San Antonio is More Dangerous for Pedestrians

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Pedestrians pass by Tony's, which isn't far from the popular Hays Street Bridge, during Game Three of the NBA Finals on June 10, 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Pedestrians pass by Tony's, a popular dive bar in the near Eastside.

San Antonio is more dangerous for pedestrians now than in recent years, and many other largely Latino communities are in the same condition, according to a new report.

The San Antonio metro area’s Pedestrian Danger Index increased from 96.9 in 2014 to 104.5 in 2016, far worse than the 2016 weighted average of 64.1, according to the Dangerous by Design 2016 study by Smart Growth America.

That means San Antonio is the 28th worst among 104 metro areas ranked by the danger index — a calculation of the share of local commuters who walk to work and the most recent data on pedestrian deaths.

Our city is not alone in dangerous walking conditions.

Pedestrian safety is worsening in largely Latino metro areas like Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose and Riverside, Calif., due to issues of policy, design, enforcement, and culture, according to the report.

When people don’t feel safe to walk or bike, they are less likely to meet physical activity recommendations and are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression, and various cancers — health conditions that often disproportionately affect Latino populations.

Safety Problems for Latino Pedestrians

People of color, older adults, and low-income populations are disproportionately burdened by pedestrian injuries and deaths.

As the median household incomes decrease, the Pedestrian Danger Index increases.

In 2014, 34.9% of the United States population identified as non-white or Hispanic, yet these groups accounted for 46.1% of all pedestrian deaths between 2005 and 2014.

Safe streets are a public health and social justice issue, requiring collaboration between health departments, transportation planners, developers, and elected officials.

This is in line with Salud America!’s research review on active spaces and Latino kids, which states that fewer Latinos (70%) than whites (82.5%) describe having neighborhoods with safe places for kids to walk and play.

Studies show that walkable neighborhoods provide many economic, safety, environmental, health, and social benefits. However, not all neighborhoods in San Antonio are created equal. There are many low-income neighborhoods with high populations of Latinos lacking safe, walkable infrastructure.

The way we design city streets is a major factor in reducing pedestrian deaths while also getting more people to walk, bike, and engage in physical activity that can improve health.

“Traffic safety experts now use the term ‘crashes’ instead of ‘accidents’ to emphasize that the design of the transportation system contributes to most traffic fatalities and injuries,” wrote John Pucher, professor emeritus of urban planning at Rutgers University, and Ralph Buehler, professor of urban affairs & planning at Virginia Tech.

How to Improve Pedestrian Safety in San Antonio

Many groups are working to prevent pedestrian deaths.

The Vision Zero Network, for example, focuses on safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all and reframes traffic deaths as completely preventable. Slowing cars is one of their primary goals. Worldwide, the Vision Zero approach has helped cities boost pedestrian and cyclist trips while drastically reducing injuries and fatalities.

San Antonio adopted a Vision Zero strategy and City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) was featured in Transportation Alternatives first issue of Vision Zero Cities.

Reducing speed can save lives, as can designing safe street networks. A Complete Streets approach integrates the needs of people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation networks for people to drive, walk, push a stroller, use a wheelchair, bicycle, or take public transportation.

More Walkable Streets in San Antonio

In 2009, there were less than four miles of Complete Streets in San Antonio.

Complete streets are designed for safe and convenient transportation by vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District applied for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant to adopt and implement a city-wide Complete Streets policy as a way to improve pedestrian safety and reduce childhood obesity and diabetes in San Antonio.

A Complete Streets working group of about 30 stakeholders convened to pool their knowledge on street design, place-making, creating green spaces, transportation, and low-impact development, and draft a Complete Streets ordinance.

Then-mayor Julián Castro called for tripling the miles of Complete Streets in San Antonio as part of his 10-year plan for San Antonio – SA2020.

City Council voted on and passed the Complete Streets Ordinance in September 2011.

“(The Complete Streets policy) really comes down to health, safety, quality of life, and economic development,” said Marita Roos of the City’s Planning and Community Development Department.

It is unclear how Complete Streets strategies are being applied to the 2017 bond committees’ recommended list of projects for the 2017-2022 Bond Program, which allocates about $450 million for streets, bridges, and sidewalks of the total $850 million bond program, the largest in city history.

