Pedes­tri­ans call for city to step it up

11 deaths in area road­way in­ci­dents so far in ’19 show need for safer streets

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Dug Be­g­ley STAFF WRITER

Look both ways doesn’t be­gin to de­scribe the safety plan for the in­ter­sec­tion of Tarnef and De Moss when school lets out.

Par­ents and chil­dren seem­ingly ap­pear from ev­ery­where. They crowd the side­walks with strollers and book­bags, as other moth­ers and fathers inch along in a slow-mov­ing stream of au­to­mo­biles stretch­ing the en­tire block.

The chat­ter of ex­cited young­sters ready to jet­ti­son their books is in­ter­rupted by sharp whis­tles from the lone cross­ing guard try­ing to main­tain or­der from the mid­dle of the street. Walk­ers whisk through the in­ter­sec­tion, fol­lowed by a burst of cars.

Slowly, the log­jam eases, but it does not go away. The tide of au­to­mo­biles and pedes­tri­ans moves onto the next cross­ing, and then the next. Maybe that one lacks an ad­e­quately painted cross­ing. Rarely is there an­other cross­ing guard.

There are ap­prox­i­mately 200,000 in­ter­sec­tions in the Hous­ton area, each a poten-

tial point of con­flict for driv­ers and oth­ers cross­ing or us­ing the streets. Each is a place gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and safety ad­vo­cates must con­sider when mak­ing Hous­ton safer, in the midst of what some call a pub­lic health cri­sis.

The fo­cus, for now, is for city of­fi­cials to solve prob­lems at a dozen well-doc­u­mented dan­ger­ous in­ter­sec­tions, many pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied by of­fi­cials and out­lined in a Hous­ton Chron­i­cle se­ries that high­lighted the re­gion’s rank­ing atop the most deadly ma­jor metro ar­eas in the U.S.

None of those in­ter­sec­tions is in Gulfton.

City of­fi­cials and sup­port­ers say the up­com­ing im­prove­ments at those dan­ger­ous cross­roads are vi­tal, both to show what can be done to re­duce deaths and to set an ex­am­ple of how fu­ture street re­build­ings and devel­op­ment can avoid past mis­takes.

“You shouldn’t have to be Usain Bolt to cross some of these streets,” said Dex­ter Handy, chair­man of the Cit­i­zens Trans­porta­tion Coali­tion, a lo­cal group seek­ing greater in­vest­ment in neigh­bor­hood streets, side­walks and bike lanes.

Pedes­tri­ans are not the most com­mon trav­el­ers on Hous­ton-area roads, but they die in about the same num­bers. Based on crash re­ports filed with the state as of Fri­day, 19,031 driv­ers were in­volved in wrecks in the Hous­ton area this year. A dozen of them died, and nearly 15,000 walked away un­in­jured.

So far this year, 130 pedes­tri­ans have been in­volved in road­way in­ci­dents. Eleven have died — just one fewer than the driv­ers. Only nine were un­in­jured.

“I feel like this is my right, but if they hit me, that doesn’t mat­ter,” said Sara Shams, 34, who has banded with other Gulfton par­ents to push for safer streets.

Of those 130 pedes­tri­ans across the re­gion, five have been in the Gulfton area, from Fon­dren east­ward to Loop 610 and south of the West­park Toll­way. Only one of those peo­ple walked away un­in­jured.

Hu­man grid­lock

Few places in Hous­ton have the recipe for dis­as­ter quite like Gulfton, home to the dens­est res­i­den­tial pop­u­la­tion and some of the city’s most ne­glected streets, teem­ing with new­com­ers who are among the least likely to own an au­to­mo­bile.

Within a six-square-block area around the in­ter­sec­tion of Tarnef and De Moss are six schools serv­ing chil­dren ages 5 to 18, mean­ing ap­prox­i­mately 6,000 stu­dents mov­ing to and from the cam­puses each day.

“There is hu­man grid­lock on the side­walks,” said Anne Whit­lock, found­ing di­rec­tor of Con­nect Com­mu­nity, a non­profit that works in Sharp­stown and Gulfton to ad­dress com­mu­nity needs.

What is in short sup­ply are the things to keep those kids safe, such as clearly marked cross­walks and warn­ing signs. Cross­ing guards are a lux­ury con­nected to only one or two key in­ter­sec­tions. Schools end their over­sight at the prop­erty line.

Shams, a mother of three, will not let the old­est, 14, walk alone. “It is not that I do not trust them,” she said of her kids. “I don’t trust the per­son sit­ting be­hind the wheel.”

She has seen enough over more than a decade in Gulfton to give her pause: Peo­ple with their eyes on their phones more than the road ahead. Peo­ple who think cars al­ways have the right of way.

“They don’t care about the rules and reg­u­la­tions,” she said of driv­ers, many of whom are her neigh­bors, and, like her, im­mi­grants who may have brought their own driv­ing cul­ture with them.

“A lot of peo­ple do not know how to drive, but they get a driver’s li­cense,” said Ce­cilia Perez, 43, an­other area par­ent wor­ried about street safety.

The un­cer­tainty leaves pedes­tri­ans in a de­fen­sive po­si­tion, Shams said. They try to make them­selves seen, but also ready to re­act. In­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing in Gulfton and other ar­eas is get­ting driv­ers ac­cus­tomed to walk­ers and bi­cy­clists.

