Pedestrian hit by vehicle

First responders work at the scene of a fatal auto-pedestrian collision in the 500 block of Valley Mills Drive in July. Police identified the victim as Waco resident Luddie Hubert, 88.

Pedestrians are starting to get some respect in local transportation planning efforts, but the death toll from auto-pedestrian crashes suggests walking in Waco is not any getting safer.

Fourteen pedestrians died last year in McLennan County, according to statistics compiled through the Texas Department of Transportation Crash Records Information System. That is more than double the average pedestrian traffic rate from the previous seven years, and it represents almost a third of all traffic fatalities in 2017.

Local transportation planners say the reasons for the spike are not clear-cut, but the number is too high.

“It’s not going in the right direction,” said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization. “The way I’m treating it is as a canary in the coal mine. Nationwide, pedestrian deaths are increasing at an alarming rate. We may be mirroring a national trend.”

Evilia said it may be that more people are walking in Waco, which is good in itself. But parts of town built after the 1950s are often not conducive to walking.

“We already know that we don’t have a lot of pedestrian facilities outside downtown and Baylor campus and maybe McLennan Community College,” he said. “Outside of that, we know we lack facilities. It’s because we have gone through a period when that was not requested by citizens, and transportation facilities were not designed with pedestrians in mind.

“We’re transitioning now, and our new or rebuilt facilities are going to have more for pedestrians.”

Evilia the city of Waco is gradually adding sidewalks and crosswalks, along with big projects along Elm Avenue and Webster Avenue. But he said more measures, such as extra lighting, may also be needed to prevent pedestrian collisions.

McLennan County traffic fatality statistics

Source: TxDOT Crash Records Information System

Year Pedestrian deaths Change All crash fatalities % ped. deaths
2010 6 36 17%
2011 9 50% 48 19%
2012 7 -22% 34 21%
2013 5 -29% 36 14%
2014 5 0% 40 13%
2015 7 40% 30 23%
2016 6 -14% 28 21%
2017 14 133% 48 29%

The state crash-records database, which includes some preliminary data, indicates that pedestrian deaths are increasing statewide. According to the database, 715 pedestrians died statewide in 2016 and 629 in 2017. The previous six years had an average of 494 deaths.

A study last year by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that pedestrian deaths nationwide have been on the rise since 2009, peaking at almost 6,000 deaths in 2016, up 11 percent in one year. Possible causes include more people walking, more cars on the road and the increasing distractions of smartphones for motorists and pedestrians, according to the report.

The 14 pedestrian deaths in McLennan County last year were scattered around Waco, Bellmead and Lacy Lakeview. Beyond the tendency to be on higher-speed roads at night, few obvious patterns emerge from the incidents. According to police reports:

Meanwhile, a pedestrian was severely injured at about 7:45 p.m. Dec. 10 while trying to cross traffic at 800 N. Valley Mills Drive. And just a week ago, on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m., Veronica Cabarrubia, 42, was severely injured while crossing North Valley Mills Drive in the 300 block near the former Casa Ole.

In the North Valley Mills Drive cases, authorities said the pedestrians were not crossing at an intersection. But in fact, no crossings with pedestrian markings or signals exist in the 1.5-mile stretch between Clay Avenue and Sanger Avenue, helping cement Valley Mills Drive’s reputation as a deadly barrier dividing Waco.

The road has six lanes plus a continuous turn lane, with few medians, and spans nearly 83 feet. Other roads tend to cross it at odd angles, making the crossing even longer and more difficult, Evilia said.

He said parts of Valley Mills Drive are essentially a freeway, and traffic officials have been reluctant to mark pedestrian routes across the road.

“That came up when we did a corridor study of Valley Mills,” he said. “Do we even want to encourage (walking across) given that it’s a long way to cross and you have traffic going 40 miles an hour?”

Evilia said Valley Mills Drive simply was not designed with pedestrians in mind.

Before the current Lake Waco was built in the 1960s, Valley Mills Drive was State Highway 6 and actually led to Valley Mills. But even after Highway 6 was rerouted, state and city officials continued to expand what had been a two-lane road to a six-lane urban highway. By that point, Valley Mills Drive already served “the fastest-growing commercial business strip in Central Texas,” according to a May 1968 Tribune-Herald article about the road’s dedication.

But since then, thousands of apartments have been developed just west of North Valley Mills Drive, cut off from services and retail centers across the traffic divide. The two Census tracts in that area had 6,376 renters in the 2010 Census.

“There’s apartments where people could walk to the H-E-B over there, but Valley Mills is a big, scary, raging river of cars,” said Ashley Bean Thornton, who started the pedestrian advocacy group Waco Walks. “To me that’s a dangerous place. There’s not a place where you can cross it where you can feel safe.”

She said she would urge state and local planning officials to build more pedestrian crossings on Valley Mills Drive.

“It seems like more could be done with crossing lights and an island in the middle, so you’re not crossing six full lanes of traffic,” she said.

Thornton said the bigger problem is that pedestrians are practically invisible to motorists along roads like Valley Mills Drive, New Road or Waco Drive.

“To me, that’s the most dangerous thing,” she said. “Drivers don’t expect to see pedestrians, so they don’t see pedestrians. It’s counterintuitive, but the more people walk, the safer it will be.”

Thornton said downtown and the historic neighborhoods of Waco are more pedestrian-friendly, though many of the sidewalks are in poor repair.

She said those who believe in a pedestrian-friendly city need to advocate for their needs, as Waco Walks has done with state and local planners. But it is also important to get out and walk and get motorists in the habit of seeing pedestrians.

And wear bright clothes, she said.

“What I tell pedestrians is, for goodness sake, wear something that helps people see you,” she said. “If you’re a pedestrian in Waco, you have to watch out for yourself.”

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J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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