The mayor and City Council will meet throughout January and into February to discuss the recommended projects. Many of these meetings are open for public input.

Latino communities could particularly benefit from Complete Streets given that they are less likely to own a vehicle, have fewer safe opportunities to walk, and have higher rates of obesity, chronic disease, and pedestrian fatalities than whites.

Walking and biking infrastructure are critical for physical and mental health, economic development, and, in fast growing Latino-majority cities like San Antonio, a key component in managing traffic and air quality.

Texas Public Radio’s “Growing Pains” project explores alternative transportation options to manage the traffic nightmare that will result from the 146 new residents moving to San Antonio every day. Pedestrian safety should be a primary topic in these discussions.

After learning that pedestrian-friendly elements had been eliminated from a city street project in the Eastside San Antonio neighborhood of Dignowity Hill (75% Latino) due to lack of funding, two urban designers at the local architectural firm Overland Partners decided to take action.

They reached out to local residents, businesses, and the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association.

Read more about this case study.

What Else Can San Antonio Do?

San Antonio also should take a look at the success of a Latino neighborhood in Colorado, which worked together to bring pedestrian safety improvements to Morrison Road, an unsafe street that bisected their neighborhood.

City Councilman Paul D. López grew up in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood (81% Latino) and saw that speeding traffic and lack of safety on this thoroughfare had long been negatively affecting residents’ health and economic development.

Local leaders had already been organizing around the need for healthy change in Westwood and approached López for support in applying for a grant to incorporate physical activity into land development and land use.

One stipulation of the grant was to get the community involved in identifying priority projects. The team worked with local nonprofits to conduct a health impact assessment and held numerous community meetings to gain input.

The solution was clear – the people wanted to improve pedestrian safety on Morrison Road, which included traffic signals, landscaped bump outs and medians, and a streetscape implementation plan. Changes were eventually approved for the street.

“We need to design for people,” said AnaCláudia Magalhães, community development coordinator for Denver nonprofit BuCu West. “In order to make it safe, you have to change infrastructure. Only by design can you rethink the public right of way and fix the safety issues that we have.”

Local matters.

San Antonio is growing and we must be willing to accept and prepare for the ensuing changes. Streets play a huge role in our daily lives, thus require our attention and action. In line with the heart of the “Eat Local” and “Shop Local” mottos, we must also actively engage in local politics to ensure policymakers design for people rather than for cars.

Tell your community leaders and officials that pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries are not inevitable, and they can be reduced through design and enforcement of safe pedestrian infrastructure.

Our mental and physical health depends on it, as well as the future of our city.

7 thoughts on “San Antonio is More Dangerous for Pedestrians

  1. In my neighborhood, All but a few of the blocks have sidewalks on both sides of the street; the rest have sidewalk on one side. Why do I see so many pedestrians walking IN the street when there is a sidewalk on the same side of the street in which they are walking? When driving in my ‘hood, I regularly have to steer around people walking in the street, even though a sidewalk is a few feet away. And often, the pedestrians unsafely walk in the direction of traffic (as opposed to the safe direction, against traffic). I have lived in several metropolitan cities and have never seen folks choosing to walk IN the street rather than ON the sidewalk. Can someone please explain this SA phenomenon????

    • I’ve thought about this and have come to the conclusion that walking in the street adds distance from the territorial range of yard dogs which are prevalent in hoods. It keeps those dogs from barking and in the case that they are vicious, less likely to escape and attack.

      Walking towards oncoming traffic I would speculate is personal preference.

      • I’m with ghetto mystic about issues with stray and loose dogs in San Antonio.

        Also, depending on the area, walking with traffic in San Antonio (including in the street) might be an indication of people following the path of VIA buses – walking to stops or between stops to kill time between infrequent service; some routes only run every 30 minutes to an hour. In addition, some VIA bus stops are placed where there’s currently no connecting sidewalk, encouraging walking or wheelchair use in the street and in the direction of traffic – including at high activity areas like Woodlawn Lake Park (on Woodlawn Ave near Lake Blvd) or bus stops near McNay Art Museum (New Braunfels near Austin Hwy).

        Sidewalks leading to bus stops and other high activity areas should be connected, adequately wide (wide enough for adults to walk side by side comfortably or for individuals in wheelchairs to pass), well lit and ADA accessible –per the recommendations of Alamo Area MPO’s Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (2012) and the guidelines provided by Safe Routes to School, AARP and other national efforts and associations. At the moment, the best lit, paved, ramped and connected and most generously wide surfaces in many parts of San Antonio are for cars, so why not walk there?

