Walk a Mile, Save a Tire

Pedestrian Coordinator

In most cities, it probably wouldn't have been much of a story, but then, this is Austin. Last month, when departing City Councilmember Max Nofziger pushed through a proposal to set up a coordinator to represent pedestrian interests in the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPWT), it raised almost as big a storm in our cosmopolitan burg as the Whitewater affair did in Washington. It's a good thing no one's been hired yet, because they'd soon be out of a job; it looks like the ordinance creating the position will be repealed as one of the first items of business this month (see sidebar).

Certainly, the council would be acting in accordance with the will of a multitude of skeptics and critics on this issue. The American-Statesman kicked up the first dust with a front page story featuring a mock classified ad for the coordinator and a "stupid idea" quote from Mayor Bruce Todd in bold print. Next, one of the Statesman's wittier editors dubbed the proposed coordinator "the Minister of Silly Walks" after an old Monty Python skit -- a theme quickly picked up by city council candidate Rick Wheeler, who used the title on a campaign mail-out depicting a gleeful clown skipping along the Town Lake hike and bike trail with a bucket of money. Radio talk show hosts joked that one qualification for the coordinator would be the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

In between the guffaws, the critics' arguments boiled down to two major points: Pedestrians don't need any special help -- after all, any fool can walk; and with our current runaway spending and road maintenance backlog, we don't need to appropriate a $45,000 salary/benefits package for another paper-shuffling bureaucrat.

One thing that may have been lost sight of during all of the clowning was the concept of just what a pedestrian is. Some see commuting pedestrians as a small group of fanatic environmentalists who refuse to accept Americans' God-given mandate to drive whenever and wherever possible. But Katherine Shriver, director of WALK Austin, a pedestrian advocacy group, points out that everyone is a pedestrian at some point in the day's activities, and a large segment of the population depends on walking as a primary source of mobility. This segment includes transit users, children and adolescents, the elderly, and some disabled persons. Many of those who depend most on walking are also the most vulnerable to the dangers of a transportation system designed primarily to move motor vehicles at high speeds. In fact, over the past six years, 72 pedestrians were struck and killed by motor vehicles on Austin streets, making up 24% of all traffic fatalities. Another 1,557 Austin pedestrians were injured during the same period, and the odds that an accident victim will suffer lifetime incapacitation from a head or spinal injury are five times greater for pedestrians than for occupants of motor vehicles. Moreover, a third of all pedestrian accident victims are under the age of 15 or older than 65.

Pedestrian advocates say that traffic engineers use the danger to pedestrians as an excuse to further discourage walkers, complicating their trips and limiting their access in order to facilitate the automobile. One-way streets, free right-turn lanes, and wide intersections are designed to move cars fast, but at the expense of pedestrian mobility and safety, they say. Shriver notes that the recent reconstruction of the intersection of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Guadalupe involved a major pedestrian link between the University of Texas and downtown. The project should have included curb extensions and median refuges for pedestrians on M.L.K. to improve their visibility and shorten their time in the roadway, says Shriver.

Although more than half of pedestrian accident victims are hit by cars while they are trying to cross a street, Texas law gives pedestrians right of way over cars only at signalized intersections while a "walk" signal is flashing. Traffic engineers say that crosswalks and signalized intersections are only warranted when counts show a substantial number of pedestrians attempting to cross a given intersection. This creates a Catch 22, say pedestrian advocates. Since pedestrians are reluctant to cross dangerous unsignalized intersections, counts seldom show enough pedestrian activity to warrant crosswalks or signals.

Some major streets in Austin lack signalized intersections for stretches up to half a mile long. A good example is South Lamar, where it is common to see pedestrians dodging cars in the center turn lane as they try to reach bus stops on the opposite side of the street, with traffic whizzing by at 35-40mph.

About one in 10 pedestrian accident victims are struck while walking in the roadway itself. Pedestrians note that they are often forced to walk in the street because the city lacks a comprehensive sidewalk system. Capital Metro Board member Audley Blackburn, who is blind and uses a seeing eye dog to get around, says that for four years he was dependent on special transit services, until the city finally constructed sidewalks on the four blocks between his home and the nearest bus stop. And for elderly people, the lack of sidewalks can be an even more dangerous afffair; 86-year-old Elizabeth Willis, a West Austin resident, points out that elderly people may be reluctant to walk even a few blocks in the street to reach their bus stop because their vision and reflexes may be inadequate to protect them from passing cars.

Robin Cravey, aide to Max Nofziger, says that a coordinator would make sure that pedestrian concerns are addressed from the beginning of every street project -- prioritizing sidewalk needs, searching out the most dangerous intersections, checking traffic signal timing at pedestrian crossings, and identifying funding sources for new pedestrian projects. One of the more important tasks for the coordinator, says Cravey, would be to draw up a master plan to show how pedestrians are going to circulate in the city. More basic than the question of whether we need a pedestrian coordinator, quips Cravey, is the question, "Why do we need pedestrians? It comes to a fundamental question about what kind of town we want to live in. Do we want a town where the scale is human, where people can walk and have a sense of community, and where our land is not dominated by streets and parking lots, or do we want a town where everyone is sealed off from each other in air-conditioned automobiles?"

Yet even for many Austinites who sympathize with pedestrian problems, the benefits of a pedestrian coordinator just don't outweigh the additional bureaucracy the position would bring. Urban Transportation Commission member Leonard Lyons believes that a pedestrian coordinator would likely have little say in the city's transportation bureaucracy, which already employs 10 traffic engineers and eight support staff at combined annual salaries and benefits of $865,000. "We don't need a pedestrian coordinator," says Lyons, "we need properly motivated employees to do the job that they are hired to do. Our urban design team is motivated strictly to move automobiles because we have a design team with a narrow focus." In order to broaden the focus of traffic engineers, Lyons says, they should be retrained to be sensitive to pedestrian needs "under a decisive word of direction from the city manager, and with oversight by the city council."

Whether traffic engineers trained to move cars can be persuaded by city council to pay more attention to pedestrian needs is another question. If new councilmembers Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith decide to cut funding for the pedestrian coordinator position because of budget concerns, they might do well to show their inner-city constituents what plans they do have for making the city transportation department more responsive to pedestrian problems. n

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