Houston’s danger zone
WALKING, CYCLING IN REGION CAN BE RISKY
Doug Baysinger remembers everything up to the crash.
One moment, he and his wife were about five miles into a long weekend bike ride from their home in Sugar Land west into the Texas prairie. The next moment, he was sliding along the pavement.
“It felt like five minutes, but I’m sure it was just a few seconds,” he said.
It was two years ago in July. Baysinger had been vaulted from his bike by a red Toyota Camry driven by a drowsy woman who drifted into the group of about 10 riders. Bikes and riders flew through the air as she plowed through the riders and finally stopped.
His pain was excruciating — doctors later discovered he had two fractured vertebrae — but then he saw Joyce lying face down in the street, blood pooling by her head.
“I thought she was dead,” he said. “I thought she’d gotten completely run over by the car.” Baysinger crawled to his wife. He saw her chest rising and falling. At least she was breathing.
The Baysingers were among the lucky ones. In the past 16 years, Houston-area drivers have mowed down nearly 2,000 pedestrians and cyclists. That’s more than 100 deaths a year, with the number increasing in the past three years to more than 150 fatalities annually and an average of more than 350 serious injuries.
That death toll makes the Houston region one of the deadliest major metro areas in the country
for people walking, biking or using a wheelchair along area streets, a Houston Chronicle review of federal data shows. The nine-county region ranks fourth per-capita for bicyclists killed in roadway crashes and fifth for pedestrians — even though a small percentage of people here walk or bike as a way to get around.
The reasons for Houston’s high injury count are as varied as the types of people being struck: lack of adequate space for pedestrians and bicyclists; impassable sidewalks that stymie wheelchair users; long distances between safe crossings that compel people to dash across freeway lanes; a lack of lighting along many roads.
The region’s roads are built to move vehicles as quickly as possible, safety advocates say, meaning those forced to walk or bike put their lives at risk. Many who otherwise would choose a carfree trip are too afraid to do so.
“There are a lot of people who are willing to have a few people die to save two minutes on their commute,” said Christof Spieler, a Houston engineer and urban planner specializing in street design, who spent eight years on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Advocates also lament the lack of harsh consequences in many cases where someone died. In cases where drivers are found guilty, it is typically of lesser charges, particularly when they were charged with leaving the scene of the crash, court records show.
Combined, those factors have helped create an environment where cars are king, and they’ve made pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled into second-class citizens who are disproportionately likely to be injured as they commute.
The carnage cuts across age and class, gender and ethnicity, though men and minorities seem to be overrepresented in the deaths. It impacts able-bodied pedestrians as well as those in wheelchairs or who are unable to walk safely on their own. People bleed or die on city sidewalks, along rural county roads and on suburban streets. Those who survive often spend months or years rehabilitating injuries that leave lifelong pain and rob them of passions such as cycling. The memories leave them anxious every time they traverse the region’s streets.
Survivors tend to their injuries, or bury their loved ones, feeling frustrated and ignored.
“Nobody is really paying attention,” said Wigdan Ahmed Mohammed. Her 4-year-old son was crossing a street near their west Houston home when a driver struck and killed him two years ago.
Every day, she walks by the intersection where he died.
‘A public health crisis’
Though many cities are struggling to keep vulnerable users safe on their streets, the problem is particularly pronounced in Texas, where rapid city growth and urbanization are putting more pedestrians in the path of hurried drivers.
Texas and surrounding states have “the highest number of persons dying in pedestrian crashes since 1990,” said Maggi Gunnels, acting regional administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, based in Fort Worth. “This really is a crisis. A public health crisis.”
From 2001 through 2016, drivers struck and killed 1,756 pedestrians, along with 235 cyclists — roughly 1 in 5 of the deaths along roadways in greater Houston. About half of Houston’s pedestrian fatalities occur along the interstate system — caused by the proclivity of people in the region to dart across the highways on foot or get hit while stranded on the side of the road.
Dallas, where 60 percent of the pedestrian fatalities are along interstates, is the only major metro area with a higher per-capita number of crashes on highways involving one or more pedestrians. Texas’ pedestrian and cyclist death count continues to grow, even as officials have sounded the alarm for years, said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute Center for Traffic Safety.