“Most peo­ple know you can turn from a one-way to an­other one-way,” said Oni Blair, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of LINK Hous­ton, which ad­vo­cates for trans­porta­tion in­vest­ment in Gulfton and other places such as wider side­walks and bet­ter tran­sit stops. “But they don’t know the rules of what to do to when there is a pedes­trian.”

First steps

Of­ten, streets seem to work against safety, ei­ther by not be­ing de­signed prop­erly or be­cause of a fail­ure to main­tain it.

Fol­low­ing a 2013 or­der by for­mer Mayor An­nise Parker that all fu­ture street re­con­struc­tion plans con­sider all road users, Hous­ton Pub­lic Works be­gan look­ing at in­ter­sec­tions as a fo­cus of safety ef­forts. Those ef­forts evolved last year into work­ing with com­mu­nity groups to set­tle on a dozen prob­lem­atic in­ter­sec­tions for re­view by the Fed­eral High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion. That au­dit by fed­eral and lo­cal en­gi­neers, is half-fin­ished, with the anal­y­sis of six in­ter­sec­tions un­veiled Thurs­day. It does not paint driv­ers in a fa­vor­able light.

“Driv­ers were ob­served turn­ing right at the in­ter­sec­tions be­tween groups of peo­ple walk­ing, fail­ing to look right be­fore turn­ing right on red, and pro­ceed­ing into the in­ter­sec­tion when the turn was blocked by pedes­tri­ans,” the of­fi­cials wrote. “In sev­eral cases, driv­ers honked their horns or made rude ges­tures at pedes­tri­ans and bi­cy­clists who had the le­gal right of way in front of the driver.”

In many of the spots, such as 11th and Ni­chol­son in the Heights, or Bel­laire and Ranch­ester in Chi­na­town, vis­i­ble clues for driv­ers to be on the look­out for bi­cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans would im­prove safety, en­gi­neers said.

What would im­prove safety even more, of­fi­cials said, is sig­nif­i­cant de­sign changes in some spots. For ex­am­ple, at Wash­ing­ton and Pat­ter­son, one pro­posal is to cre­ate a me­dian in Wash­ing­ton’s cen­ter lane that would give cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans a place to wait for traf­fic to clear while also pro­hibit­ing left turns onto Pat­ter­son.

Such de­sign changes would have to ad­vance through Hous­ton’s cap­i­tal pro­gram, said Jeff Weather­ford, deputy pub­lic works di­rec­tor for trans­porta­tion and drainage op­er­a­tions.

“Ba­si­cally, the big dif­fer­ence is months ver­sus years,” he said of the short­term and long-term re­pairs planned.

Ad­vo­cates for more pedes­trian ameni­ties are push­ing for the city to make longterm re­pairs to three of the in­ter­sec­tions in the up­com­ing year and lay out plans for fix­ing many oth­ers.

“We want to see a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach,” said Raj Mankad, ed­i­tor of Cite: The Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign Re­view of Hous­ton, com­piled by the Rice De­sign Al­liance.

For many, the dis­cus­sion is far from ab­stract. They have lost friends and co­work­ers to crashes in­volv­ing pedes­tri­ans and bi­cy­clists and met the fam­i­lies of those killed.

Mankad pas­sion­ately told city of­fi­cials Thurs­day of the deaths of Polly Koch, who was struck by a pickup truck driver while walk­ing her dogs at Man­dell and Richmond on Nov. 28, 2017, and meet­ing the par­ents of Mo­hammed Ali Ab­dal­lah, a 4year-old boy killed in Gulfton on the first day of school in 2016.

“We should be mov­ing heaven and earth to make sure noth­ing like that hap­pens again,” Mankad said at a meet­ing of the City Coun­cil’s trans­porta­tion, tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture com­mit­tee.

Lessons not learned

Even sup­port­ers of the ef­forts say they know they have a long way to go to achieve changes in many neigh­bor­hoods, es­pe­cially places like Gulfton where the is­sues vary.

Perez said the in­ter­ac­tion of driv­ers and pedes­tri­ans is es­pe­cially prob­lem­atic on small neigh­bor­hood streets in Gulfton — not the ma­jor cross­ings where the city and some ad­vo­cates con­cen­trate their at­ten­tion.

“There are a lot more cars and they see you on the side­walk out there,” Perez said, mo­tion­ing toward Bel­laire Boule­vard. “You feel safer be­cause there is so much around you and driv­ers are pay­ing at­ten­tion. A lot of peo­ple, on a nar­row street, they are on their phone.”

Not even a com­mu­ni­ty­wide event to warn driv­ers about the chil­dren and road safety stemmed the risk for long. Eight days af­ter a reded­i­ca­tion for the in­ter­sec­tion where Mo­hammed was killed — re­plete with warn­ings to look and obey traf­fic rules — a 14-yearold boy was in­jured less than a mile away by a driver who passed a school bus that had stopped to un­load stu­dents.

“It is not a ques­tion of if an­other child is killed,” Whit­lock said. “It is a ques­tion of when it hap­pens again.”

Steve Gon­za­les / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Chil­dren and par­ents cross De Moss Drive and Tarnef Drive, where 4-year-old Mo­hammed Ali Ab­dal­lah was fa­tally struck on the first day of school in 2016.

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