Houstonians who drive downtown frequently are all too familiar with the awkward dance with Metro rail trains that happens every so often, like the kind you do with mall walkers to avoid colliding with them: You need to get into the right lane to turn right, but there's a Metro train coming. It's too close to you. You try to speed up and get in front of it, but still you don't have quite enough room — so instead you slow way, way down, anger the driver behind you, and wait for the train to cross the intersection so you can change lanes and make the turn.
Such are the kinds of scenarios that have led to accidents with the trains — and are now causing Metro to rethink whether shared lanes with vehicles are the safest option.
Since May 2015, there have been 53 accidents in the downtown corridor involving all rail lines, according to stats provided by Metro. About 36 percent of all accidents across Houston were happening in shared lanes, with 21.5 percent occurring downtown and the other 15 percent in the Texas Medical Center. The majority have occurred along Capitol and Rusk streets, where the Green and Purple lines run, near the La Branch intersection, and on the Red Line at Fannin and Dryden near the med center.
"So what can we do to mitigate those accidents in the future?" said Metro CEO Tom Lambert. "That's what we're beginning to open up in conversations with all our partners downtown, and with our partners in the Medical Center as well."
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Lambert, who repeatedly made clear that such conversations are only beginning, said that concerns about the shared lanes arose out of the Metro board's public safety committee. He said no specific plan is on the table to address the problem, but possibilities could include closing off the shared lanes to vehicles in some spots, installing fencing between the roadway and the rail as was done on the Red Line along Main Street, as well as improving traffic-signal coordination — "everything we can think of," Lambert said.
"Our ultimate goal will be making sure that whatever we do is focused on the safety of movement for all people, whether they're walking, whether they're cycling, whether they're driving in a car, a truck, or they're using METRORail. We'll look at overall mobility. As we said when we began looking at safety, nothing is off the table. But I would be presumptuous if I thought I knew where it needs to go, because I don't. There are trade-offs with anything you do."
The most evident trade-off is likely the increased traffic congestion that could arise from closing off some rail lanes to cars. Lambert said he did not know why Metro originally decided to design the lanes to be shared with cars, because he was not the CEO at that time. But Metro board member Christof Spieler, an engineer, told the Houston Chronicle that the original idea behind the shared lanes was to "maintain access" for cars, thus not impeding the flow of traffic that may need to cross the tracks to pull into businesses or parking garages.
"I don't have that history, so what I'm really doing now is dealing with what we're seeing from an accident-trend standpoint," Lambert said, "and unfortunately, after we've had some very significant accidents, we're drilling down to look at everything. I'm gonna learn that history, but I'm more so looking at the situation today and what we need to do to mitigate accidents in the future."