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Austin’s new ‘speed cushions’ spark outcry

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 by Jack Craver

Susanne Paul worries that Jester Estates, the affluent Northwest Austin neighborhood where she’s lived for nearly 20 years, may be broken beyond repair. What was once an “extremely friendly” community is now fraught with political divisions that many of her neighbors believe may make it impossible to ever return to the “happy innocence of what we once were.”

What’s responsible? Speed humps on Jester Boulevard.

“These things are incredibly divisive,” Paul told the Austin Monitor.

They’re not just any speed hump. In fact, the Austin Transportation Department insists that the green, rubber devices that have been installed at 30 locations around the city over the past six months are not speed humps at all. Rather, in an Orwellian twist, they’re “speed cushions.”

The new devices are being installed as part of the Local Area Traffic Management program, which puts in place traffic-calming measures at the request of area residents. The measures are only put in place if the street meets a certain threshold for crashes or speeding, based on tests run by the Transportation Department.

From the perspective of the city, the new “speed cushions” are a winning solution in many regards. Unlike traditional speed humps, they don’t extend across the entire road, and they’re spaced to allow the wheels of ambulances and fire engines to evade them entirely. They’re also about one-third as expensive as asphalt humps – between $3,000 to $4,000 instead of about $13,000, according to ATD.

But many complain that they deliver a greater jolt than typical speed humps. At a Public Safety Commission hearing Monday, two advocates for the disabled said that the speed cushions were extremely painful for those with musculoskeletal disorders.

Karen Sironi, who has serious spinal issues due to a car crash a decade ago, told the commission that Transportation Director Robert Spillar “stated that he didn’t care if the (speed cushions) hurt people,” a claim that an ATD spokeswoman vociferously rejected.

Commissioner Preston Tyree was sympathetic to the opposition, saying that “vertical speed bumps are the worst way” to reduce speeds. A better approach, he said, was to build narrower streets, as is the case in Mueller, where he lives.

There has been opposition expressed throughout the city, but the outcry in Jester has been particularly vociferous. Paul said she helped gather 680 signatures in favor of removing the cushions.

“They don’t fit the character of the neighborhood,” said Paul. “Everyone feels like we live in a cheap apartment complex. People are worried that home values will come down.”

Although the speed cushions were put in place at the request of Jester residents who signed a petition asking for their street to be part of the Local Area Traffic Management program, that request was made back in 2012, Paul said. Many of the residents who signed in support of traffic-calming measures have since moved away, and others who signed now regret it, said Paul.

To convince the Transportation Department that there were alternative ways to slow down traffic, Paul and other activists delivered flyers to the more than 900 homes in the neighborhood, telling people to slow down while driving on Jester Boulevard. They also held a yard sign contest, to which 41 neighbors responded with signs such as, “Keep speeding and every day will be hump day!”

The activism paid off. Today, the Transportation Department will be removing the hated humps.

However, the saga is far from over. ATD still plans on installing speed cushions on another street in the neighborhood: Beauford Drive. These cushions, however, will have flattened tops that ATD hopes will make them slightly more pleasant to roll over.

Paul said that she finds the flat-tops even less comfortable, and that she and others in the Jester area are urging the Transportation Department to entertain alternatives. The speeding data that the department is basing its decision on is from a test conducted five years ago. If the department runs another test, Paul is confident that it will show that people in the area don’t speed anywhere near as much as before.

“We’re asking them to do a repeat speed test,” she said. “And if we fail, by all means put the speed humps in. But we’re not going to fail.”

Photo courtesy of the Austin Transportation Department.

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