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On average, here in Greater Houston, about seven cyclists or pedestrians a day have a collision with a car. Kathryn Nowlin considers herself lucky she’s never been hit.
“Just trying to cross at a light, at a green light, people could come at me from the left or the right,” said Nowlin.
Nowlin lives on 19th Street, in The Heights, in an apartment building that’s home to many disabled residents. She gets around the neighborhood using a power wheelchair, but navigating a crosswalk can be a terrifying experience. Nowlin said she’s almost been hit too many times to count.
“It can feel like my life is about to flash before my eyes,” Nowlin told News 88.7. “Other times it can put a jolt into me and I have to stop really fast and that’s scary.”
But despite Nowlin’s close calls, those Heights intersections don’t even make the list as the worst for Houston’s pedestrians and cyclists. To find one of those hot spots we head outside the loop, where eight lanes of Bellaire Boulevard meet another eight lanes of South Gessner.
In front of a busy shopping center, we met Jonathan Brooks, director of Policy and Planning for the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston.
“This intersection has modern infrastructure to many standards,” explained Brooks. “But we still have impacts occurring.”
After Mayor Sylvester Turner asked for the community’s help in identifying the city’s most dangerous intersections, LINK started going through bike and pedestrian crash data. They found that, from 2013 to 2017, there were close to 8,700 incidents in Houston that involved a cyclist or pedestrian.
At Bellaire and South Gessner there were seven pedestrian and bike crashes during that period. One was a fatality. Brooks explained why this intersection is so challenging.
“The corner radius are kind of large and, so, cars can turn at a little higher speed than they would if they were turning slower,” he said. “They’d have more time to react to someone in the crosswalk that maybe they didn’t see at first.”
And there are a lot of people using those crosswalks. The neighborhood has a large immigrant community and Brooks said about 17 percent of households don’t have a car.
“We just saw six individuals cross the intersection all at the same time, around the crosswalk, and they did so safely,” added Brooks. “But this interaction occurs, this potential conflict occurs all throughout the day.”
So, what would make these kinds of crossings safer? We asked Jeff Weatherford, Houston’s Director of Transportation and Drainage Operations.
Weatherford said a big problem is that many of the city’s intersections were designed decades ago, when the main intent was just moving as many cars through as fast as possible.
“If we have a need for eight lanes, going backwards becomes very, very difficult to do politically,” said Weatherford. “And if we just do it at the intersection, what you do is create choke points that then cause driver frustration. And when drivers are frustrated, they’re more likely to make mistakes or take changes that we really don’t want them to.”
To fix the problem in the short term, Weatherford said there needs to be more education and enforcement. But, in the future, Houston will have to do things a lot differently.
“I want drivers and pedestrians and cyclists to remember that they’re all supposed to be there,” explained Weatherford, “and to pay attention to each other.”
Meanwhile, back in The Heights, Kathryn Nowlin said she’s seen what happens when all road users aren’t treated the same.
“That is one of the most saddening things, seeing my neighbors not want to get out and being in fear of getting out because they don’t want to fall at a crosswalk or be scared and not be able to get around,” said Nowlin. “Yes, they’re older, but they need to get out just like anybody else.”
Which seems like a pretty reasonable request — intersections that don’t mean risking your life to cross.