Look both ways: safety for pedestrians

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People who have been on campus long enough have a story about a time they were almost hit by a careless driver while crossing the street or a time they saw the same thing happen to someone else. Students and faculty who cycle to campus are sure to have even more stories of harrowing, near-impact situations with traffic on streets around town. Though thousands of pedestrians and cyclists get safely to and from their destinations every day, auto-pedestrian and auto-cyclist accidents and fatalities are a disturbing and increasing trend in Austin.

Last week the Austin American-Statesman reported that auto-pedestrian accidents climbed by 83 percent last year. In 2012, Austin has already seen eight pedestrian deaths. Not included in that tally are the many other pedestrians involved in accidents that are not fatal. One of these was UT soccer player Kylie Doniak, the victim of a hit-and-run accident in downtown Austin last month. Doniak had to undergo nearly a month of intensive care before she was moved to California to continue rehabilitation with her family.

While many auto-pedestrian collisions occur downtown, busy streets around campus such as Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are also problematic for pedestrians and cyclists, according to a map compiled by the Statesman. In the past three years alone, 15 auto-pedestrian accidents occurred along Guadalupe Street between Dean Keeton Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

In response to the mounting number of pedestrian injuries and deaths at Austin crosswalks, the Austin Police Department began an enforcement crackdown at problematic intersections. During a similar enforcement effort last October, APD issued 948 citations to pedestrians and cyclists who crossed streets between intersections or who crossed at intersections against the light, according to Statesman. Anyone who has walked along Guadalupe recently can see firsthand that this type of enforcement strategy has little lasting effect; students continue to jaywalk or cross early at crosswalks.

But pedestrian and cyclist safety is, in part, a personal responsibility. Bike and pedestrian laws should always be observed. Just as drivers must obey traffic laws, cyclists and pedestrians should protect their safety and that of others by following the rules while moving throughout the city. Sometimes, though, observing the law may be insufficient protection for pedestrians and cyclists who are moving through a city designed for the automobile.

Though Austin has recently made a commitment to encourage dense, pedestrian-oriented development, much of the inner city’s infrastructure is designed to accommodate the car. Nearly all of Austin’s “transportation corridors” are busy streets that currently include few provisions for pedestrians. Even along Guadalupe, which already boasts high pedestrian traffic, large stretches of road without crosswalks south of MLK and north of 24th Street make crossing inconvenient for pedestrians, and encourage motorists to speed along uninterrupted stretches of roadway. At the intersection of 24th and Guadalupe streets — where thousands cross every day — narrow sidewalks and disintegrating curbs make for a dangerous situation, between turning cars and the crowds of students waiting for the light to change before crossing.

Nonetheless, several improvements around Austin have begun to make city streets safer for walkers and cyclists. Special pedestrian-activated stoplights at mid-block crosswalks along Guadalupe and Lamar streets make it easier for pedestrians to cross along streets without many stoplights. Additionally, Second Street west of Congress Avenue continues to evolve into one of the most generous pedestrian districts in town. Last week, the city approved a proposal made by a local downtown business that would allow two on-street parking spots to transform into an outdoor patio for patrons and passersby to enjoy. While this does little to improve pedestrian safety, it does begin to challenge the dominance of the automobile in Austin’s urban core. This change is an important component of making the city safer for those who choose alternative transportation methods.

Austin’s active, outdoor-oriented lifestyle is an important part of the high quality of life enjoyed by students and residents. Sidewalks and pedestrian crossings downtown and around campus function as the primary means of transportation for tens of thousands of people every day, and their funding and maintenance should reflect the crucial transportation role they serve. As the city pursues its vision for a dense and vibrant urban core, it is crucial that more efforts are made to create a richer and safer pedestrian environment throughout the city. This must involve not only a shift in transportation planning and funding but also a broader shift in how space is divided between pedestrians and automobiles.

Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.