    • I have no idea what specific conditions exist in your neighborhood, but I’d argue the assertion people walk in the roadway when there are excellent sidewalk facilities available is not accurate. Try walking in that neighborhood, you’ll probably understand why people make the decisions they do, and then you can advocate for improvements. You cannot generalize that issue to the entire city. In most places, people walk on sidewalks.

      A more important observation is the implicit cultural bias your post communicates, at least to me. The article was about systemic problems that result in dangerous conditions for people walking. Your response implies dangerous conditions for people walking exist because of their own bad behavior, not because of far more complex policy decisions by governments that have jeopardized their safety and failed to meet the needs of anyone not driving.

      I see the problem as a systemic problem, but if we are going to point fingers at user behavior, then I’ll ask you why do drivers universally fail to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians at unmarked crosswalks? State law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians at both marked and unmarked crosswalks. An unmarked crosswalk is simply any intersection where there are no painted crosswalks, which is perhaps 90 percent of all intersections in the city.

      Texas Transportation Code Section 541.302 defines unmarked crosswalks as “the portion of a roadway at an intersection that is within the connections of the lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of the highway measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the traversable roadway”, and states crosswalks include both marked and unmarked crosswalks. Section 552-003 says “The operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing a roadway in a crosswalk if:
      (1) no traffic control signal is in place or in operation; and
      (2) the pedestrian is
      (A) on the half of the roadway in which the vehicle is traveling; or
      (B) approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger.”

      That is more or less 90% of all intersections in the city. Failure to comply with this law is ubiquitous. I expect almost no driver, and perhaps not even most SAPD officers, understand this law. It’s certainly not enforced. The tendency to focus on user behavior suggests we need some huge education campaign. Great, but figure the odds a user campaign would actually result in a person driving 40 mph on some arterial street stopping to allow a person walking cross at an intersection of some small neighborhood street that doesn’t have a stop light.

      Every crash involving a pedestrian I have ever read about includes a claim the driver didn’t see the person walking until it was too late. Even if drivers understood the law, too many times they don’t even see pedestrians. That’s a reality education campaigns will not change.

      The problem is systemic. The question I’d pose to you is what moral justification supports spending public money on a transportation system we know results in fatalities and serious injuries?

      Quantifying all federal, state and local road spending in San Antonio is difficult, but I would expect you find it to be hundreds of millions of dollars annually. For that money, we successfully kill 150 people or so a year, and seriously injure another 1,500 or so. It’s not inevitable, it’s an outcome of government policy decisions.

      If it was inevitable, then you’d expect everywhere to be closer to the same, but there is wide variation. The least dangerous cities in the world have traffic fatality rates approaching zero (London, Tokyo and Stockholm). The least dangerous in the US have fatality rates of less than 4.0 per 100,000. San Antonio’s is consistently around 10 per 100,000. Road users in London, Tokyo, Stockholm, Boston, and NYC make the same mistakes we make in San Antonio, but the result of those mistakes in other cities are less fatal than in San Antonio because of safer systems. The most important factor is speed. Not speeding, but speed. Slow speeds are safer for all road users. Drivers find them inconvenient, but all other roads users appreciate slow speeds. Regardless, slow speeds are safer for all road users.

      I can go on about how to reduce speed by design, but there’s no point in that until we can agree on the relative priority of safety over convenience.

