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Addressing Pedestrian Safety in Indian Country

This blog post was written by Ian Thomas. Michia Casebier contributed to this article.

Jemez Pueblo’s adherence to its cultural traditions has preserved tribal members’ bonds to the community as well as its unique aesthetics for hundreds of years.

This small, Native American village in northern New Mexico still consists of adobe homes, outdoor ovens known as hornos, and the soft earth of dirt roads. When thunderheads build across early spring skies, the air is pungent with the fragrance of desert plants and flowers, and, at night, you can still see the stars, smell the earth, and hear the silence … for the most part.

However, the automobile arrived in Jemez a few decades ago and is having a significant impact – on Highway 4 which connects Albuquerque with Los Alamos but divides the community, and on the village roads themselves. In 2017, Jemez Police issued 6,600 tickets for speeding along that highway, and tribal leadership has started to address their transportation and pedestrian safety concerns head-on with a new “Safe Transportation Initiative,” involving a team of pueblo staff from various disciplines.

Native Americans have the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities per capita of all races in the U.S., and New Mexico has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities per capita of all 50 states. Because of these alarming statistics, I traveled recently to Jemez Pueblo and Albuquerque with colleagues from M.G. Tech-Writing, LLC and Walk2Connect to learn about New Mexico tribes’ pedestrian experiences, and to see if we can help develop educational, public policy, or community design strategies that will make walking a safe, healthy, and enjoyable activity for tribal residents.

The Albuquerque Area Southwest Tribal Epidemiology Center – a federally-funded coalition of 27 tribes – invited America Walks and our partners to participate in their Tribal Injury Prevention and Pedestrian Safety Workshop, which was held the day after our visit to Jemez. Transportation and health leaders from nine pueblos, two tribal nations, and the Indian Health Service described similar conditions – high-speed state highways cutting through communities with limited pedestrian crossings and “Stop” signs and too many vehicles in the village centers.

The agenda covered walking programs, traffic calming “pop-ups,” the Vision Zero policy approach, and funding opportunities, as well as including a walk audit of the suburban Albuquerque neighborhood in which the workshop was hosted. Several New Mexico Department of Transportation staff members accepted our invitation to attend, including the State Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator and Tribal Liaison.

While communication between tribal and state government appears to have been wanting in the past, there seems to be a new spirit of inter-cultural engagement, and a new commitment from all parties to address pedestrian safety concerns. The future for safe walking in Indian Country looks brighter than it did!