Around the country, pedestrian deaths are most common in low-income areas. And New Mexico has had the highest average rate of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the last few years, according to the CDC.
Fourty-four pedestrians were killed after being hit by vehicles in New Mexico in 2013, and that’s a pretty high number given the state’s small population. Three of the worst intersections in Albuquerque for these kinds of crashes are in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods: the International District in southeast Albuquerque. The intersection at Central and San Mateo is the worst.
Julie Luna is a transportation planner with the Mid-Region Council of Governments. "Albuquerque does have a very high pedestrian crash rate," she said.
We stood on the corner of San Mateo Boulevard, a heavily traveled north-south artery, and Central Avenue, an east-west thoroughfare. We talked about what causes wrecks here as buses, cars and people traverse the hectic crosswalks. "There’s a lot of places to go to," Luna said. "Wal-Mart’s just right down the street."
Highland High School is nearby. Several major bus routes converge. Three lanes of vehicles travel in all four directions. And there are drug rehabilitation centers in the area, too.
"From our data, looking at the pedestrian crashes, about 50 percent of them involved a pedestrian that has some sort of impairment," she said. "It’s not just the traffic. It’s not just unsafe walking. It’s more of the environment."
Looming above us is one of the highest density office spaces in the city. So when are crashes most likely to occur? "It’s Friday," Luna said. "Interesting, two peaks: One around midday, another one around 5 p.m."
Olivia Nuñez was crossing the street there one evening, just after she moved to Albuquerque for college, when a truck tried to beat a red light at top speed. "If it weren’t for my friend pulling me back, I would have been run over," she said. "But this person just zoomed right past me, like literally in front of my face. Like as close as this microphone is."
The memory is vivid. "That was one of my first experiences here in Albuquerque," Nuñez said.
She’s now graduated from the University of New Mexico. She’s a bus commuter, and she regularly finds herself at the San Mateo and Central intersection because she lives nearby.
"You see people trying to run out to cross the street because the light has turned. And there’ll be cars coming. They’ll think they can outrun the cars," Nuñez said. "And people in walkers and canes trying to get across on a green light. There’s been a lot of close calls."
Enrique Cardiel lives nearby, too. He’s a facilitator for the International District Healthy Communities Coalition. "The Central and San Mateo pedestrian safety issue has been on our radar for years, as well as other intersections," he said. "Part of it is individual behavior, and part of it is the built environment."
Cardiel said he was once out doing a sidewalk evaluation in the International District a couple of years ago, and he almost got hit by a truck. His neighborhood borders a wealthier one. "We figured out how to make roads safer. It just hasn’t extended to this part of Central," he said.
Immediately west of this intersection is a strip of boutique shops and high-end restaurants where the number of lanes has been reduced. Cardiel said plenty of road improvement projects in the city stop at San Mateo, right before they extend into the International District.
"I think often when you have more people with higher incomes, more people with advanced degrees live in a community, they’re more able to advocate for themselves," he said.
The Federal Highway Administration is coming to Albuquerque this fall to conduct a road safety assessment of the Central and San Mateo intersection. Craig Allred has done more than 500 of these evaluations all over the country over the last decade. He’s a transportation specialist, and he says the first step is to create an impartial, multidisciplinary team.
"We kind of sequester ourselves as a team and go out and actually look at the roadway, look at the intersection, and usually spend quite a bit of time out there looking at it, during the day, during rush hour, during night, in different conditions," Allred said.
The FHA’s goal is to offer a fresh set of eyes on the problem and come up with low-cost solutions that can be implemented right away. The team considers social factors, too, he says.
But the Federal Highway Administration doesn’t issue orders when the assessment is completed. It will be up to the city of Albuquerque to make good on the suggestions.