South Lamar is getting a pedestrian beacon across from the Bird's Barber Shop/Black Sheep Lodge retail strip just south of Oltorf:
This is one of the few places along South Lamar that has steady pedestrian traffic. The reason it has decent pedestrian traffic is that there is not nearly enough parking on-site, so people park in the CVS/Office Depot parking lot across the street and walk over. Some people walk down to Oltorf to cross at the light but others just jaywalk. Black Sheep Lodge patrons are particularly prone to jaywalk at night, which can be harrowing for both jaywalkers and drivers.
The City is adding a crossing at more or less the exact spot where walkers jaywalk. As a bonus, the beacon will neatly connect two major bus stops, saving riders a long, roundabout walk.
This is, without question, a clear improvement over existing conditions. I wrote about the need for a crossing in this area back in 2007, before the retail center had fully developed.
It is nonetheless the wrong improvement.
It's a mistake to install a pedestrian beacon mid-block when there is an intersection close by. Pedestrian crossings should be placed to maximize their "coverage" -- that is, the number of places within a short walk. A pedestrian beacon placed at the midpoint of a street serves fewer linear feet of street than a traffic signal placed at an intersection: a traffic signal provides good service to both the cross street and the main street; the mid-block beacon mainly just serves the main street. Plus, a traffic light yields two crossings of the main street for the price of one, to wit:
Oxford Avenue intersects South Lamar just 250 feet to the south of this beacon. A traffic light there would create two crossings of South Lamar, serve a wider stretch of South Lamar, and better serve pedestrians walking down Oxford.
There is certainly proven demand for a crossing at more or less the exact spot chosen by the City. But it is also a mistake, I think, to chase ephemeral retail foot traffic with permanent infrastructure. Businesses, even popular ones, don't last forever. What happens if the Brown Elk Inn opens down the street and puts the Black Sheep Lodge out of business? The City will be left with a pricey beacon in an awkward spot. It's better to place infrastructure where it makes the most sense geometrically.
We shouldn't discount the interests of drivers, either. A light at the Oxford Avenue intersection would also make South Lamar more accessible to drivers from the Zilker neighborhood. The pedestrian beacon will make the street less accessible to them, because the beacon will cause frequent backups that block the Oxford intersection. The result will be more internal vehicle traffic in the Zilker neighborhood as drivers head for W. Mary, which has a signalized intersection.
A final point. There are lot of people in town who really don't like the pedestrian-friendly stuff the City has been doing lately. I'm not one of them, but they're out there. There is a limited amount of political capital to spend on pedestrian improvements, particularly improvements that seriously inconvenience drivers. Drivers don't blame pedestrians for traffic lights. But some do blame pedestrians -- or woolly-headed planning, or Agenda 21, or whatever -- for pedestrian beacons.
I'm all for using pedestrian beacons where they make sense, even if they make some suburban drivers mad. It is unwise, however, to fritter away political capital installing beacons in places they don't make much sense. Just put in traffic lights like a normal city and move on to the next project.