Traffic & Transportation

It’s long been ‘students vs. cars’ on TCU campus. The school is trying to change that.

Maliyah Gibbs, 18, carefully stepped out onto the brick crosswalk on University Drive, her head swiveling left and right to make sure no cars were coming.

She was in the clear, at least for a moment. So she walked, quickly.

Each weekday, the Texas Christian University freshman has to think through her lunchtime walk across University Drive — which of several crosswalks she should choose from, when she should go, if she should move with a group — due to the masses of students who converge on the street right around noon. On this day, she avoided the main crosswalk with a traffic light and walk signs, crossing another one up the street by herself.

“Crossing is really hard,” Gibbs said last Friday around 11:50 a.m. “You have to decide when is the smartest decision to go.”

Within minutes, it became clear what Gibbs was avoiding: Dozens and dozens of students, all of them fresh out of classes or headed to lunch, waited underneath the traffic light against the continuous hum of traffic.

When it was the students’ turn to cross, however, the drivers then began waiting in a long line. And, after the light turned green, they kept waiting until the line of students came to a natural and definitive end.

This battle plays out, day after day, in the heart of TCU’s campus — one between two opposing forces both trying to get somewhere. It tends to be the worst in the minutes before classes begin, and can become especially bad in the morning before 9 a.m. or around noon.

The somewhat generational clash between residents and students has gone on for years, as long as University Drive has split through the heart of the TCU campus.

And, for countless local residents, it’s not trivial. It’s important.

Underneath a Star-Telegram Facebook post seeking responses for this story, there were more than 200 comments, many of them bemoaning the students who jaywalk across the street or the university’s failure to address the underlying issue. They also brought up safety concerns, for the students and themselves.

Texas Christian University students wait for the OK from a TCU police officer to cross University Drive on Sept. 13. Prompted by two accidents that resulted in non-life-threatening injuries, the university is sending officers to crosswalks this year to help direct pedestrian foot traffic and vehicle traffic. Jack Howland

Allison Farris, a 29-year-old who lives just south of the TCU campus in Fort Worth, said she sat in her car for five minutes Thursday afternoon as she waited for students while she was driving to the airport.

“If you do the math at five minutes one way and five minutes getting back home, and assume there are 30 weeks of students in class out of the year ... that’s 1,500 minutes, or 25 hours, or one full day,” she said. “That’s a lot of time spent on something that shouldn’t take that long.”

The TCU Department of Public Safety is making a renewed push to combat the issue in 2019, according to Adrian Andrews, the assistant vice chancellor for public safety.

He sent an email out to all students on Sept. 6 with the subject line “Safer Crosswalks,” which explained “pedestrians have often disregarded the lights and signals when crossing the roadway and motorists have been delayed.” It urged students to obey traffic laws and informed them TCU police officers will now be stationed at some crosswalks.

Ten minutes before each class, TCU officers can be found at the main crosswalk on University Drive with the traffic light and another crosswalk located at Veterans Plaza, Andrews told the Star-Telegram. Waving their hands up and down, they try to keep traffic — both foot traffic and vehicle traffic — moving smoothly.

The measure was prompted by two accidents on crosswalks in recent months that resulted in non-life-threatening injuries, he said. One victim was a student and the other was a staff member on a golf cart.

“The sole purpose of the TCU Department of Public Safety is to do everything in our powers to protect our students, faculty and staff,” Andrews said. “The leadership of the TCU DPS observed the crosswalk situation for a period of time and decided to send the safety message and post TCU police officers at the crosswalks during peak crossing times.”

The school retained a transportation engineering firm in late fall 2018 that would recommend ways to improve pedestrian safety on campus, according to Jason Soileau, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning. The firm is working with a landscape architecture agency, he said, as well as coordinating closely with Fort Worth officials.

Possible changes include raising crosswalks and adding pedestrian refuge islands. The college, Soileau said, hopes to submit plans to the city within the next few months and begin construction next summer.

Multiple people commented underneath the Facebook post that they would love to see the school construct a pedestrian bridge or a tunnel. But the school isn’t considering either of those options at this moment.

“That option was not recommended by the consulting firm,” TCU spokesperson Holly Ellman said.

For now, the college is trying to get a handle on an issue that has long persisted, and, for some people, has reached a boiling point.

Texas Christian University students walk across University Drive at the main crosswalk with a traffic light on Sept. 13. Excessive pedestrian foot traffic has been an issue on the TCU campus for years, but the college is this year weighing options to combat the problem. Jack Howland

‘Students versus cars’

TCU, which moved to its present campus in 1911, has dealt with pedestrian foot traffic crossing University Drive for as long as the street has split the campus.

