More than 50 community members gathered at the Heights Fire Station on March 5 for a meeting called by the City of Houston, which presented a plan to make 11th Street safer. They were shown a video and fed facts about the benefits of a road diet, which reduces the number of lanes but makes for more efficient traffic flow and fewer crashes, according to proponents.
A key part of the proposal was the addition of bicycle lanes on the outside of 11th Street, which is a major artery in a bike-loving community. The Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses the road at its intersection with Nicholson Street, which was identified by Houston bike advocates as one of the most dangerous spots in the city.
According to Houston Planning & Development Department assistant director Jennifer Ostlind, who made the presentation along with Houston Public Works, the idea was met with opposition by many of the Heights residents in attendance. She said citizens expressed concerns about increased congestion on a street that would be reduced from four lanes to two and were particularly against the addition of bike lanes.
Two days later, and a few blocks south of 11th Street, a cyclist was killed in a collision with a Houston ISD school bus that was traveling east on 8th Street. Police said David Loya, 23, a former youth swimming instructor in Garden Oaks, appeared to have the right of way while riding north in the bike lane on Heights Boulevard.
“It’s hard. It’s tough. It’s unfortunate. It’s tragically timely,” said Heights resident and meeting attendee Jessica Wiggins, the advocacy director for the nonprofit BikeHouston. “It reminds us all of why we’re doing this and why we’re trying to make our streets more safe and comfortable.”
No charges have been filed against the bus driver, a 61-year-old female, involved in the fatal crash. And it wouldn’t necessarily have been prevented by changes to the traffic dynamics such as the ones proposed for 11th Street between Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street.
In light of Loya’s death, though, Wiggins hopes the Heights residents opposed to the plan are reconsidering for the sake of their neighborhood’s safety. Pushback at the next community meeting, which Ostlind said would be held within the next month or two, could put the project in jeopardy.
Ostlind said the plan for a road diet, which is a new concept for the city and would utilize the $1 million per year allocated through the Houston Bike Plan adopted in 2017, has a “50-50” chance of coming to fruition and depends largely on community support.
“We’re committed to doing something now,” she said. “If everybody hates it, maybe we don’t. Maybe it’s not the right time and we need to try it somewhere else first.”
Ostlind said the planning department and public works initially targeted the intersection of 11th and Nicholson, based in part on input by transportation advocacy groups such as BikeHouston and LINK Houston. They subsequently discovered safety issues all along the aforementioned stretch of 11th Street.
Between 2010 and 2019, it had a higher crash rate than Texas’ average for undivided four-lane roads. On the same stretch during the same time span, there were 516 crashes reported to the Houston Police Department.
The stretch also prompted 94 traffic safety requests to 311 between February 2018 and February 2019.
“People asked for a solution,” Ostlind said. “There’s very few people who ever imagined that we would come back and say, ‘Well, we need to take away two lanes of traffic on 11th.’ I think they imagined a traffic light.”
Ostlind said a road safety audit, conducted in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration and Texas Department of Transportation, revealed that a traffic reconfiguration would be preferable to the cost-prohibitive addition of signals. She said changing a four-lane setup to a two-lane configuration – one lane going in each direction with a center left-turn lane – is proven to reduce speeding, sudden lane changes, other forms of aggressive driving and, ultimately, collisions.
The latter configuration also coincides with a safety feature proposed specifically for the intersection of 11th and Nicholson, one of 12 dangerous intersections identified by the city. One of the others is Washington Avenue and Patterson Street just south of the Heights.
The plan for 11th and Nicholson is to install a median refuge island at the trail crossing. It would provide protection for cyclists and pedestrians, who could stop in the middle of 11th Street during heavy traffic.
Everything was outlined during the March 5 community meeting.
“It just seemed that people weren’t listening to what the city had to say,” Wiggins said. “It’s disappointing. I work in communities across the city of Houston. Some communities, they would have a hard time getting any kind of street improvement in their neighborhoods. And so this was frustrating for me, because the benefits of this were so plain.”
Ostlind said some naysayers came around by the end of the meeting, and that the responses she’s gotten since have mostly been supportive. So she remains hopeful that the Heights community at large will ultimately back the project, which mostly would be a restriping of the road and not a reconstruction.
Wiggins is optimistic as well, saying she realizes the sample of residents at the meeting doesn’t necessarily represent the opinion of everyone in the Heights. She hopes the community is committed to reducing the risk of crashes like the one that claimed Loya’s life.
Even if this particular proposal falls through, Ostlind said city officials will keep searching for ways to make 11th Street safer and keep informing the community.
“I think we’ve got a long way to go to educate both drivers and bikers on how to share the road safely,” she said.