Hous­ton’s dan­ger zone


Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By St. John Barned-Smith and Dug Be­g­ley STAFF WRIT­ERS

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-

Eliz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Doug Baysinger holds a dam­aged wheel from a bike his wife, Joyce, was rid­ing when they were hit by a drowsy driver.

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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