Fatalities in the Houston region peaked in 2016 at 198, up from 110 in 2010.
Fatalities dropped slightly in 2017, from 198 to 167, though cyclist deaths hit a record high of 21, up one from the previous year. But there’s little evidence that public officials are making it a priority to improve the safety of those who walk, bike or move around in wheelchairs.
Technology cannot save bicyclists and pedestrians, experts say. A car built to protect its passengers does little to protect people outside it.
Saving pedestrians requires different solutions. Texas focuses on education, with the Texas Department of Transportation and other agencies operating campaigns telling drivers to share the road and instructing cyclists to obey laws and wear a helmet. Cycling groups have called the campaigns ineffective, noting it is drivers who need to be brought to heel for not giving vulnerable users space.
Texas’ highway safety plan, developed in 2017, makes education of drivers and pedestrians the top priority, in addition to recommending greater use of reflective street signs and striping and slowing cars to decrease the severity of crashes.
What TxDOT and others have put on paper, however, is not what people see on the ground in Houston and other major metro areas across Texas.
“What we have got is a great plan, but it isn’t going to save someone’s life unless you all get out and do something with it,” Wunderlich told a gathering of police, city planners and public works officials and safety experts in July. “The cavalry ain’t coming.”
No room for error
The Houston region was, is and always will be designed for the automobile, even in the region’s densest areas. Cars and trucks dominate the rules of the road:
Virtually any business or building in Houston that attracts customers — even bars — must factor the city’s minimum parking requirements into its plans and account for cars.
Businesses concentrate along freeway corridors and frontage roads to make it easier for customers to arrive by car, but many have decrepit sidewalks or none at all.
Where officials have painted on-street bike lanes or added signs warning drivers to look for cyclists and to share the road, curbs and the edges of roadways where cyclists are expected to ride are often pocked, uneven and strewn with debris.
Neighborhoods divided major freeways lack dedicated mid-block crossings, such as pedestrian bridges, to help people move from one side of the road to the other.
Downtown streets favor moving cars out of parking lots and onto the roads at peak commuting times, often at the expense and delay of pedestrians along the wide sidewalks in the central business district.
On Texas Avenue, cyclists avoid cars by hopping onto crowded sidewalks, even though local laws require them to travel on the streets. Outside the city core, where most pedestrian and cyclist crashes occur, riders and walkers face uneven terrain: sidewalks buckled by trees or buried under deposits of mud. In many cases, they just abruptly end.
Along Houston-area freeways, pedestrians are expected to make a tough choice: Walk blocks out of their way or risk crossing a road where drivers travel over 60 mph.
From 2016 through 2017, 70 pedestrians were struck and killed on Houston-area freeways, with 28 fatalities along Interstate 45. Five of those were between Little York and Tidwell, where the freeway is at-grade with local streets and where crossings are often more than one mile apart.
Three of the five pedestrians killed tested positive for drugs or had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.
Local elected officials and road planners concede the region needs more significant investment to help pedestrians and cyclists make better decisions. Some solutions, such as blocking off freeways with fencing or high walls, can be added when freeways are rebuilt, along with safe crossings such as pedestrian bridges over freeways or improved frontage road crosswalks.
“If you can build some sort of infrastructure to prevent a problem in the first place, you have gone a long way to solving the problem,” said Michael Manser, a senior researcher in the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s human factors program.
Failure to yield
Mohammed Ali Abdalla died a block from home. He was 4. It was the first day of school.
Wigdan Ahmed Mohammed was walking her two older children to KIPP Connect Primary, Mohammed in tow. He’d wanted to stay home.
“I can’t leave you by yourself,” his mother recalled telling him. They walked out of their townhome, took a left on De Moss, and continued to the end of the block.
The west Houston neighbor-
Doug Baysinger holds a damaged wheel from a bike his wife, Joyce, was riding when they were hit by a drowsy driver.
Metropolitan Transit Authority police officers investigate the scene where a woman was fatally struck by a bus on Wednesday in Houston. The driver faces charges in the crash.