Thursday, October 4, 2012

The untold story of Dickinson Road

Both Houston Chronicle and Galveston County Daily News ran stories late yesterday about the arrest of a man accused in the heretofore-unsolved case of pedestrian Maurice Jones, who was struck and killed on Dickinson Road in a hit-and-run incident back in 2009. 
Here is the approximate location where Mr. Jones was killed.  Centerpointe is on the left side of this map.  It's not far from us. 
Some of the original news stories have sunk deeply into the sea of internet search engines after more than three years now, but this one from 2011 recaps the incident, and describes the family's pain at the lack of closure to the case. 

Mr. Jones was walking home from his job when he was killed. 

It was particularly offensive to all of us that a pedestrian could simply be killed outright in League City and nobody ever brought to accountability for it. 

It was even more offensive to me because I am intimately familiar with Dickinson Road, and herein lies the larger back-story upon which the newspapers never seem to focus. 

Dickinson Road is yet another of those narrow unimproved rights-of-way, only this one has a twist: it's not a simple residential block grid street like you see throughout Old Town.  It's actually an early version of an arterial road that pre-dates much of League City's recent rapid growth (hence its name - it connected League City and Dickinson).   

And it's very, very dangerous.

Here's another case of a picture telling a thousand words, only this one derives from Google Street View rather than from a newspaper's front page, as was the case with the GCDN picture of Christina Lopez's memorial last week

This is actually a two-way street, but many local drivers, when facing no opposing traffic, will actually default to driving right down the middle of it, as this driver was inadvertently caught doing here by the Googlemobile.  This midline practice gives drivers some extra cushion of safety if pedestrians are present and if other cars pull out from driveways and cross-streets.

You can plainly see just how narrow this thing is.  This guy is hauling a speedboat, which is not overly large.  But arguably, this road is only wide enough for one lane plus shoulders. 
Can I say this again?  IMNSHO, it's dangerous.  There are actually not one, but two, roadside memorials on just this one segment of Dickinson Road.
This, I believe, is the memorial for Mr. Jones.  I can't locate my own pics of it at this moment, so this again is from Google Street View.
A short distance away on the opposite side of the road, there's this other one.  I've not yet been able to research who this person was, or how they came to die on this open stretch of narrow road.
So at this point you may be wondering... how the heck do I know so much about Dickinson Road?!

Easy:  I sometimes ride my bike back and forth along its entire length.  Repeatedly. 

A typical response to this is, "Are you out of your freakin' mind?!  That narrow little road is obviously too dangerous for biking!"

But here is the main fact that I encourage you to contemplate: There is no safer place.  A safer place does not exist in our area. 

And this is not just my personal opinion - it is vehemently shared by others.  Several years ago, well before I began blogging, I attended a couple of public meetings that League City hosted to obtain feedback on its master plan for pedestrian mobility.  I don't know where that effort stands as of today, but here is a link to a presentation from two and a half years ago.  The bicycling advocates were very vocal in those meetings.  One man stood up and noted wryly that the safest and most effective place to train for events such as MS150 and Bike Around the Bay was actually the IH-45 feeder road between Dickinson and LaMarque. 
Do you see that big green patch there in the middle of this aerial photo?  There is relatively little development in that area, and less development means less traffic on the feeders.  So that's why serious cycling enthusiasts use this section for training. 

Oh, but wait - near the middle of this big square of mostly-green, do you see a light tan-colored area just to the left of the freeway?  An area that looks like the soil might be disturbed?
Guess what that is??  Ah, it's the Tanger Outlet Mall under construction and we are just a few weeks from its grand opening.  And of course they have every right to acquire private property and build in this location - but what does this mean for the fate of cyclists who are (or were) using that previously-lightly-traveled section of freeway feeder for their training purposes??  What's going to happen to the traffic volume in this area? 

Screengrabs from Googlemaps.
During those League City public meetings, the cyclists noted that it was indeed a pathetic situation, that the best they could do for training venue was to ride a segment of interstate highway.  What does that say about where our society places health and fitness in its priority hierarchy?

