Westheimer and Gessner. Photo: Raj Mankad.
Every day for almost a year I caught the 5:00 a.m. 53 Briar Forest Limited bus from a stop close to Downtown, and I rode it all the way to the end of the line, getting off at Westside High School, where I started my day as a science teacher. The two-hour ride got me home by 6:30 p.m. Eat, sleep, rinse, repeat, every day for months. This commute was by necessity: several years before, I had been in an accident that left me with severe traffic-related anxiety, making driving all but impossible. Sound tiring? The truth is that I became part of a community of fellow riders.
Every morning, my work began when I got on the bus, when I got out my laptop to work on that day’s lesson plans. The first few months went by in a blurry haze. Planning on the ride to school, followed by lesson setup, followed by teaching, followed by grading, followed by an exhausted ride home, in which I tried to let my mind switch off. This turned into its own rhythm. On the dark bus ride in the morning, we were a group of regulars, quiet as we geared up for another day. The ride home was noisier, filled with the energy of students. As my mind became accustomed to the particular stops and turns, I began to look forward to a specific moment on the ride home, after the bus turned from Gessner onto Westheimer. As the bus began jolting its way down a long stretch of road, the entire city of Houston began opening up in front of me. Looking at the long stretch of road with a clustering of skyscrapers, I saw Houston as a city of possibilities.
Video still of pedestrian collision in Downtown Houston. Image courtesy Houston Police Department.
Statistics tell a frightening story about how Houston drivers view pedestrians. This is according to the 2008 National Pedestrian Crash Report, which compiled ten years of pedestrian crash data: “California, Florida, and Texas have more pedestrian deaths than any other states. Based on the pedestrian death percentages as a proportion of total pedestrian fatalities, the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, and Houston are the top five.” A Houston Chronicle analysis in August 2011 showed that in a 3.5-year span of time, only 17 percent of drivers involved in 174 fatal pedestrian accidents were prosecuted.
But nowhere is there a clearer indication of the widespread lack of concern for pedestrians than the September 4 accident involving Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. The chief hit a pedestrian while driving to police headquarters in a city vehicle. At the time of the incident and over the following week, McClelland was not issued a traffic citation.
What message does the absence of a traffic citation say about the status of pedestrians in Houston? I ask this question out of more than idle curiosity. On November 3, 2010, I was hit by a car while walking to school.