On Saturday April 23 I attended the “Design for Civic Solutions Workshop”. This one-day workshop was a collaboration between Open Austin and Austin Center for Design. The objective was to teach community members how to use a human-centered design process to focus on social impact — in this particular case, pedestrian safety and mobility at the North Lamar and Rundberg intersection in Austin, Texas.
I worked with two other designers on this project. We were given a timeframe of 6 hours to design our survey, conduct ethnographic research, organize the collected data and translate research findings and insights into meaningful solutions.
I helped design and conduct the survey. I served as a Spanish to English translator. I also helped organize our data, craft insights and develop solutions. Honestly, since the team was so small, we all got to be part of the whole process.
The North Lamar and Rundberg Lane intersection is considered Austin’s most dangerous intersection. An average of 41 collisions per year, including 23 with serious injuries over the past three years, critically compromises pedestrian safety.” — Open Austin
The following statistics are not specifically about the North Lamar and Rundberg intersection. None the less, they depict a clear portrait of the number of pedestrian fatalities in the city of Austin and the much needed action to address this pressing issue.
- From a total of 102 accidents in 2015, 26 were pedestrian fatalities
— Official website of the city of Austin 2015 fatality spreadsheet
- According to KUT’s article “One mile and one week apart, two brothers meet similar fates walking in Austin.” most of the accidents are because: Bad lighting. Drunk driving. No street lights. Pedestrians crossing mid block
To clearly understand the context of where the problem was taking place in order to ideate relevant and feasible solutions that help transform the North Lamar and Rundberg intersection into a safe environment for pedestrians and bikers.
After brainstorming and bouncing ideas back and forth, we wrote down a few questions to ask the community in order to initiate our user-research. I must say, most of the questions were an aid to spark a conversation that in most cases provided very interesting and revealing information.
Some of the answers we got from our interviewees were:
- Infrastructure such as a tunnel or elevated overpass is needed in order to protect pedestrians
- Infrastructure seems to be better around big businesses such as HEB (Texas’ largest supermarket)
- The city of Austin has not been diligent in keeping up with the city’s growth.
Additionally, we wrote down some quotes that help us better understand the reality of the problem:
- “Girl I know down the way got run over, over here just 4 months ago.”
- “People are gonna be where they need to be. They are in a hurry to get home.”
- “Nobody follows signals, they just go.”
After gathering our data and doing some thinking these were our most relevant findings and observations:
- Indeed the problem was real. Only a group of teenagers thought the intersection was safe — Could this perception have to do with their physical agility to react to unexpectedness? Could it also have to do with them wanting to seem brave? Have they been raised coming to this crosswalk and are just more accustomed to it always being busy? Or since they do not drive yet, do they underestimate the reaction time that cars might have to them?
- Additionally, people felt that drivers were aggressive and not respectful of pedestrians — How much of this dehumanizing behavior had to do with their lack of education, or simply trying to meet their packed schedules of two or three jobs a day? Could it had to do with their cultural driving background or with a disconnect towards the community?
- The time for cross walking was considered insufficient by some, mostly the elderly — could there be a way to personalize or adjust that cross walking time in order to make it sufficient to whomever is crossing the street?
- Commercial businesses heavily influence the infrastructure of a community — Do businesses care more about the community than the actual city?
Our biggest question was: Why has the community not taken any action on this? Explaining the context of where the problem is taking place may help us understand this lack of action.
The area of North Lamar and Rundberg is a low educated community of immigrants where one may think that their migratory status, or language barrier plays a big role when it comes to taking social action — two of the people we interviewed did not speak a word of English. What does this mean for us? It meant that we were dealing with a community that may not have the resources, knowledge nor structure to address the pressing issues that are affecting their neighborhood. But even if they do — let’s pretend that they are able to find the resources, knowledge and local support to organize themselves and address their local issues to the city — how does low home-ownership plays a role in the eyes of the city when it comes to investing and prioritizing the areas that need infrastructural improvements? It makes sense that transient communities –as this one is — may not get the same attention than permanent.
Understanding the context we were dealing with allowed us to better formulate our insights in a way that were broad and specific enough in order not to narrow our ideation process, while still being relevant for the user.
- Cars are dehumanizing. They create a separation between the driver and the pedestrian that leads to a driver only being concerned with a sense of self
- Businesses have a larger sense of belonging with the neighborhood than the actual municipality because it is good business for them
- The neighborhood is not organized or educated enough to be politically active
- Commercial establishments have an influence in the infrastructure of their surroundings
We needed to approach not the community, but the local businesses. Local businesses such as HEB may have more weight against the city in order to take action and solve issues such as pedestrian safety, one that was affecting the community in the area around the North Lamar and Rundberg intersection.
Aside from the political action local businesses may take, we thought about an educational program that will be sponsored by local businesses of the area. Such program’s purpose is to educate and inform the community on aspects such as:
- How to become a better driver and show respect towards pedestrians in order to address and overcome the dehumanizing aspect cars have over pedestrians
- How to organize themselves as a community in order to take legal action against the city for future issues
- How to interact with “The Cross walk lifeguards” — The Cross Walk Lifeguards will be a group of trained volunteers that will supervise pedestrian safety as well as car etiquette at each corner of the main intersections of the area
- And finally, a general best-practice guide on how to become a safer pedestrian
Conclusion on Pedestrian Safety
Austin has not kept up with the city’s growth — pedestrian safety in the North Lamar and Rundberg intersection needs to be addressed. Here is an opportunity for local businesses to capitalize in the positive impact they have on the communities they serve by becoming advocates in two ways: 1) Representing the community in the eyes of City Council when addressing the infrastructural improvements the area urgently needs. 2) Becoming the sponsor of an educational plan that seeks to educate the community on how to become better and safer drivers, and safer pedestrians. By doing do so, local businesses will build a civic relationship with the community gaining their trust and support.
And for businesses, this is good business.
For more information about this issue and how the city of Austin is taking action go to vision zero and Transportation Safety Initiatives.