This October 2019 article from Houston Public Media distills the message of Angie Schmitt's important book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. Auto-pedestrian collisions, including fatal ones, are becoming more frequent year over year, outpacing the growth in population. And we cannot just keep blaming the dead pedestrians or just accepting the inevitability of traffic deaths as the cost of improved mobility.
I am amazed that there aren't a lot more such collisions on Old Spanish Trail. My wife and I live just a few feet from OST, a segment of US-90A that runs about five miles south of Downtown Houston. West to East, it diverges from Main Street near NRG Park, passes through portions of the Texas Medical Center, crosses the South Freeway (TX-288), divides the relatively upscale South MacGregor district from the low-to-mid-level homes mid-century bungalows of South Union, continues through some industrial areas south of the University of Houston, veers northward, and becomes South Wayside Drive just before reaching the Gulf Freeway (I-45).
For most of its length, OST is six lanes plus left-turn cutaways, with speed limits at 35 or 40. Motorists with sports cars, muscle cars, motorcycles, Polaris Slingshots, jacked up pickups and SUVs ignore the limit constantly. Day and night, drivers gun their engines, show off their glass-pack exhaust systems, act like they don't know what a school zone is and even accelerate through the zone to pass the slow-pokes complying with the reduced limit. It certainly doesn't help that somebody built a gigantic sports bar/night club/hookah lounge right at OST and 288.
Pedestrians, many of them low-income POC, many of them seniors with mobility issues (but also schoolchildren and young families) cross OST at random points constantly, day and night, seeming not to care whether a young dude in a modified Dodge Challenger is bearing down on them. In parts of OST, the sidewalks are either crumbling or blocked by trees, bus shelters, or lamp posts that a driver has knocked over—so pedestrians just walk in the highway to get around these impediments.
In other words, OST fits the profile of the hyper-perilous traffic corridors that feature so prominently in Right of Way. It is designed to expedite the movement of cars and trucks...which it doesn't do very well. Particularly from 288 to Spur 5 by UH, the traffic lights are poorly timed. Far too often a driver can encounter red lights at every lighted intersection. So, to avoid the red lights, drivers speed from light to light, maybe treating the red light as a stop sign, maybe just plowing through the intersection.
But enough about my hood. What's so remarkable about Schmitt's book? Top on my list is that it takes a holistic approach to this under-reported phenomenon. Individual crashes may be reduced to a single cause; the rapid, steady increase in fatal auto-pedestrian crashes results from combinations of factors, most of which in turn result from planning that shows callous disregard for the lives of people who walk or use wheelchairs to get around. There's also the heavy marketeering of taller, heavier pickups and SUVs by the auto industry, mostly because the profit margins on these vehicles dwarf those for sedans. In just a few years, these motorized behemoths have practically erased all the progress toward improved fuel efficiency and curtailing climate chaos that has been made since the 1970s, the advent of Tesla and other electric vehicles notwithstanding. (She even mentions, as an aside, how auto companies are making their trucks and SUVs look meaner, appealing to the untamed ids of car shoppers, as well as outfitting them with "bull bars" and other such dangerous accessories.)
Second, Schmitt dives into the details to show that these factors actually cause increased traffic violence rather than merely correlate with it. How? By citing examples of places that have applied fixes and seen their traffic fatality numbers decrease instantly. Fixes include redesigning streets and roads in line with Vision Zero guidelines, reducing speed limits, adding crosswalks (too often crosswalks are too far apart, potentially adding half a mile to one's walk), installing traffic-calming devices, removing auto traffic entirely from specified business districts, and educating the public about safe navigation of urban streets. Maybe government agencies can eventually concentrate on discouraging citizens from buying those god-awful SUVs.
Third, Schmitt has collected material from sources all over North America and beyond. That source material includes not only the stark statistics kept by advocacy groups and government agencies, but also the anecdotes of regular folks whose loved ones were killed by drivers who mostly faced no consequences for their "accidents." Schmitt constructs a big-picture view of the root of the problem: over-reliance on statistics, but not all the relevant statistics. In an attempt to appear "evidence-based," agencies and policy makers tend to make decisions based partly on the stats, partly on budgetary considerations; however, they tend to work only with the stats that support their plans. They tend not to listen to the people who will be or have been harmed. It's only when a politician or local luminary takes up the cause of those harmed that media outlets pay attention and the issue enters public consciousness.
I have seen something like this phenomenon up-close, especially in the last few years with the proposed North Houston Highway Improvement Plan (NHHIP), also known as the I-45 expansion. The Texas Department of Transportation's own impact statements include estimates of the number of residents and businesses displaced, the number of schools and parks brought within 500 feet of the freeway's exhaust cloud, etc. Following a longstanding American tradition, those displaced are mostly (you guessed it!) low-income African American and LatinX folk.
Nevertheless, TxDOT and the Houston-Galveston Area Council have pushed ahead with the plan despite impassioned testimony from residents and advocates, including Houston's legendary furniture guy Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale. It has taken a lawsuit from Houston and Harris County government to block NHHIP on civil rights grounds, but even that injunction is temporary. I've also seen commuters on Facebook and Twitter saying basically that they don't give a shit who gets displaced as long as the North Freeway gets widened and their commute times lessened—but guess what, guys! That solution is also temporary! More lanes lead to induced demand, as we've seen on the expanded Katy Freeway; those lanes will fill up again, especially with more housing development along the corridor and more subdivisions springing up around Conroe, so...you see where all this is going, right?
In recent years, I have also seen our city and county governments respond positively to the need for alternative and multi-modal transportation options: improved pubic transit, protected bike lanes, bike racks on the fronts of buses, better connectivity between hike-and-bike trails, etc. Gentrification is often an unfortunate side-effect of these improvements, but that would be happening with or without the addition of bike lanes in traditionally black and brown neighborhoods. Sadly, real estate development trends and heavy demand for heavier vehicles are working against local governments' efforts: Pedestrian fatalities are still increasing. We have a long way to go to catch up with the Portlands of the world, let alone the Copenhagens and Amsterdams. We have a lot of attitudinal barriers to overcome, which is nice way of saying there a lot of sociopaths making and influencing policy, especially in Texas and elsewhere in the Sun Belt. As long as they get paid, these assholes don't care who lives or dies as a result of their decisions.
Indeed, if there's any way to summarize the combinations of factors contributing to the increase in pedestrian deaths, it's assholes. Whether those assholes are driving policy or driving (or selling) Hummers, they are creating the conditions that make walking in the US a high-risk activity, especially in Sun Belt cities. Making our society less assholish is an uphill battle; Schmitt and other transportation wonks, including myself, are grateful for the people waging that battle to halt traffic violence.
Blogging Sporadically since 2014
Here you will find political campaign-related entries, as well as some about my literature, Houston underground arts, peace & justice, urban cycling, soccer, alt-religion, and other topics.