It absolutely, positively stinks that a tragedy often has to happen before a necessary change is made. Perhaps it’s part of our reactive nature as humans that we put important things off until they become so glaringly vital that we cannot procrastinate any longer.
That is the case with West 43rd Street in Oak Forest and an upcoming traffic safety improvement by Houston Public Works, which told me this week it plans to install a hybrid pedestrian beacon at the intersection of 43rd and Curtin Street as reported on today’s front page. That intersection is situated in between adjacent Houston ISD campuses Frank Black Middle School and Oak Forest Elementary, with the idea that putting the signal there will provide the greatest benefit to both campuses and the children and families who frequent them.
A hybrid pedestrian beacon, which is a flashing yellow light that turns red when a pedestrian wants to cross the street and presses a button near the crosswalk, is the same traffic-calming measure the city installed at the intersection of West 10th Street and North Shepherd Drive in the Heights in the summer of 2019. Earlier that year, Timbergrove resident Leesha Adams and wheelchair-bound Jesse Perez were both killed when the former tried to help the latter cross Shepherd and they were struck by the driver of a car.
Sadly, the upcoming signal at 43rd and Curtin has a similar origin story. Three blocks to the northwest, in June of last year, Oak Forest resident Karen Yager was killed by a suspected drunk driver as she attempted to drive across 43rd from Cheshire Lane, where she lived.
The fatal accident jarred the community and prompted The Leader to investigate the dangers of that stretch of 43rd. We reported last September that driving, walking and cycling on that road had long been troublesome, with two other deadly collisions in 2005 and 2012.
Between January 2015 and July 2020, according to data we obtained from the city, there were at least 211 traffic accidents and 584 speeding tickets issued on 43rd between Ella Boulevard to the east and Rosslyn Road to the west. The two schools are pretty much in the middle of that stretch.
Our report helped mobilize a group of Frank Black and Oak Forest parents along with other community members, who with the help of Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin’s office submitted 311 requests to the city, asking for some sort of solution to make crossing the thoroughfare safer. The city then initiated a traffic study, which recently was completed and revealed an average daily traffic count of more than 10,000 vehicles and an average speed of 41 mph in a 35 mph zone, according to Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones.
That illustrates a clear need for improved safety, especially when it’s neighborhood kids we’re talking about. Jones said a construction date for the pedestrian signal has not yet been set, so we can only hope the city makes it a priority and installs the infrastructure sooner than later.
As local resident and longtime Frank Black employee Tim Weltin told me last December, when I wrote about the push for traffic-calming measures, “It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, and there’s no reason for us to wait for the tragedy to happen.”
The traffic study and subsequent commitment by the city is certainly encouraging. And no matter effective the hybrid pedestrian beacon proves to be, it figures to be an improvement over the current setup.
There is a traditional traffic signal at the intersection for 43rd and Oak Forest Drive, which is at the northeast corner of the Oak Forest Elementary campus. Heading west from there, there is not another signal or even a stop sign for 43rd Street drivers until well past Frank Black.
Weltin said earlier this week that he’s pleased a safety measure is coming but is not yet convinced the pedestrian beacon will eliminate most of the danger on that stretch of 43rd. He cited the speed of vehicles he typically sees on that street and wonders if a full-blown traffic signal would be a better solution.
An Oak Forest resident who lives near the scene of three accidents on 43rd within the last three years, including the fatal crash involving Yager, wants more from the city to make the residential area safer. The resident, who asked to remain anonymous, claims that speeding over the bridge on Shepherd heading north toward 10th Street has not subsided since the pedestrian beacon was installed there two years ago.
“The city has a traffic safety problem that needs a tourniquet, not a finger splint and Band-Aid,” the resident said.
The city is taking steps in the right direction, though, by responding to resident concerns and taking action, even if the action doesn’t please everybody. It also has committed to the Vision Zero initiative, which aims to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.
Toward that end, the city has made a noticeable push toward expanding non-vehicular modes of transportation, such as cycling, walking and public transit, by implementing more and more infrastructure that is conducive to those ways of getting around.
Ultimately, Houston might need a cultural shift among its motorists, many of whom tend to like big trucks and spacious vehicles and driving them faster than the posted speed limit.
In the meantime, let’s be glad for some gradual progress. And let’s hope that not too many more tragedies have to happen in order for more progress to be made.