El Paso, Texas, is a large, dynamic city that sits a stone’s throw away from its Mexican sister city of Ciudad Juarez. People regularly pass back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border for work and other life activities. El Paso is made up of large boulevards and has a car-focused culture, fast traffic and an unsafe environment for pedestrians and cyclists. However, many of El Paso’s residents rely on cycling and walking for transportation (known as “active transportation”), particularly those who are unable to afford a car. El Paso lays claim to sobering pedestrian statistics. Between January 1, 2008 and July 31, 2010, 843 pedestrians were hit in El Paso, according to a report issued by the Texas Department of Transportation. And according to El Paso Police Department statistics, 47 pedestrians were killed between January 1, 2008 and Oct. 31, 2010.
Vulnerable Road Users
In the neighborhood of Chamizal, where the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project is focused, residents were happy to learn that an ordinance was already on the books to protect pedestrians and cyclists.
Before finding out about the policy, the partnership conducted a walkability audit, which showed that Chamizal had significant areas that are unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Chamizal residents reported that they were too scared to walk to the local park, among other places. The message was clear: if pedestrian safety were to improve, access to spaces for physical activity will, too.
Xochitl Gamboa, El Paso’s Project Coordinator, came across the Vulnerable Road User Ordinance while reviewing local policies related to safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The Vulnerable Road User Ordinance was introduced by City Council member Beto O’Rourke in the Fall of 2010. The policy mandates that vehicles move to an open lane if a pedestrian or cyclist is traveling in the same lane as a vehicle, if there is another lane available. Failure to do this could result in a $500 fine. Council member O’Rourke recognized that it was unsafe to encourage biking and walking with existing conditions.
Gamboa saw an immediate connection. In Chamizal, this ordinance could have a large impact on safety for cyclists and pedestrians. instead of the walking audit providing fodder for a new policy, this existing ordinance supported what the walking audit revealed: people using active transportation in El Paso are not safe.
Education for Policy Implementation
Through Gamboa’s work on the walk audit, she says it’s become clear that residents need to know about local policies in order to ensure they are implemented and effective. In particular, she notes that if a community has already identified a problem – such as pedestrian and cyclist safety due to unsafe roads and drivers – it is helpful for residents to know if there is a policy in place that can support a solution to the identified problem. In this way, residents can play a more meaningful role in enforcing and implementing the policy through educating and organizing their community. Gamboa has made the first link between the ordinance and the walk audit, but the coming months of implementation will reveal the policy’s impact.