No Joke: San Antonio Still an Unsafe City for People on Foot

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A pedestrian was injured after being hit by a rear-view mirror of a moving vehicle at the intersection of Main Avenue and East Houston Street in September.

I am not going to defend urban activists striping our City’s streets in the dark of night, but anyone with a sense of humor has to appreciate the creative use of toilet bowl plungers to erect a safety barrier between vehicles and pedestrians at the dangerous intersection of North St. Mary’s and East Mistletoe.

Commuters, cyclists, parents dropping off children at area schools, and others who passed through the busy intersection Friday morning were greeted by a new crosswalk with bold white stripes painted across the pavement, and new traffic lines visible on the street intended to shorten the distance between curbs and slow traffic. Brightly colored polka dots accented the newly demarcated perimeter. Bright orange plungers were affixed to the street, forming a physical border between people and vehicle traffic.

It was an unauthorized reminder, courtesy of the shadowy San Antonio Department of Transformation (SADOT) – that’s “Transformation,” not “Transportation,” for those of you who might have read past it – that city streets are for everyone, not just people in motorized vehicles. A person who acknowledged being responsible for creating the crosswalk told the Rivard Report that the group wanted to call attention to unsafe conditions for pedestrians in the area, which is part of the St. Mary’s Strip populated with restaurants, bars, and retail stores.

The City will cover the damaged area with a layer of pavement on Saturday morning, according to officials.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The shadowy San Antonio Department of Transformation struck in the pre-dawn hours Friday to paint an illegal crosswalk on the St. Mary’s Strip.

The once thriving Strip was the scene of at least one murder, various shootings, drug trafficking, and gang activity in the early ’90s. Residents complained of noise, trash, and vandalism. Other areas, like Southtown, offered new choices for nightlife.The area went dormant for more than two decades. In recent years, however, the area south of Trinity University and just west of U.S. 281 and Brackenridge Park has sprung back to life with new bars, restaurants, and live music venues joining the businesses that managed to survive. Public infrastructure investment has not kept up with the surge of private sector activity, although street improvements are scheduled in the 2017 bond program.

City crews were quickly dispatched Friday to undo the anonymous SADOT’s public works project carried out sometime in the pre-dawn hours Friday. Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni was quoted in the Rivard Report article as saying those responsible, if caught, could face criminal charges and fines.

What he didn’t say is that such urban rear guard actions should be no surprise in San Antonio. Elected leaders aspire to become a Vision Zero city, yet 65 pedestrians were killed on San Antonio streets in 2016, an increase over the 54 people on foot killed in 2015. It’s been more than two years since the City Council under former Mayor Ivy Taylor adopted the initiative, first championed by Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) and her husband Kevin Barton, both avid cyclists.

Gonzales, for one, saw value in the SADOT’s overnight stunt.

“Tactical urbanism can be a low-cost approach to giving the community an opportunity to see and feel new uses of public spaces, especially uses that improve the environment for people walking or riding bikes,” Gonzales said. “This project and the previous crosswalk on Broadway many months ago highlight a need for the City to provide a process to work with the community on tactical urbanism projects. A cooperative process that makes these projects more enduring, without creating obstacles to implementation, is needed.”

That is a minority view inside City Hall, at least until now. Pedestrians and cyclists are frustrated by the slow pace of change. It’s been nearly two years since urban activists struck with a similar stunt on Broadway at the entrance to the Pearl, yet nothing has been done to make the pedestrian-dense stretch of roadway north of Jones Avenue and south of Grayson Street more safe for people on foot. Broadway will become a Complete Street in the 2017 Bond, but that $56 million ($42 million in City funds) project will take years to carry out. An inexpensive, interim solution seemed logical, yet never happened.

What was lost in Friday’s response by City officials, who stressed the cost and inconvenience of undoing the unauthorized overnight street improvement project, is that San Antonio remains an unacceptably dangerous city for pedestrians, City Council action notwithstanding.

The Yaden family uses the chalk created crosswalk at the intersection of Pearl Parkway and Broadway Street. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

The Yaden family uses the chalk-created crosswalk at the intersection of Pearl Parkway and Broadway Street in January 2016.

San Antonio is the 28th most dangerous city for pedestrians among 106 metro area surveyed in the Dangerous by Design 2016 study by Smart Growth America. The survey shows that minority communities and the elderly are especially at risk, here and in other poorly ranked cities.

Amanda Merck, a research specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health San Antonio, and a periodic contributor to the Rivard Report on issues of public health in the community, wrote in some detail about the study in a Jan. 10 article, San Antonio is More Dangerous for Pedestrians, focusing on the proven measures taken in other cities to address the problem.

The Rivard Report‘s Data Director Emily Royall will be at Síclovía along Broadway this Sunday morning to continue her current effort to crowdsource map the city’s best and worst streets and roadways for cyclists. We encourage everyone enjoying  Broadway closed to vehicle traffic for most of the day to stop by our booth and share their experiences with Emily.

In the City’s defense, the 2017 $850 million bond issue includes 64 different street and sidewalks projects at a cost of $444 million that will significantly improve street safety for all users, and the right leadership is now in place at City Hall to accelerate efforts to reduce the annual pedestrian death toll. Yet it’s evident that some of the most problematic crossings could be made safer now at minimal cost.

Perhaps City officials should invite the still-anonymous SADOT members to come out of the shadows and set them to work in the light of day making our streets safer.