Dickinson Road is the alternate street venue for those of us who are not quite so hard-core about our physical fitness training.  Despite it's narrow length, lack of shoulders, and lack of sidewalks, it actually has two very important features to recommend it as a bicycle training option:
  1. It's accessible, located less than a mile from Centerpointe.
  2. It has a long unbroken length with good visibility (it parallels the rail line).  You may get run over by a motor vehicle if you use it, but at least in many cases, you'll be able to see that motor vehicle coming at you.
If you go up and back twice from Centerpointe, you've covered about ten miles on your bike.  Not bad for a quick convenient spin. 
So THAT is why I use Dickinson Road.  What is the alternative for citizens like me, exactly?  There are only so many times I can sit on a stationary bike and not die of boredom.  One would like to be able to mix it up just a bit - to go outside and get some exercise once in a while - is that too much to hope for??  I'm almost a half-century old here.  Faced with the insufficient public infrastructure that we have, should I instead sit on my couch with my hands folded in my lap and do nothing except watch TV and let obesity overtake me?  So that, in a few years when I'm old enough to go on Medicare, you fine taxpaying readers can foot the bill for my diabetes and cancer and all the rest of the degenerative complications that derive from obesity

How do you like the sound of that scenario?  Because that's exactly what's happening across the country.  We've got two thirds of Americans overweight by this point and darned near one third of them obese, especially here in the south:
Screengrabbed from this Washington Post article.
This USA Today article puts the numbers somewhat higher.
Collectively we don't want to invest in infrastructure that includes sidewalks or hike and bike trails because it costs soooo much money.  Well, what do you suppose THAT mess shown above costs us in comparison?  According to this article, the answer is $190 billion (with a B) annually - that's just the incremental cost attributed to obesity, not medical costs as a whole.  Do the math on this one.  That's about $633 annually per capita for every man, woman, and child in America - which equates to an effective $54 million annual cumulative impact on the good people of League City.  They may not experience those costs directly, but indirectly in terms of higher medical insurance costs, and in terms of public debt and taxes for uninsured Americans, those costs will appear, and they cannot be wished away. 
That number calculates out like that because this how many people we have right now.

A one-time cost of a few million bucks for sidewalks and trails no longer sounds very radical when compared to a $54 million annual effective share of obesity-related costs, does it??
I look at that and I think, "Holy crap - are those numbers even remotely close to representing the way things are??  It doesn't seem possible!"  As unbelievable as it sounds, those are the numbers that are published and that's the simple analysis that falls out of them.

And of course, sidewalks and hike/bike trails are not the sole answer to the obesity crisis - but if people can't even go for a simple walk or a bike ride without fear of getting killed for lack of infrastructure, how much headway could we ever expect to make??  If you want to teach a student, you have to at least have a chalkboard or a place to draw a picture in the dirt.  If you want to encourage people to exercise, there has to at least be some basic framework in which to do it with a reasonable minimum threshold of safety. 

Twice within the same week, my heart goes out to the family of a local pedestrian whose death involved the contributing factor of insufficient infrastructure.  No sidewalks or even road shoulders in either case.  As I said in my post about Christina, this is not a joke or a hypothetical scenario. Galveston County residents are needlessly put at risk of their lives for lack of basic infrastructure such as sidewalks in residential areas. They die because, without sidewalks, they have to share the road with motor vehicles and, in a conflict for space, the motor vehicles always win. 

Mr. Jones should not have have had to lose his life walking home on Dickinson Road.

Cyclists should not have to risk their lives while traveling on Dickinson Road.  It could just as easily have been one of us instead of Mr. Jones.  It could have been me

I don't know where the League City hike-and-bike improvement plans stand at the present time.  I'll try to research that further as time allows. 

And oh - by the way, Bike Around the Bay will be held next weekend.  Pity that so many people don't have access to safe training options for it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'm forced to moderate comments because the spammers have become too much for me to keep up with. If you have a legitimate comment, I will post it promptly. Sorry for the inconvenience.