Speed, safety at odds on Tree Streets

Sue Guinn Legg • Feb 11, 2013 at 9:55 AM

It’s been nearly 20 years since residents of Johnson City’s Tree Streets first petitioned the city for traffic calming devices to slow speeding drivers in their neighborhood.

Kate Zimmerman is a West Maple Street resident whose dog was killed last weekend by a speeding driver who came dangerously close to her as well. She said despite the extensive traffic engineering that has been accomplished, the consistent police presence in the neighborhood and the ongoing efforts of the Southside Neighborhood Organization, speeding drivers continue to put her family, her neighbors, their children and their pets at risk.

“The side mirror brushed my jacket. It missed my van by millimeters,” Zimmerman said of the car that struck and killed her 9-month-old border collie, Honey.

It was Friday night and Zimmerman and her husband were unloading groceries at the back of their van. “She was right there, one foot away from me. My husband said something and I had looked up at him on the steps. I heard a car coming but it came so fast. Just like that it zipped by us.”

Zimmerman, a veterinarian, jumped toward Honey. Her husband followed, fearful that she too had been hit. And neither of them got a good look at the vehicle.

“By the time we looked, all we saw were taillights speeding away and then they turned right onto University Parkway. I think they actually sped up,” she said. Honey died en route to the clinic and an officer told them later that a police report would do no good without a description to work with.

“My son’s birthday was Saturday and he was at his grandma’s while we went shopping for his party. Otherwise my son would have been right there. I can’t tell you how many times my little boy has stood in that exact same spot.”

The couple requested extra speed enforcement but Zimmerman conceded, “I honestly don’t know what more they can do.”

“There are police cars on our street all the time. They park. They cruise. They bike past in the summer. I don’t know how many police officers they can put on the Tree Streets but speeding is a horrible issue.”

Beyond the loss of their dog, Zimmerman said speeding on the Tree Streets is “a bigger issue” and one the neighborhood organization continues to address. “It’s a residential neighborhood. We all have kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews. We have pets. We visit. We walk across the street and sit on each other’s porches. Why should we have to live in abject fear of the street we live on?” she said.

In addition to the organization’s petitions for traffic calming devices, which sometimes succeed and sometimes fail to meet qualifications, SNO President Jodi Jones said the neighborhood succeeded in convincing the city to reduce the speed limit to 25 mph.

“The police have told us even that is too fast. And it feels fast when you’re driving. It’s street parking and with the cars parked on the side and with children, it’s a problem. We discussed asking them to lower it to 15, but we decided it would be too difficult. Fifteen is pretty slow,” Jones said.

“They come through here at 40 and 50. It’s consistent. And with the school year, there’s a lot of energy that comes into our neighborhood. That calms down as the year goes on but it’s not resolved, not by any means. It still goes on. There are quite a few children and dogs, and a lot of us who scooter and bike our kids to school at South Side and go out and scooter and bike and jog around during the evenings. We teach our kids to look but it’s hard when they come so fast.”

SNO member Lisa Orr grew up on the Tree Streets and as a child was hit by cars twice, once on Maple and once near South Side School. “It’s a problem. They fly,” she said.

“We have an ER physician — who has a 2-year-old — who walked to every one of the fraternities and talked to them about speeding. We have a new couple who have two little children who said if they had known how bad it is, they would have never moved here.”

While speeding is a regular topic at SNO meetings, Orr said her fear is “someone will have to die” before the problem is remedied. Stepped up enforcement on West Walnut Street and University Parkway funnels more traffic onto the residential streets, she said. And SNO petitions for more speed bumps often fail, either because a resident is opposed or the data gathered in traffic studies falls short of the qualifications.

Anthony Todd, Johnson City’s traffic engineering manager, said the city’s traffic calming program “works on request of the neighborhood” and is not imposed on anyone who objects. “South Side was the first neighborhood we did and it’s probably the first in the state,” he said.

“When we get a request, we measure the speeds. There are a lot of nuances. They have to do with speed and we also look at the accidents. There has to be a percentage above the thresholds.”

Most recently, the city approved a new speed bump for the 800 block of West Pine Street that will be installed this spring. The 700 block of Pine was also studied but did not meet qualifications.

“Speed humps installed where the majority of traffic is not speeding doesn’t achieve much,” Todd said. As for the lower speed limit, he said 15 mph is not feasible. “Twenty-five is feasible if people will drive 25. And there are some drivers you can’t control, even with speed humps.”

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