.
But even with the best trail systems and education, Sutton said, there’s only so much cities can do to control the human element. The driver who killed the second pedestrian on Bluff Street, for instance, has been charged with running a red light while driving under the influence.
“People need to be watching out for themselves and watching out for others,” Sutton said. “That goes for anyone using the road, whether you're in a car or whether you're walking.”