For two hours every weekday, Dolores Byres leads elementary school kids through a crosswalk in front of Sweeney Elementary School, a spot swarming with traffic at the beginning and end of each school day.
A recent afternoon finds her yelling at the driver of a grey SUV for not stopping as she holds back a pack of school kids that are trying to cross South Meadows Road.
“This is an everyday thing,” she says. “This part here is real dangerous because people don’t care.”
"This part here is real dangerous because people don’t care."
Byres is wearing a black brace on her left knee. It’s an injury from a vehicle that struck her in the middle of the crosswalk on April Fool’s Day. Byres says she ran in front of an incoming car that wasn’t slowing down for a girl she was trying to help cross.
“I had to tell the little girl to run because this car, I saw, wasn’t stopping,” she says.
The car clanked her knee and sped off before Byers could get a good look at the license plate or driver.
It doesn’t help that the crosswalk Byres guide kids across, located off Airport Road in one of the least pedestrian-friendly sections of Santa Fe, doesn’t have a stoplight or stop sign to urge slower travel during these peak traffic times. The white tape that’s supposed to make the crosswalk visible doesn’t seem to be cutting it either.
Robert Ping, a program manager with the Port Townsend, Washington-based Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, says the situation could be improved by turning the crosswalk into a “speed table.”
The speed table, Ping says, would raise the crosswalk four inches and add reflectors or paint along its edge. He’s also in favor of painting red between the white lines of the crosswalk, arguing that with visual stimulus, more drivers become aware that it’s a place for pedestrians. Finally, Ping suggests that the sidewalk near the crosswalk should be expanded onto the street’s parking lane. He says that wider lanes like those on South Meadows Road invite drivers to go too fast.
“You tend to slow down and be more cognizant of what’s going on with a narrower driving lane,” he says.
Ping’s observations were part of a series of roughly 30 “walk audits” the Santa Fe Metropolitan Planning Organization commissioned last week. The idea is to improve pedestrian routes that are particularly bad on the edges of town.
The results of the walk audits, which cost the agency about $17,000 in public money, will be used to help mold a new pedestrian master plan. The planning process has also included public hearings and feedback from 1,000 residents across the metropolitan area, which includes the city limits and nearby areas like Lamy and Tesuque Pueblo.
Coupled with city master plans for bicycling and public transportation, the pedestrian master plan is an attempt to shift the focus of resources away from cars. For the next four years, MPO Officer Mark Tibbetts says roads will make up 50 percent of funding for local transportation projects, 43 percent will go to public transit and 7 percent to pedestrian and bike projects. The three master plans are aimed at identifying more non-car projects for the next round of overall transportation planning, due to the state in 2015.
“We’re trying to create more awareness to really raise the profile and encourage people to consider these alternative modes,” Tibbetts says.
Not all of Santa Fe’s pedestrian friendliness is rated poorly. Walk Score, an online app that ranks the effectiveness of a community’s walkability, gives the downtown area a high score of 91.
“It’s a premiere downtown,” Ping says. “It’s very walkable. It has a historic feel. That’s a reason why so many tourists are here.”
But that walkability score slips to 36 when it evaluates the city as a whole. That’s mostly because of the edges of Santa Fe, where Ping says “you get into what has happened with planning since the ’50s”—sprawl areas dominated by wide roads, many car lanes and fast driving. Most of the sprawl areas are in the city’s Southside, where 28 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to 2010 US Census tract data, besting the citywide average of 18 percent.
Fixing the area’s infrastructure, Ping says, requires retrofitting, a “very expensive process” that involves moving cement and buildings around.
Jasmine Meyer, a community health worker at La Familia Medical Center who has been working on a federally funded community health project that includes walkability issues on the Southside, says most of the residents she talks to in the area are too scared to have their kids walk to school.
“They don’t feel it’s safe,” Meyer says. “A lot of parents live [south] this way and the school is [up] Agua Fría [Road], which isn’t fully sidewalked, is very busy and where it has sidewalks, they’re very narrow.”
Residents of Cottonwood Village Mobile Home Community, located between Agua Fría Road and Highway 599, live close to the Santa Fe River Trail, which can be used to walk to Agua Fría Elementary. Still, Meyer says most residents she talks to are hesitant about opening their gates to the river trail because they’re afraid of vagrants coming into their homes.
Changing people’s perceptions of problems like vagrancy to ge
“It’s going to be an incremental change,” he says. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But we do have a strong case.”