In Austin, Traffic Safety Improvements Come to Those Who Ask

May 12, 2016

This story is part of our series, The Road to Zerowhich explores traffic deaths and injuries in Austin and the city's plan to prevent them.

Traffic fatalities are down nationwide, but new research shows those declines are mostly among highly educated people. If you have less than a high school diploma, the rate of death in a car crash has actually increased.

That doesn’t mean you’re a better driver if you have a college degree, but the less education you have, the more likely you are to find yourself living in conditions that are more dangerous, says Sam Harper, an epidemiologist at McGill University. 

“Typically, when things are generally going good for the whole population, most groups see a decline and the gap between the lower and the higher educated groups tend to narrow, but in this case we actually saw that this gap was actually growing," Harper says.

Harper looked at the education level of people who died in fatal car crashes between 1995 and 2010, pulling thousands of death certificates from around the United States. Death certificates list people’s education level. What he found was people without a high school diploma are more likely to be in a fatal car crash than someone with a high school diploma. That gap grows larger when you include people with a college degree.

But figuring out why is a bit murky.

Those who have received less education tend to have lower paying jobs and live in lower income neighborhoods, where traffic conditions may be less safe. The poorer you are, the less safe your car is likely to be.

“Mandatory frontal airbags side airbags or rollover airbags," Harper says. "There are things like automatic crash warnings, those annoying reminders that tell you to put your seat belt on, better lights in cars. People with lower education may not be able to get access to some of these design features."

But many low-income families Austin can't afford a car at all, forcing them to walk, bike, or depend on Austin's public transit system. As KUT reported this week, walking can be dangerous in Austin, especially for people who are struggling.

Seventy-four-year-old Florence Ponziano lives in the Montopolis neighborhood, an area with the highest percentage of poverty in the city. Her home, known by some as "The Comfort House" is a well-known place in the neighborhood. She's known as the "Godmother of Montopolis," and she spends a lot of her time volunteering and taking care of the neighborhood children and elderly homeless. 

Florence Ponziano, 74, sits in the backyard of her house in Montopolis. It's known as The Comfort House, where neighbors and children can safely play. Ponziano can't afford a car, so she relies on the public transit system to get around Austin.
Credit Kate McGee/KUT News

Her fence is covered in colorful beads and CDs that reflect the light and her backyard is a huge playground for the kids with swing sets, tree houses. There is art, toys, food and clothing everywhere. Ponziano is like a lot of people who live in the Montopolis neighborhood.

“I can't really afford to buy a car and the premium prices of insurance and everything," Ponziano says, rocking back and forth in a rocking chair in her backyard.

Ponziano catches the 350 bus on Montopolis Dr. It's the area with the highest percentage of poverty in Austin. She says it's difficult to safely cross the road safely.
Credit Kate McGee/KUT News

Ponziano is too afraid to bike in the neighborhood anymore and she says sometimes walking can be just as dangerous.

"I walk to the store just this one on the corner, and I teach the kids go on the light," she says. "'Wait until the light turns and the figure comes on and then walk across.' Okay, I waited to. I was half way through and this car is turning, not even looking, I had to jump and my whole leg was smashed up. And they didn’t even stop, the car behind them stopped to help me.”

Ponziano also depends on the bus, but she says the wait times are long and they’re even longer if you need to take multiple buses.

“I’ve been all around different cities. The connections on the buses in Austin are horrible," she says.

Most bus service ends at midnight, which limits options for many low-income residents without cars trying to get home from work or after a night of drinking. In Central East Austin,  people are less likely to have a car than any other place in the city. Despite that, this area tends to have a higher number of households with DWI arrests compared to other Austin neighborhoods. 

Cap Metro runs a Night Owl service until 3:30 a.m., but there are fewer routes and ridership is low.
Credit Cap Metro

“Where is the bus service that runs from 6th Street after midnight? It goes to UT," says Jane Maxwell, a UT Austin professor who studies substance abuse. She's referring to UT Austin's late night E-Bus. "Would we see a decrease out in that neighborhood if there was a comparable bus service running that night?”

Cap Metro also provides Night Owl service that runs until 3:30. but there are fewer routes and ridership is low. Just one route runs through Central East Austin and one route runs through Montopolis. 

