AUSTIN (KXAN) — Fifty miles a week. That’s the distance Jeff Knight runs along the trails in Austin. One of his favorite places to run is on the northside of Lake Bird Lake next to MoPac.
“It’s flat, and it’s over a mile long. It’s a great spot to do repeats or intervals,” explains Knight on why he prefers this area over others.
While the run is great, Knight does have an issue when he tries to cross the street at Lake Austin Boulevard and Atlanta Street, which is also the MoPac frontage road.
According to the City of Austin’s Transportation Department, this particular intersection is one of the busiest intersections in the downtown corridor, yet there is no pedestrian crosswalk on the same side as the trail.
“You come off of a beautiful trail that the City’s done a good job putting together. They’ve refinished the sidewalks on the overpass. It’s nice and wide, but then you meet this intersection here that lacks a protective crossing,” says Knight.
Knight, along with others in his running group, have complained about the lack of a protective crossing repeatedly for a year — to no avail.
“It’s confusing to us why it has been such a difficult process when we’re out trying to do something that’s overall a safety concern more than anything,” says Knight.
The City of Austin currently has a list of more than 100 intersections that would qualify for a pedestrian hybrid beacon, or PHB, which are pedestrian-activated warning devices. The beacon consists of two red lights above a single yellow light. When a pedestrian pushes the button, it activates the beacon. The device then displays a steady red light to drivers and a “WALK” signage to pedestrians.
Jim Dale, assistant director with the City of Austin Transportation Department, is working on determining which intersections actually get the safety upgrades.
At $60,000 a piece, the PHBs aren’t cheap. Out of 1,000 traffic signals in Austin, only 40 crossings have pedestrian hybrid beacons.
More money to outfit more intersections would require city council approval, so KXAN asked Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Tovo about whether or not she would try to allocate funds for the beacons.
“I’ll certainly be looking at the budget carefully for funding options and seeing if there are higher priorities we should place on some of these options,” responds Tovo. “We certainly don’t want to see any more pedestrian deaths here in Austin. It’s been a very difficult year for that, so looking at those intersections and prioritizing the most unsafe ones and where it would make the biggest difference is important.”
But the City doesn’t have the final say with every single intersection in Austin, including the one where Knight runs. If they feed onto a major highway like MoPac, the responsibility falls on the Texas Department of Transportation.
“We work to get things done as quickly as possible,” says TxDOT spokesman Chris Bishop in response to why it has taken a year for any progress at this intersection. “The trouble was we had to order equipment. So, we put in the order for the equipment, and it hasn’t come in as fast as we would have liked.”
In fact, soon after KXAN started asking questions, the equipment for the pedestrian crossing showed up, and construction on the crossing at Lake Austin Boulevard and MoPac started.
Knight and his running group are excited about the progress.
“The news that a protected pedestrian signal will be installed in two to three weeks at the corner of Lake Austin Blvd and Atlanta is great news for the Austin running community! By providing a safe access point for runner and walkers, a portion of our community will now enjoy new roads, routes and fitness opportunities. We are absolutely thrilled by the news!” says Knight.
Even with crossings in place, Bishop says, “You’re responsible for your own safety. Just because you’re a pedestrian, don’t expect whoever’s in the car is automatically going to stop for you.”
When someone submits a request for a traffic signal or a PHB, the City of Austin evaluates those requests to determine in what order the requests should be studied, if at all. All current PHB requests are ranked for study semi-annually.
The criteria used to evaluate requests to determine if they should be studied are made up of numerous safety factors:
- How wide is the road?
- How many people are crossing at a specific location?
- What is the speed of the road?
According to the City, if a PHB is recommended, that location is added to a construction list. As funding is identified, PHBs from this list are installed. If a request does not rank high enough for study in a certain round, the request stays on the list for two years to be considered in subsequent rounds of evaluation for study.
If a request comes through that doesn’t meet the criteria for a signal or PHB evaluation — e.g. it’s too close to an existing signal — Austin’s Transportation Department says it still pursue reasonable and appropriate safety enhancements such as: standard crosswalk markings with pedestrian crossing signs, stop signs, pedestrian signage and flashing yellow lights.
All PHB requests are evaluated on 10 criteria with a total score of 1,000. If an intersection receives a high score, it’s more likely to be placed on a list to receive a PHB.
Roadway score: Includes considerations such as the distance to the nearest signal or stop sign; number of lanes to cross; speed limit and whether and what kind of median is present.
Pedestrian score: Includes considerations such as the pedestrian crash history and the number and type of pedestrian generators — e.g. stores, restaurants, bus stops, churches, etc. — in the area. Also considers whether there is a facility in the area whose primary clientele is a mobility-impaired community.
Below is the current PHB request list and score.