A plan that would significantly alter traffic flow on a major Heights thoroughfare is on the verge of being implemented.
If not for the vocal and persistent opposition of some area residents, a reconfiguration of 11th Street might already be underway.
Timbergrove Manor Neighborhood Association president Chris Elliott and Leigh Killgore, another Timbergrove Manor resident who is president of Super Neighborhood Council 14, are among the Heights-area homeowners against the “road diet” proposed by Houston Public Works and the city’s Planning & Development Department. The plan calls for the restriping of 11th Street between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street to convert it from a four-lane configuration, with two lanes of traffic going in each direction, into one lane going in each direction with a center left-turn lane and bicycle lanes on the outside of the road.
A median refuge island, which would provide protection to cyclists and pedestrians using the Heights Hike and Bike Trail that crosses 11th at Nicholson Street, also would be installed at that intersection. It was identified by Houston bike advocates as one of the most dangerous spots in the city.
The changes would be funded as part of the Houston Bike Plan, which was adopted by the city council in 2017 and allocates $1.1 million per year to projects aimed at making the city safer and more accessible for cyclists.
“The only reason that the City of Houston is looking at this is because there’s money to do a bike lane,” Killgore said. “A road diet doesn’t make people safe. It just slows people down.”
According to representatives from public works and the planning and development department, slowing down traffic is a means of making the street safer. At Heights community meetings held in March and May, they cited studies and traffic models that show the proposed road diet would have little impact on congestion while reducing speeding, sudden lane changes, other forms of aggressive driving and, ultimately, collisions.
Jennifer Ostlind, assistant director of the planning and development department, said about two-thirds of the community feedback she’s gotten since March is supportive of the plan and she’s leaning toward moving forward with it. She said July 9 that she expected to make a final decision within a “couple weeks.”
Still, opposition from community members such as Killgore is at least partly why Ostlind continues to deliberate. She said she and Ian Hlavacek, a public works engineer involved with the proposal, are considering Killgore’s claim that the city’s traffic models aren’t adequately factoring in projected growth in the area.
Based on platting information she found on the public works website, which suggests upwards of 2,000 homes could be added to the area immediately west of Shepherd, Killgore said there could be at least 16,000 more vehicles in the area within the next five years. Ostlind said it wouldn’t necessarily be reasonable to expect most of those vehicles to travel east and use 11th Street, but the theory is being evaluated nonetheless.
“We want this to work. We don’t want to put something out there that’s going to cause gridlock,” Ostlind said. “So we’re taking our time. There’s no reason to rush it.”
Whether or not 11th Street gets a road diet, Elliott and Killgore said a pedestrian hybrid beacon would be a more effective, safer option for the intersection of 11th and Nicholson. Hybrid beacons are traffic signals activated by pedestrians who press a button at a crosswalk to activate a temporary red light for vehicles.
One recently was installed at Shepherd and 10th Street in response to the March deaths of pedestrians Lesha Adams and Jesse Perez, who were struck and killed by a woman driving a car while trying to cross Shepherd. Killgore said she often drives on that stretch of Shepherd, which is a one-way street going north.
“I think the issue is that 11th street needs to stay with the same number of lanes and a beacon light should go in there,” Killgore said. “If you do a beacon light, I don’t think you need a road diet and I don’t think you need an island.”
That appears unlikely, though. Hlavacek said in May there is a law prohibiting the installation of a hybrid pedestrian beacon within 100 feet of a cross street or driveway, which would take that option out of play at 11th and Nicholson. Ostlind said a beacon also would be more costly than the existing plan.
It’s a plan that seems to be inching toward fruition, even though it has some opposition. Killgore said she agrees that 11th, particularly at its intersection with Nicholson, needs to be made safer.
She also said she’s glad that Hlavacek and Ostlind have been willing to consider her concerns. Ostlind described Killgore as the “most tenacious” of the plan’s dissenters and meant that as a compliment.
“That’s what makes communities good are people out there that are doing stuff about it,” she said.