Pedestrians call for city to step it up
11 deaths in area roadway incidents so far in ’19 show need for safer streets
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.
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.”
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.”
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.