Want to Get Rid of METROrail Crashes? Eliminate the Cars

Maybe the easiest way to improve traffic safety along the METROrail lines is to get rid of the traffic altogether.
Maybe the easiest way to improve traffic safety along the METROrail lines is to get rid of the traffic altogether. Photo by Ed Schipul via CC
Houston Public Media transportation reporter Gail Delaughter did a story recently on METRO's efforts to educate drivers when it comes to driving near the METRORail system. You might think the problem is pretty simple. After all, METROrail travels on tracks. They can't weave in and out of lanes and they are pretty big with clanging bells and loud horns.

Yet, according to the story, in 2017 there were 11 crashes near the Dryden Street Station in the Med Center alone. Reports of cars hitting trains or being struck by them occur on what feels like a daily basis with the worst of it along Main Street in downtown and along Fannin in the Medical Center. And virtually every accident has been the fault of a driver weaving into a lane in front of a train or running a red light.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who drives in Houston pretty much anywhere. Distracted and careless drivers are all over area highways and side streets. Defensive driving isn't just a class you take, it's a way of life around here.

So, here's a simple question. Why not eliminate vehicular traffic in these two hot spots? I know it sounds crazy to even think about taking cars of the streets, but hear me out.

Let's start with the easy one: downtown. Main Street between the University of Houston and the Pierce Elevated is already only one lane on either side. The streets are paved in brick for looks, certainly not for quality of driving. There is no parking along Main and every building lining the street has entrances on side streets or one block over.

There is even an entire section in the center of downtown between Dallas and Walker already closed to through traffic. Why not just close down the whole damn thing?

Sure, it wouldn't prevent people from running red lights — the cross streets would need to remain open — but it would create a less confusing situation all along that line. And it would open up the entire street to foot traffic, cycling and retail opportunities for street-level shops and restaurants. Honestly, I'm not sure why the city has opted to keep Main Street open for this long.

Now, the tougher one: Fannin. The stretch between University Boulevard and Holcombe Boulevard is an absolute mess most of the time. There are left turn lanes in front of trains and a handful of rather dangerous crossings. If there was ever a place for distracted driving, this is it.

The biggest issue here would be getting in and out of the hospitals. Many of them have parking on the back side of the buildings, but a few including Methodist, have drop offs in the front along Fannin. The tangle of buildings east of Fannin with confusing side streets only exacerbates the problem.

However, if the entire region could agree to a more comprehensive plan, turning Fannin into a pedestrian-only zone would make a lot of sense both for drivers and for doctors, patients and their families who have to cross a crowded and sometimes dangerous street. It would certainly be more difficult to facilitate than downtown and require much greater planning, but having a pedestrian zone that allows folks to walk all the way from Texas Children's Hospital to Hermann Park with only one vehicle street crossing would make for a much more pleasant experience for everyone.

Neither of these plans are perfect. They would certainly need careful organization. But, when you consider the danger posed by vehicles to both the train and pedestrians around these areas, it probably makes more sense than keeping it how it is.

If you want to prevent further crashes between cars and trains, our best bet may be to eliminate the cars from the equation.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke