Part 1 of a three-part series
Fourteen-year-old Alexei Bauereis had quit the backyard stunts like jumping from trees onto roofs and downhill skateboarding that defined his childhood. He was saving his legs for ballet.
“Dance was so important to him,” his dad, Eric Bauereis, said.
But just past 10 p.m. on June 7, 2016, a driver hit and killed Alexei near his family’s home in far Northwest Austin. Alexei had been hanging out with a friend when he offered to walk his friend the roughly six blocks home. The journey required crossing the four lanes at the top of a hill on Spicewood Springs Road.
The traffic lights had turned to flashing red and yellow signals just after 9 p.m., according to the police report. The signal to let pedestrians cross had also shut off when the lights changed. As Alexei was crossing the street, a man driving a Toyota SUV hit and killed him.
“The real question was, ‘What happened here?’” Bauereis said. “And I guess to a certain extent, ‘Whose fault was it?’ We really believed that a major contributor to the accident was the intersection itself.”
The idea that road design can help dictate the safety of the road isn’t unfamiliar to the City of Austin.
In May 2016, the Austin City Council passed the Vision Zero Action Plan, which outlines an aggressive goal of reducing traffic deaths and serious injuries on Austin roads to zero by 2025. Since then, fatal crashes have dropped slightly, but pedestrians still make up roughly a third of the deaths.
Nationally, traffic deaths have been on the rise since 2009, and pedestrians are increasingly a larger portion of those killed.
“It appears, possibly, that Austin is kind of staying where it is, which itself might be a remarkable feat,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, executive director of Farm & City, a nonprofit that lobbies for safe streets and transit across Texas.
Several pedestrian-safety advocates told KUT the city has done a fair job of making streets safer for pedestrians in the two years since the Vision Zero plan passed. But those same advocates also say the city will need to step up its efforts if it’s going to dramatically lower the number of traffic fatalities each year.
In 2017, Bauereis sued both the driver and the City of Austin, seeking damages for his son’s death, claiming that the city’s design of the intersection was partly to blame.
“The light shouldn’t change to flashing red and flashing yellow so early in the evening when it’s populated with kids,” Bauereis said.
A couple weeks after Alexei’s death, the city tweaked the timing of the traffic light, pushing back the start time of the flashing lights from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Bauereis said his case against the city was dismissed, but he was onto something.
By passing a Vision Zero plan, local elected officials and city staff bought into the idea that drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians are bound to make mistakes on city streets, but that roads should be designed to prevent death as a result.
But that decision to address design to avoid traffic fatalities was spurred by the record-high number of traffic deaths in 2015. Of the 102 deaths, 30 were pedestrians. In 2016, 28 pedestrians died on Austin’s roads, making up 35 percent of total traffic deaths. In 2017, 23 pedestrians died, roughly 30 percent of the year’s traffic fatalities. Eight of 23 traffic deaths so far this year have been pedestrians.
In response, Austin’s Transportation Department says it has tried to institute system-wide changes to pedestrian infrastructure across the city by installing more pedestrian signals and redesigning some of Austin’s most dangerous intersections. Heyden Black Walker, an urban planner who serves on the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, said design often dictates to drivers the right they have to the road – including how fast they feel comfortable driving.
“When we started building streets and roads, we started coming up with standards and for highways we came up with standards where lanes are really, really wide,” Walker said. There's not a lot of "visual clutter" which, she said, would force a driver to slow down.
Walker commutes to work by bus from her home in Allandale. Every day along her half-mile walk to the bus stop, she says she encounters nearly every type of road in Austin – quiet residential streets with no sidewalks, busy streets with sidewalks and the bustling four-lane road with dicey pedestrian crossings.
Walker points to the intersection at Burnet Road and West Koenig Lane, which is close to her bus stop, as a particularly dangerous one. She says the majority of the time drivers whip around the corners without stopping.
“They can do it quickly because the corner has a huge turning radius,” Walker said. “They don't have to slow down very much.”
Walker said she’s hopeful the number of pedestrian deaths is trending downward – but that hope is tempered by caution.
“The population is increasing and the numbers are staying the same,” she said. “So, the rate is going down which I think is important to note. But I don't know how we know we have a goal to have zero traffic fatalities by 2025. It's going to take a lot of effort to get there.”
Despite losing his case against the city, Bauereis still contends that the design of the intersection Alexei tried to cross on that June night is partly to blame for his death.
“I do think that the city should be able to have more consistent and better design and better practices around our intersections that would protect both drivers, cyclists and pedestrians,” he said.
Tom Wald, who serves on the board of the nonprofit Walk Austin, agrees. While the city and the state are ramping up pedestrian-minded safety efforts, he says Austin isn’t doing enough.
“They have resources that they could devote to addressing traffic safety that they instead devote to ensuring that people have shorter commutes,” he said.
Wald said, for example, the city could more quickly respond to pedestrian deaths by putting in temporary or low-cost design elements to slow drivers.
“When there is a fatality or a serious injury collision that we look at how that roadway is contributing to that,” he said. “Looking at that, fixing it relatively quickly and also fixing the other similar situations that we see in other parts of Austin.”
Wald cited the intersection of East Sixth and Waller streets as an example; in 2016 the city installed bollards and “turtle shells” – those small, round bumps in the street – to slow cars passing through the intersection. Both the bollards and the turtle shells – which cost the city considerably less than a full-scale redesign of the intersection – were destroyed by cars.
Typically, the city waits to review traffic deaths at any intersection and coordinates with engineers and regional transportation agencies before proposing solutions. It's not necessarily a quick-fix process.
Bauereis says his son’s death has pushed his wife and him into activism to help speed up those processes. So far, they’ve met with the Pedestrian Advisory Council and Walk Austin, among others. But he says it hasn’t been easy while coping with the loss of their son.
“How do you appropriately grieve, move forward and help others all at the same time?”