      • Kevin, I merely wondered out loud why I saw so many people walking in the street (day and night) when there are sidewalks on the same side of the street. I don’t see where my question is culturally biased. Do you know the ethnic make-up of my neighborhood?
        You then changed the subject from pedestrian behavior to driver behavior. You asked me, ” why do drivers universally fail to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians at unmarked crosswalks?” The answer to that question is the same as to these questions: Why do drivers ignore yYield signs? Why do drivers not use their turn indicators? Why do drivers run through stop signs and red lights? Why do drivers drive down the middle of residential streets then either swerve to avoid hitting an oncoming car that appears or force the oncoming car into a game of “chicken”? Why do drivers make lazy left turns where they cross into the oncoming lane? Why do drivers fail to come to a full stop before making a right turn on red? Why do drivers drive in parking lots like they are on a thoroughfare (a parking lot is a pedestrian zone).
        What is the answer to those questions? Is it that many drivers think “might is right” and that a person inside two tons of metal has more rights than a pedestrian. Is that many drivers just aren’t paying significant attention to their driving tasks? Is it that drivers are uninformed about legal & correct driving? Is it that some drivers just aren’t very bright and prone to do the wrong thing? What about the statistics on the percentage of drivers who are under the influence of a substance at a given time. (I recall hearing 25% in San Antonio a few years back, but I have no reference on that.)
        As for your concern about unmarked intersections, I had an experience when I was crossing a marked intersection with a traffic light. I waited until my light said “Walk,” and I stepped into the marked crosswalk only to have one right-turning car zoom in front of me while honking his horn and shooting the finger at me. And the car behind that one turned right into the crosswalk, cutting me off, as well.
        PS: I think it is interesting that the photo accompanying this article shows one pedestrian on the sidewalk and another in the street.

  2. Many sidewalks are in terrible shape. There is often a lot of foliage growing over the sidewalk. At twilight and at night, the lighting is often lacking and it actually feels safer to walk in the street than down the sidewalk in these conditions, especially as a woman walking alone. I agree that the practice of walking in the street is more prevalent in San Antonio than in other cities and it is a problem for drivers.

  3. It is great to read San Antonio talking about healthy urban development, including planning and management that supports incidental exercise — walking and cycling at all hours for enjoyment as well as to get places, including by VIA bus.

    While there has been some investment locally in walking, biking and VIA bus infrastructure in recent years, I think the City of San Antonio and some developers still build sidewalks and paths that are much too narrow — narrower than recommended by Alamo Area MPO’s Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (2012) and national Safe Routes to School, AARP, FTA, NACTO and other guidelines, but allowed for by San Antonio’s most recent design code updates (2016).

    Particularly for sidewalks at and leading to (within a quarter mile of) bus stops, schools, parks and other high activity areas, the City of San Antonio continues to build sidewalks that are narrower than recommended regionally and nationally and that compare badly with the quality of sidewalks that can be found in the suburbs and inner city neighborhoods of other U.S. cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Nashville, Miami and Atlanta.

    There’s no rule saying San Antonio cannot build wider sidewalks but the City continues to build their absolute minimum sidewalk width (in some cases challenging Federal ADA passing requirements) as the ‘standard’ in many areas, ignoring the recommendations of our region’s Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (2012) as well as various national recommendations and the example of other U.S. cities.

    Sadly, our current urban planner mayor has not yet used her position to advocate for sensible changes to and interpretations of our local design code to build, for example, sidewalks at least five feet wide when they lead to (are within a quarter mile of) bus stops, schools, parks and other high activity areas.

    Likewise, Mayor Taylor has not yet made sidewalk and bus shelter lighting a priority — seemingly neglecting to map existing pedestrian lighting as part of recent SATomorrow and VIA long range planning, not posting a map of current and planned street lighting to the City’s website (as available in other cities such as Salt Lake City) and not making pedestrian lighting and pedestrian crossings a clear topic of the latest Bond program (2017-2022) planning.

    As the article above suggests, San Antonio has a past Complete Streets commitment and a more recent Vision Zero initiative but has had very poor implementation in recent years towards achieving the aims and qualities suggested with these policies and national movements — including as they relate to pedestrian safety, noting San Antonio’s high pedestrian accident and fatality rate particularly along roads serving as VIA bus corridors.

    Sidewalk widths, pedestrian (including VIA bus stop) lighting, pedestrian crossings of busy roads (especially near VIA bus stops) as well as animal control that supports walking and cycling at and leading to high activity areas (including schools, parks and VIA bus stops) should be topics that help define the next election season. More critically, they should shape the Bond program recommendations that Council determines this month and offers the public to vote on in May – as well as the work that the City’s
    Transportation & Capital Improvements (TCI) completes in 2017.

    In the next week, city leaders and candidates should be talking about how in 2017 sidewalk / walking corridor widths, pedestrian lighting, pedestrian street and rail crossings and animal control supporting pedestrians will improve or be implemented this year in San Antonio.

    See AAMPO’s Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (2012):

    AARP Sidewalks:

    Safe Routes to School Sidewalks:

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