How Pedestrian Bridges Could Change Texas Roads

The car-centric culture in America means pedestrians have fewer options for crossing busy roads, but that may be changing.

By Joy DiazNovember 27, 2015 2:25 pm,

Traffic expert Leonard Evans made a comment that got me thinking.

“Everybody knows that in the US almost nobody walks,” Evans says.

We are the largest country with the most cars in the world, and we’ve designed our cities around cars.

“And yet,” Evans says, “despite the fact that nobody walks, we still managed to kill 4,735 pedestrians on the roads of the United States in 2013.”

That’s the latest year for which we have statistics. So, what could we do? What do other countries do?

“I am here in Mexico City walking on top of a pedestrian bridge – something we don’t have in Texas,” Johanan Ramirez says. “These big metal structures that allow people to walk across the highway without being injured or without putting themselves on harm’s way.”

My little brother, Johanan Ramirez, recently visited our hometown of Mexico City. My family left Mexico City when he was a child but last month, he learned Mexico City has the most pedestrian bridges of any city in the world.

Could pedestrian bridges be a solution? Kara Kockelman. a pedestrian safety and urban transportation expert from the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t think so. For starters, she says many pedestrian deaths in the US are alcohol-related, on the part of the driver and the pedestrian.

“So, it’s a tough thing,” Kockelman says. “I’m not sure that an inebriated person is going to scale this kind of pedestrian overpass that you are talking about.”

Pedestrian bridges in Mexico City are mostly metal structures with steps. Kockelman says regulations in the United States would not allow for that. Here, pedestrian bridges must allow someone in a wheel chair to cross too.

“[This] results in very long ramp approaches to get up to the required height in order to allow heavy-duty trucks,” Kockelman says. “Of course with the back and forth on these gentle ramps to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standard, it makes for a very long route – it’s difficult to place into the urban scape.”

Those regulations make for very expensive concrete structures. A 2004 study from the Transportation Research Board looked at pedestrian bridges as an option for cities around the United States. At the time it estimated the cost of a single bridge to be between half a million and $4 million. So, if pedestrian bridges are not a practical solution, what might be?

Kockelman says medians offer a more realistic and practical answer, but they’re not a permanent solution.

Traffic expert Evans, who for years worked for General Motors trying to rid cars of human error, points out that in the US, we are driving some of the safest cars in the world on some of the safest roads in the world. So, he says, if Americans want to get serious about reducing pedestrian deaths, we need to ask ourselves one question.

“Where the responsibility lies?” Evans says. “And it lies overwhelmingly with the person controlling the 3,500 pound missile.”

The driver, he says, holds the keys to a solution. More awareness of the problem, and a commitment to steer clear of deadly distractions from alcohol to cellphones, could save the lives of some 500 Texans every year.