Maxwell also says the less money you have, the less likely you are able to take a cab or a ridesharing service to get home, which leads to more drinking and driving.

As Austin gets more unaffordable, many low-income communities have been pushed to the outskirts of the city, where high-speed roads were already built. But they don’t have sidewalks or bike lanes. 

“Traffic safety touches people of all socioeconomic backgrounds," says Tom Wald, who serves on the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee.  "But, when we’re talking about who are having to walk in these suburbs, often times it is people of people of lower economic background. It’s young kids who cannot drive. It’s people who cannot drive. So, there are some disparities.”

There are various traffic-calming measures that the city can install on neighborhood streets to create safer routes for pedestrians, bikers and drivers. But for that to happen, often times the neighborhood has to ask for it.

“It’s a request-based process, so we really wait for requests to come in," says Jim Dale, Assistant Director at the Austin Transportation Department. "We are looking to be a bit more proactive in that in planning locations.”

Those requests can be as simple as a 3-1-1 call.

“We do not judge or weight nay request more than another," Dale says. "If there’s an active community and we get 30 requests for a pedestrian hybrid beacon in one location. That is no different to us than a location in another part of town that just got one.”

Duval Street in Hyde Park has speed bumps scattered along the street to slow down drivers.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News
In one of Austin's poorest zip codes, Chicon Street remains a wide road with very little traffic-calming devices to slow motorists.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./ KUT News

But it does require people to know 3-1-1 is the place to call to request safety improvements. Transportation officials say they have banners around town telling people to call 3-1-1 when they have a problem and they depend on the media to spread the word. Harper, from McGill University, says sometimes, education campaigns require more nuance than that.

“They need to think about how literate people are, how numerate people are," Harper says. "That they are able to get a firm understanding of the risks of whatever it is that they are going to be communicated to people.”

Using a request-based process also assumes all residents have the time to be civically engaged to make that call or have faith in local government to actually fix a problem. That’s something Florence Ponziano says is lacking among Montopolis residents.

“If the people don’t complain that they want something, they’re not going to do anything. And I guess we’ve had such little things done in our neighborhood for so long, people figure, ‘Oh well, they’re not going to do it.’ So they don’t bother calling.”

“If the people don’t complaint that they want something, they’re not going to do anything," Ponziano says. "I guess we’ve had such little things done in our neighborhood for so long, people figure, ‘Oh well, they’re not going to do it.’ So they don’t bother calling.”

“I’ve been complaining for like 20 years and like calling up that the lights, you can’t even cross the street in time," Ponziano says. "And I’m very hyper and quick. So if I can’t cross the street in time, what about some old lady who walks really slow? Cause I’m really fast!”

All of this can exacerbate inequities between neighborhoods making some safer than others.

“There’s nobody advocating for that infrastructure to be created," says Lenore Shefman, a personal injury lawyer who represents pedestrians and cyclists who have been hit by cars. The voice is less because quite frankly, people have less time to knock on doors at the legislature or city council.”

Shefman says people sometimes for get that.

“You do the best with what you have and if you need to be to work at five o’clock and you have to get your child to the babysitter and there is not crosswalk for two miles then you wait for a break in an you run for it," Shefman says. "And that unfortunately is something that people who don’t have to face that dilemma just really can’t compute."

Koenig Ln at Airport Blvd, where TxDOT installed concrete barriers to separate traffic.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./ KUT News

When city and state officials do make safety improvements, it's unclear if they're related to previous traffic fatalities. In March, TxDOT installed concrete barriers in between traffic on the overpass at Koenig Ln and Airport Blvd., where the first traffic fatality in 2015 occurred. But a spokesperson couldn't confirm the improvement was directly related to the crash. 

In Austin, pedestrian hybrid beacons are another new attempt to improve safety. Those are the red lights that pop up when a pedestrian presses a button to use a crosswalk. When one is requested, the city studies whether it’s a safe place to put one of these lights—they can’t be too close to a traffic light. The street has to be at least three lanes wide—so they’re limited to busy roads like Lamar or Airport. But there are at least two pedestrian hybrid beacons located on a two-lane road: Lake Austin Boulevard, where the Austin Transportation Department eventually started renting its offices from the Lower Colorado River Authority.