Pedestrians pass by Tony's, which isn't far from the popular Hays Street Bridge, during Game Three of the NBA Finals on June 10, 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.
Pedestrians pass by Tony's, a popular dive bar in the near Eastside. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio is more dangerous for pedestrians now than in recent years, and many other largely Latino communities are in the same condition, according to a new report.

The San Antonio metro area’s Pedestrian Danger Index increased from 96.9 in 2014 to 104.5 in 2016, far worse than the 2016 weighted average of 64.1, according to the Dangerous by Design 2016 study by Smart Growth America.

That means San Antonio is the 28th worst among 104 metro areas ranked by the danger index — a calculation of the share of local commuters who walk to work and the most recent data on pedestrian deaths.

Our city is not alone in dangerous walking conditions.

Pedestrian safety is worsening in largely Latino metro areas like Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose and Riverside, Calif., due to issues of policy, design, enforcement, and culture, according to the report.

When people don’t feel safe to walk or bike, they are less likely to meet physical activity recommendations and are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression, and various cancers — health conditions that often disproportionately affect Latino populations.

Safety Problems for Latino Pedestrians

People of color, older adults, and low-income populations are disproportionately burdened by pedestrian injuries and deaths.

As the median household incomes decrease, the Pedestrian Danger Index increases.

In 2014, 34.9% of the United States population identified as non-white or Hispanic, yet these groups accounted for 46.1% of all pedestrian deaths between 2005 and 2014.

Safe streets are a public health and social justice issue, requiring collaboration between health departments, transportation planners, developers, and elected officials.

This is in line with Salud America!’s research review on active spaces and Latino kids, which states that fewer Latinos (70%) than whites (82.5%) describe having neighborhoods with safe places for kids to walk and play.

Studies show that walkable neighborhoods provide many economic, safety, environmental, health, and social benefits. However, not all neighborhoods in San Antonio are created equal. There are many low-income neighborhoods with high populations of Latinos lacking safe, walkable infrastructure.

The way we design city streets is a major factor in reducing pedestrian deaths while also getting more people to walk, bike, and engage in physical activity that can improve health.

“Traffic safety experts now use the term ‘crashes’ instead of ‘accidents’ to emphasize that the design of the transportation system contributes to most traffic fatalities and injuries,” wrote John Pucher, professor emeritus of urban planning at Rutgers University, and Ralph Buehler, professor of urban affairs & planning at Virginia Tech.

How to Improve Pedestrian Safety in San Antonio

Many groups are working to prevent pedestrian deaths.

The Vision Zero Network, for example, focuses on safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all and reframes traffic deaths as completely preventable. Slowing cars is one of their primary goals. Worldwide, the Vision Zero approach has helped cities boost pedestrian and cyclist trips while drastically reducing injuries and fatalities.

San Antonio adopted a Vision Zero strategy and City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) was featured in Transportation Alternatives first issue of Vision Zero Cities.

Reducing speed can save lives, as can designing safe street networks. A Complete Streets approach integrates the needs of people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation networks for people to drive, walk, push a stroller, use a wheelchair, bicycle, or take public transportation.

More Walkable Streets in San Antonio

In 2009, there were less than four miles of Complete Streets in San Antonio.

Complete streets are designed for safe and convenient transportation by vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District applied for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant to adopt and implement a city-wide Complete Streets policy as a way to improve pedestrian safety and reduce childhood obesity and diabetes in San Antonio.

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A Complete Streets working group of about 30 stakeholders convened to pool their knowledge on street design, place-making, creating green spaces, transportation, and low-impact development, and draft a Complete Streets ordinance.

Then-mayor Julián Castro called for tripling the miles of Complete Streets in San Antonio as part of his 10-year plan for San Antonio – SA2020.

City Council voted on and passed the Complete Streets Ordinance in September 2011.

“(The Complete Streets policy) really comes down to health, safety, quality of life, and economic development,” said Marita Roos of the City’s Planning and Community Development Department.

It is unclear how Complete Streets strategies are being applied to the 2017 bond committees’ recommended list of projects for the 2017-2022 Bond Program, which allocates about $450 million for streets, bridges, and sidewalks of the total $850 million bond program, the largest in city history.

The mayor and City Council will meet throughout January and into February to discuss the recommended projects. Many of these meetings are open for public input.

Latino communities could particularly benefit from Complete Streets given that they are less likely to own a vehicle, have fewer safe opportunities to walk, and have higher rates of obesity, chronic disease, and pedestrian fatalities than whites.

Walking and biking infrastructure are critical for physical and mental health, economic development, and, in fast growing Latino-majority cities like San Antonio, a key component in managing traffic and air quality.

Texas Public Radio’s “Growing Pains” project explores alternative transportation options to manage the traffic nightmare that will result from the 146 new residents moving to San Antonio every day. Pedestrian safety should be a primary topic in these discussions.

After learning that pedestrian-friendly elements had been eliminated from a city street project in the Eastside San Antonio neighborhood of Dignowity Hill (75% Latino) due to lack of funding, two urban designers at the local architectural firm Overland Partners decided to take action.

They reached out to local residents, businesses, and the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association.

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Read more about this case study.

What Else Can San Antonio Do?

San Antonio also should take a look at the success of a Latino neighborhood in Colorado, which worked together to bring pedestrian safety improvements to Morrison Road, an unsafe street that bisected their neighborhood.

City Councilman Paul D. López grew up in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood (81% Latino) and saw that speeding traffic and lack of safety on this thoroughfare had long been negatively affecting residents’ health and economic development.

Local leaders had already been organizing around the need for healthy change in Westwood and approached López for support in applying for a grant to incorporate physical activity into land development and land use.

One stipulation of the grant was to get the community involved in identifying priority projects. The team worked with local nonprofits to conduct a health impact assessment and held numerous community meetings to gain input.

The solution was clear – the people wanted to improve pedestrian safety on Morrison Road, which included traffic signals, landscaped bump outs and medians, and a streetscape implementation plan. Changes were eventually approved for the street.

“We need to design for people,” said AnaCláudia Magalhães, community development coordinator for Denver nonprofit BuCu West. “In order to make it safe, you have to change infrastructure. Only by design can you rethink the public right of way and fix the safety issues that we have.”

Local matters.

San Antonio is growing and we must be willing to accept and prepare for the ensuing changes. Streets play a huge role in our daily lives, thus require our attention and action. In line with the heart of the “Eat Local” and “Shop Local” mottos, we must also actively engage in local politics to ensure policymakers design for people rather than for cars.

Tell your community leaders and officials that pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries are not inevitable, and they can be reduced through design and enforcement of safe pedestrian infrastructure.

Our mental and physical health depends on it, as well as the future of our city.

Amanda Merck is a content curator/research area specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also is a VIA board member.