Don’t rule out public art, either. Bring back the toilet bowl plungers.

8 thoughts on “No Joke: San Antonio Still an Unsafe City for People on Foot

  1. I appreciate this topic getting some discussion … I have found in my 1.5 years living in San Antonio that people in motor vehicles don’t actually think they have to stop at a pedestrian crosswalk but pedestrians do have the right away. Being a Pedestrian is a hard job in San Antonio… but it’s a job we all at any moment can become. It affects EVERYONE. Is there a Pedestrian collation here that works on safety projects and advocating?

    More awareness when driving in areas like St. Marys where there is a lot of foot traffic is a good thing. Sixty-five pedestrian deaths in San Antonio in one year is a WAKE UP CALL to City Hall and to all of us who live here and if the City is going to be slow to react then I applaud renegade groups using art and creativity to do something. Similar tactics happened when I lived in Portland, Oregon and actual real city infrastructure to add safety to the most vulnerable followed. (google Clinton Street) Sure citizens or the city can complain about cost to “clean this up” but instead they can think, wow… we really need to WAKE UP.

    Money is nothing compared to the death of a loved one and all the people affected by that tragedy when it could have been prevented. And then there are all the close calls/injuries that don’t make the news. Pavement art (colored dots) AKA Intersection Repairs also do a good job at slowing traffic and giving awareness to areas where people and cars will mix.

    In the the last 15 years Portland, Oregon (where I lived from 2001-2016) started this strategy first as “unofficial outlaws” but then it became official and has been growing and growing since, and doing the job! Check out one of the first projects of City Repair: http://www.cityrepair.org/sunnyside-piazza/

    San Antonio… Mayor & council, city activists, everyone reading this…. public art and creativity CAN and DOES solve a lot of problems!!!!

  2. Trying to complete my “10,000” steps-a-day, I’ve become an avid walker in busy urban neighborhoods (Houston and SA). Aggressive drivers are a given. But what I’ve found surprising is the number of pedestrians (and cyclists) who tempt fate (and their safety) by crossing against signals, not looking before stepping off a curb and crossing busy streets mid-block.

    This is hardly a one-sided issue…i.e. Cars Guilty – Pedestrians Not Guilty. A strong sense of self-preservation (by the non-driving types) could go a long way to reducing deaths and injuries.

  3. The first line of Carye Bye’s comments seems to identify the problem. Pedestrians do have the right of way and should not have to fear for their lives when stepping off a curb to cross the street on a walk sign, regardless of threatening cars making right or left turns with drivers eager to enter that same space. The city ought to launch a strong, publicized campaign reminding drivers of that, and that it is true in neighborhoods as well as busy streets. Along Broadway, there are stretches where bicycle lanes and buses and cars attempting right turns all need to use the same space, and then a pedestrian, trying to cross a side street the car is aiming for, becomes the most vulnerable of all. Accepting what Limestone observes about careless pedestrians, too many others are rushing to cross a street on a light that favors them, in fear of the turning cars that may not stop.

  4. Thank you for the great commentary. It is time San Antonio steps into the 21st Century and starts prioritizing pedestrians and bikers over cars. Not only for everyone’s safety but also to reduce water/air pollution, to improve the economic viability of our city, to make areas of the city accessible to all, and to increase participation in daily physical activity, which would damper the obesity epidemic. Let’s move away from auto-oriented development and move towards development that favors pedestrians, bikers and transit!

  5. What would it be like if cyclists and pedestrians ‘owned’ a major thoroughfare N / S and E /W through (at least) our urban center? Enjoyed another glorious YMCA of Greater San Antonio Siclovia event today and can assure you, people love getting out on the street…2017 tally = 144,000+ in just 2 – six hour events. Let’s do this SA…Vision 2020 add-on? Say si!

  6. Try being a cyclist in San Antonio! It’s ridiculous! Motorists are suppose to stay 3 feet away from a cyclist, but no, they will get as close as possible. I was asked the other day, why don’t you cyclists ride on the sidewalk? I told the individual that it is against city policy to ride a bike on the sidewalk. The 3 foot rule is not enforced by SAPD.

  7. I lived in New Hampshire for many years and there it’s the law that pedestrians have the absolute right of way. Step out into a city street in Concord, NH and all traffic comes to a halt until you complete crossing the street. That’s probably too much for San Antonio but it would be a nice start if cars would at least stop at red traffic lights and stop signs!!!!

  8. Over the past few years, several people have died in and around my neighborhood while attempting to walk or cycle. These deaths occur on 30-35 MPH streets with stop signs and traffic lights. But I have learned over the years that people are willing to drive 50 MPH in these zones and that traffic signals are sometimes treated as only suggestions. It doesn’t help that many of these areas were designed without sidewalks, but the city is slowly rectifying the problem by constructing them block by block.

    On the pedestrian side of the equation, I would be interested to know how many pedestrian deaths occur outside of established crosswalks and sidewalks. Before moving to San Antonio, I had seldom encountered pedestrians who were willing to jaywalk across major streets in heavy traffic. It is not uncommon in this city to see pedestrians pushing baby strollers through seven lanes of traffic outside of crosswalk areas. Even in areas of town such as the Museum Reach area of Broadway, families seem willing to jaywalk across Broadway with young children despite the presence of a crosswalk fifty yards away.

    Like all of San Antonio’s problems, it seems to boil down to a lack of education and awareness on both sides – driver and pedestrian. But the driver is the one with the burden to control a deadly instrument.

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