On the west side of the street, there are academic and residential buildings — including the Campus Commons area and the on-campus Chick-Fil-A — while more academic buildings sit on the east side. There are also bars and restaurants popular with students on both sides of the road.

But the traffic problem, Andrews said, has been getting worse with each passing year.

As the school has grown from its humble roots — the first class was made up of only 13 students, according to the college website — the traffic issue has become more pronounced. This year, Andrews said, the total enrollment is 11,027 students, which represents a 1 percent increase from last year.

Brad Hilliard, a 2005 TCU graduate and Fort Worth resident, said the crosswalk issue was “going on when I was in school.” But he didn’t see it as an issue then.

“I was younger and it was that casual attitude young people have; I don’t know if it’s feeling invincible or what,” he said. “It was sort of like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to cross the street and I doubt anybody’s going to hit me with their car.’”

Chelsea Boh, an 18-year-old freshman from Denver, said she picked up on the issue right away. She said she sometimes observes students at the traffic light crosswalk who will find an opening and begin walking, even though the light is green.

Then, she said, other students will often tag along, thinking it’s OK for them to walk, too. And cars can end up waiting.

But on other occasions, she said, cars will stop even if the light is green, trying to help students but holding up cars behind them.

Boh tries to abide by a simple rule, she said: If you don’t have the crosswalk sign, don’t cross.

“It’s hard to get that out to all the students, I guess,” she said. “It’s hard for cars because they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t want to hit this person,’ obviously, but they need to go when it’s green, too.”

Another issue she and other students brought up was the presence of multiple crosswalks down University Drive, which can mean, during busy times, cars can stop more than once for students hurrying across the street.

Coy Trice, a 46-year-old from Haltom City who drives about 20 to 30 hours a week for Uber, said he’s “had to slam on the brakes or swerve around” students to avoid hitting them. The problem, he said, is jaywalking.

“A lot of them are on their phones, so they’re not paying attention; they’re following like sheep,” he said. “They just really need to pay attention and be aware of their surroundings.”

Farris — who works from home but commutes to Southern Methodist University, where she’s getting her masters in advertising — said it’s “most frustrating” when drivers have to stop at crosswalks every 30 or so feet, or see a light turn green as they continue to wait.

People shouldn’t be complacent, she said, and think to themselves “that’s just how it is.”

There has to be a better way, she said.

“It is a community issue,” Farris said. “Like, why do we have to be students versus cars? Why can’t we all just be, ‘Hey, we all live here together. Let’s figure it out as a community.’”

Maliyah Gibbs, an 18-year-old TCU freshman, crosses University Drive at a crosswalk on Sept. 13. She said she regularly encounters masses of students and she thinks about when the best time to cross would be. Jack Howland

Possible solutions

The University of Texas at Arlington, where Farris got her undergrad degree, had its own problems with pedestrian traffic interfering with vehicle traffic.

In the 1980s, Cooper Street, which bisects the campus, garnered a reputation as “Frogger Alley,” according to UTA’s student newspaper, The Shorthorn. Students reportedly had to dodge cars in the road like the pixelated green frog from the ‘80s arcade game.

UTA records indicate there were accidents and even a death on the busy street, prompting the school to construct three pedestrian bridges.

“It works,” Farris said.

Colleges across the country with major roads have implemented other solutions, from retaining walls in the middle of streets that make jaywalking difficult, to tunnels that run underneath busy streets.

TCU has explored ways to discourage jaywalking in the past. In October 2012, Fort Worth police announced they would begin writing tickets to students who walk across the street without using a traffic signal, according to the TCU student newspaper, TCU 360.

Andrews said the school doesn’t plan to involve Fort Worth police this year because “we have enough TCU officers to monitor the situation.”

And the options being weighed by the consulting firm, he said, include adding bump outs — an extension of the curb that decreases the distance of crosswalks — and pedestrian beacons, which are traffic devices that alert drivers to pedestrian crossings with flashing lights.

These actions could help ensure “students, faculty and staff have safe passage all over campus,” he said.

Seniors Sarah Schloeman and Tyler Grijalva, who are dating, said the problem has gotten incrementally worse each year as total enrollment has grown. Many students will crack jokes about the issue on Twitter, the 21-year-old students said, such as saying they could get their tuition covered if they get struck by a car.

The near-daily clash of students and cars is well-known across campus and the butt of countless jokes, they said.

But they know it can be an infuriating problem, in part because it seems so unavoidable.

“Long story short, this is the residential side, that’s academic,” Schloeman said, motioning toward the east and west sides of University Drive. “So you have to get over there.”

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Jack Howland is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. Before coming to the Star-Telegram in May 2019, he worked for two and a half years as a breaking news reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.