Houstonians don’t walk, and only the brave few bike for recreation. That’s the refrain we hear although it couldn’t be further from the truth. One way we know? Crash data. Over the last five years, vehicles crashed into more than 8,700 people walking and biking across Houston based on LINK Houston’s analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data. In other words, there are thousands of people walking and biking on Houston’s streets.
Recently, our team at LINK Houston spent the morning at Bellaire and Gessner in Southwest Houston. The intersection is one of the 10 most dangerous intersections we identified and recommended the City of Houston prioritize for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements so that people can safely access work, school, grocery stores, medical appointments and their homes. That morning, we saw dozens of people crossing the street to catch one of the three bus lines running through the area while others meandered to nearby shops. A middle-aged man on crutches holding grocery bags and a woman hauling a suitcase sped up to cross the nine-lane road before the pedestrian signal turned red. All the while, cars rushed to make wide turns between people cautiously making their way to the other side of the street.
Almost daily, Houstonians hear reports of drivers hitting someone on foot or bike. Over the summer, the driver of an SUV struck and killed a woman in front of two of her children as they walked across Westheimer to the grocery store. The family had the right of way. The driver ran a red light. In April of this year, drivers in vehicles struck and killed four people riding their bikes. These tragic deaths occur across Houston’s communities, spanning racial backgrounds and ages. The incidents also happen repeatedly at or near the same intersections, affecting the same community, as was the case of the 2017 and 2018 bicycle crashes at Sunset and Main that killed two members of the Rice University community. Earlier this year, a driver hit and killed a woman as she crossed Fondren in Southwest Houston. Her father was killed in a hit-and-run three years ago in the same community.
Increasingly aware of the problem, the City of Houston has attempted policy measures to address public safety on the city’s streets. Mayor Sylvester Turner has taken the issue seriously, describing his vision for a city with multiple transportation options that result in “enhancing connectivity and getting people to their destination as quickly and safely as possible” in his annual State of Mobility address. More recently, the mayor launched a city-wide Safer Streets initiative to identify and fix locations of concern for pedestrians and bicyclists. Houston also has a Bike Plan under implementation, a Complete Streets Executive Order, a “Safe Passing” ordinance to protect vulnerable road users, the mayor’s Complete Communities program and a Walkable Places initiative to promote walkability near commercial and multi-family developments in pilot districts.
But we need results now. Our existing policies aren’t measuring up. While other cities set goals for zero fatalities of people walking and biking, we are comfortable with our current accounting for 2016 and 2017: 160 people walking and 14 people biking killed in crashes.
The carnage on our streets is outrageous. It’s time for change.
Mayor Turner approved seven of the 10 intersections we prioritized for further investigation in line with his Safer Streets initiative. We asked the city to first investigate these priority intersections through a multidisciplinary, inter-departmental taskforce, drawing on law enforcement, design, engineering, public education and community to fully understand each site and then determine intersection-specific solutions. As a next step, the city is partnering with the U.S. Department of Transportation for a road safety audit to review crash reports and conduct site visits at six of the prioritized intersections. The study will result in short- and long-term recommendations for safety improvements specific to the challenges at each intersection.
These improvements may include targeted enforcement of speeding, red light violations and the Safe Passing ordinance. Design and engineering solutions such as lengthening the pedestrian signal, improving street lighting, widening the curb to make pedestrians more visible and slowing down right-turning vehicles are also possible improvements. Small fixes, such as painting crosswalks or changing signal timing, could happen by the end of the year. Modifications requiring significant design and engineering changes, such as re-aligning streets or creating a bikeway, would be considered capital improvement projects for which there are currently no funds or timelines. Additionally, the city could adopt public education programs through the federal transportation department to promote safer and more accessible communities.
Intersection improvements are a step in the right direction.To start, we need a survey of the quantity and quality of our sidewalks, as we already have with our roads and bikeways, to hold local officials accountable for the promises they make. To achieve culture and policy changes, the city, the county and the state must address corridors and neighborhoods across the region. And they must work together with community leaders and advocates to increase education and awareness of the legal rights of all road users – those who are walking, biking, wheeling or driving. They must also equally and regularly enforce those laws to demonstrate the seriousness of offenses. Additionally, our elected officials should prioritize funding for design and engineering improvements that will save people’s lives.
Meanwhile, we as individuals can begin to contribute to the necessary culture shift by acknowledging that we are, indeed, walking, biking and rolling in Houston, and we should be able to do so safely and easily.
Oni Blair is the executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation. LINK Houston and the Kinder Institute will co-host the Street Safety Summit Thursday to share ideas and best practices on supporting a walking- and biking-friendly culture from local and national experts to collectively solve this problem.
Ines Sigel is the director of communications and outreach for LINK Houston.