Low-Income People of Color Bear Brunt of Rising Pedestrian Deaths

By: - July 2, 2021 12:00 am

Police officers identify evidence during an investigation of a fatal auto-pedestrian incident in 2018 in Brownsville, Texas. Two women were killed when struck by a large SUV while crossing a road at night. Pedestrians deaths have soared in Texas and nationwide in recent years, especially in low-income communities of color. Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via The Associated Press

HOUSTON — On a recent sunlit day, Aboobiada Ali Abdalla stood at the intersection of Tarnef and DeMoss drives in southwest Houston, once again revisiting the tragedy nearly five years ago that forever changed the lives of his family.

In August 2016, his 4-year-old son, Mohammed, was killed when he was struck in the crosswalk by a black GMC Acadia as the boy and his mother were walking an older brother and sister to school. Today, a marker at the base of a nearby loblolly pine bears the inscription: “In Memory of Mohammed Ali Abdalla 2011-2016.”

The family still lives just a block from the site of the crash in Houston’s diverse Gulfton neighborhood. Time has helped them heal, but Abdalla and his wife, Wigdan Ahmed Mohammed, both warn that Gulfton’s streets are still danger zones for anyone on foot, despite the city’s commitment to making improvements following the death of their son.

“I believe there’s still a long way to go,” Wigdan Ahmed Mohammed said in a recent phone interview. Added the father: “It’s still unsafe.”

Often described as “the Ellis Island of Houston,” Gulfton is the most densely populated neighborhood in the nation’s fourth-largest city. Predominantly Hispanic, the low- to middle-income community also is one of the city’s most ethnically diverse, heavily comprised of immigrants who collectively speak at least 50 languages. Many of its roughly 50,000 residents live in aging apartment complexes built in the 1970s for prospering energy workers who moved out decades ago when Houston’s oil economy suffered a collapse.

With miles of broken or missing sidewalks, inadequate outdoor lighting, distracted drivers and wide streets that facilitate speeding, Gulfton could also be Exhibit A in what has become an alarming nationwide increase in pedestrian fatalities in recent years, disproportionately concentrated in the neighborhoods of people of color with low incomes.

Tales of narrowly being missed by a car or SUV are a routine part of neighborhood conversations, say residents. From 2016 to 2020, five pedestrians were struck and killed on the streets of Gulfton, including Mohammed Ali Abdalla, and 22 were seriously injured, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

In all, 104 pedestrians were struck by vehicles during the five-year period in that community, nearly all people of color, according to LINK Houston, a transportation advocacy nonprofit that analyzed the TxDOT data for Stateline.

“It blew me away that 6% of our streets accounts for 60% of our fatalities,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told Stateline. “Just think about that. Six percent of our streets accounts for 60% of our fatalities. And many of those streets are in communities where … your vulnerable communities are, communities that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades.”

A new Texas law aims to combat the problem, and cities in the Lone Star State and nationwide are embracing an anti-crash strategy dubbed Vision Zero. Turner also says it’s time to turn the page on the car-is-king culture.

“Just building a roadway capacity to carry more cars and trucks, that’s the old paradigm,” Turner said in a phone interview. Now, he said, Houston officials want to design a city where roads and streets “kind of fade” into a broader landscape emphasizing parks and green space—what the mayor describes as a “walkable, livable city.”

Nationwide, the number of pedestrians killed by drivers from 2010 to 2019 increased by 45% to 6,237 a year, the equivalent of at least 17 people dying per day, according to Smart Growth America, a nonprofit coalition of advocacy groups headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Of the 53,435 fatalities that occurred during the decade-long period, Black pedestrians were struck and killed at an 82% higher rate than non-Hispanic White people, according to the group’s March “Dangerous by Design 2021” report. The fatality rate in the nation’s lowest-income neighborhoods was nearly twice that of middle-income census tracts and nearly three times that of higher-income areas, the survey found.

“The lower a metro area’s median household income, the more dangerous its streets are likely to be for people walking,” the report stated. “This is unsurprising, given that low-income communities are less likely than higher-income communities to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks, and street design to support safer, slower speeds.”

Factors that may be contributing to the decade-long climb in pedestrian fatalities include cell phones distracting both drivers and pedestrians, especially through texting, and a shift in vehicle preference from cars to heavier light trucks and SUVs, which have the capability of inflicting more serious injuries, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

But pedestrians sometimes don’t adhere to designated crosswalks, often resorting to jaywalking by crossing in the middle of the street rather than at an intersection. Experts say that many pedestrians also often try to beat oncoming cars or fail to yield to vehicles. Others simply aren’t paying attention to traffic.

Vision Zero

All of Texas’ major metropolitan areas are confronting an upturn in pedestrian crashes and are attempting to reverse the pattern by adopting Vision Zero, aimed at ultimately ending road crashes. Vision Zero started in Sweden 22 years ago, registered success in New York City and since has been adopted in 45 U.S. cities, said Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network.

The Vision Zero cities are united by their mutual goals to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries, but their approaches and priorities vary. In launching the first U.S. Vision Zero program in 2014, New York City created a task force encompassing 11 city departments to examine and combat all aspects of rising pedestrian crashes. One of the successes included a 30% decrease in traffic fatalities during the late afternoon and evening from late October through December 2016, compared with the same time period over the previous three years.

Portland, Oregon, significantly restrained speeders by dropping residential speed limits from 25 to 20 mph and installing speed-feedback cameras that tell motorists how fast they’re driving. Los Angeles has boosted Vision Zero funding to its highest level to date, but experts are still worried about persistent speeding and a disproportionate number of pedestrian deaths in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, according to press reports.

Texas lawmakers also are trying to address the problem. GOP Gov. Greg Abbott on June 18 signed a law imposing potential criminal penalties against motorists who injure someone in a crosswalk. The bipartisan bill stemmed from the death of woman who was struck and killed in a crosswalk in Missouri City, a Houston suburb.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Missouri City Democrat who worked with the family and sponsored the bill in the House, compared the new statute to decades-old state laws fining people for not wearing seatbelts, saying the threat of criminal sanctions serves as a powerful deterrent to enforce good behavior in an automobile. The law also featured an amendment requiring motorists to come to a complete stop in yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

“It’s going to help potentially save some lives,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s going to send a real message, ‘Hey, I’d better slow down.’”

Texas Trends

Statewide, the overall number of pedestrian crashes in Texas dropped from 5,975 in 2019 to 4,844 last year, but the number of fatalities rose from 661 to 717, according to TxDOT’s website.

At least 60% of those killed during both years were people of color, according to LINK Houston.

The state’s largest cities all show similar trends.

In San Antonio, the most severe pedestrian crashes from 2014-2018 took place along only 1% of the city’s roadways, said Greg Leininger, San Antonio’s Vision Zero director. The city recorded 4,487 pedestrian crashes in that period, according to a public works department study.

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