Comment of the Day: Fighting Tunnel Vision on Downtown’s Pedestrian Experience

COMMENT OF THE DAY: FIGHTING TUNNEL VISION ON DOWNTOWN’S PEDESTRIAN EXPERIENCE Downtown Tunnels“Get rid of the downtown tunnels? It seems that the purpose of increasing walkability is to improve the quality of downtown life. Forcing people outside into hot and humid summers will do little to improve life quality. The author could have as nonsensically suggested the banning of cars in the downtown area to improve walkability.” [Neil, commenting on ‘One Bin For All’ All But Dead; Signs of the Oil Rout in Houston] Illustration: Lulu

26 Comment

  • The fundamental problem with the downtown tunnels (like the parking lots / garages) is that they are designed and operated EXCLUSIVELY for use by downtown office workers, and by definition 99% of these people do not LIVE downtown; many of them don’t even in live in the city of Houston! The transportation and commercial infrastructure of a vibrant CBD should be able to support workers and residents without distinction, and the tunnel system unequivocally fails this test.

    I also disregard any claim that weather conditions dictate that we MUST use a tunnel system. We do not live in the Arctic or the Amazon with consistent weather 365 days per year. Cities of all sizes in all climates around the country and around the world have developed infrastructure to support residents and workers regardless of weather. If anything, Houston’s relatively warm year-round weather should be reason to move AWAY from the tunnel system; as in cities with extremely cold winters, many will seek to avoid going outside unless necessary during the 25% of the year when conditions are unbearable.

  • Native Houstonian here and I could not agree with you more. I cringe when I hear eliminating the tunnels as the solution to improve walkability and always puzzled by the recommendation.
    Personally, I welcome the tunnels, especially when it is raining or during those hot summer days. Improving walkability should mean creating more options and I can certainly agree with improving the tunnels, by incorporating street level openings, adding some natural light and creating an after 5 option would do wonders. Why does walkability have to mean only walking outside? The tunnels also keep pedestrians safe and mobile vs. stopping at intersections and battling cars, trains and bikes. They should add more connections to the tunnels and movable walkways that go beyond downtown. Imagine being able to choose to go up or down and visit the underground market then head over to the zoo on a warm Spring day.

  • AK: Not trying to argue, but what about the tunnels make them exclusively for workers?
    (then again, as I ask this, I realize I’ve never been in the tunnels)

  • Tunnel bashers decrying the accommodations for our ‘extreme’ climate conveniently ignore the Calgary +15 or Minneapolis Skyway as other similar infrastructure in cold ‘extreme’ climates

  • While the tunnel system does drain a bit of life from the surface streets during weekday hours from morning through midday, I really don’t think it makes much difference after 3:00 pm. If the same retail outlets in the tunnels were located at the surface, most would still close at 3:00. It is this way in many other CBDs where the office worker population vastly outnumbers the residential population. Even in downtown San Francisco, where I worked in the early 1990s, was eerily dead after 6:30 pm back then. Much of Chicago’s Loop is also dead in the evening, with dining and service places closed, even with all the residential growth that has occurred nearby in the last 15 years.
    People should also realize that the Class A office market in Downtown is also completely dependent on tunnel access – buildings not on the tunnels are not Class A.
    Other cities with tunnel systems similar to ours are Toronto, Minneapolis, and Montreal, due to cold weather conditions, though I’m not sure they’re all totally privately owned like ours. Montreal’s is world-famous and considered a bit of an attraction.

  • The tunnels ARE downtown Houston’s street life. There’s nothing wrong with that unless “street life” is a must-have buzzword to you.

  • @AK47 – I suppose you don’t work downtown or live there? I suppose you don’t wear wool or silk clothes to work? Have you ever worn a wool suit to for eight to ten hours every day between April 1 and October 30? I suppose you don’t have a dry cleaning bill or press your own clothes? The climate can hardly be considered mild if you meet any of those conditions. The tunnels are dead, long live the tunnels.

  • AK-87: Downtown office workers could live downtown if they wanted to. They don’t want to, so let them have their tunnels.
    I think we should just expand the tunnel system to include the rest of Houston. Connect it to the Galleria first, but eventually just move everyone underground. Then the surface can revert to the malarial swamp God intended for this region.

  • Banning cars from a city’s core is not an idea that should be dismissed out of hand (though the concept should probably be pitched under some more spiffy and uplifting moniker). Many European cities have done it or adopted a scheme that allows for some limited commercial traffic for delivery purposes only during certain hours. Houston, of course, is different, but pedestrian-and-cyclists-only streets should not be ruled out at least on a limited basis, such as the Main Street Corridor, for example, or one or two dedicated East-West streets to connect the Convention and Ballpark districts with Market Square and the Theater District. Not to mention that there is now East-West rail in addition to North-South…and that there is that free circulator bus (GreenLink), and that service is going to be expanded to evenings starting next month. So folks on foot will still have an alternative (such as for the trip back to their cars later in the night). The promotion of walking and utilization of public transport within Downtown might also entail the more efficient utilization of parking garages.
    GreenLink is currently under-utilized (only 900 riders per day says Eury, per HC). It should be promoted. It could serve to promote on-foot city exploration “lite” by taking visitors staying at Downtown hotels to places worth seeing (think hop-on-hop-off buses in cities that see many tourists) or worth having drinks and/or dinner at. And a critical mass of out-of-towners on the street would make streets more lively and appealing to locals likewise.
    The car-ban could be implemented on a trial basis on weekends. It shouldn’t be promoted as a car-ban, of course. Perhaps it could be done in an event-focused manner, e.g. a Walkers’ Weekend on Walker. A jogger’s day on Jefferson, etc. We regularly have runs, walks, Rodeo and other parades, all of which necessitate road closures. Why not build on that event-focused model?
    We also have a lot of construction that obstructs vehicle traffic, so it’s not the impediments to vehicular flow would be a new phenom. This one would be one with a higher purpose, one to be partaken of by all in the area (once you get them out of their cars).
    And as for the high temperature & humidity concern, that’s a serious problem for only part of the year.

  • Cody – the tunnels are only open Monday-Friday until 6:30 PM.

  • Jardinero – I do work there, and yes, frequently wear jackets, sweaters, and other clothes of varying materials (that I iron, press or dry clean at my own time and expense). I agree that going outside in warm weather while wearing such clothes is uncomfortable. I do not agree that we should make urban planning decisions around sartorial preferences (yours or mine).
    Memebag – until very recently, this was not really true (unless you took up at the Four Seasons or one of the few other random condo buildings). I don’t have a fundamental problem with having a tunnel system, but in the case of Houston, I think it prevents the sort of development that’s needed to support long term residential growth (that’s not massively subsidized at taxpayer expense). Ultimately it removes the opportunity for shops, restaurants, transit, etc., to serve both residents and workers, especially given the limited hours and lack of easy access from non-office entry points.

  • Anyone who uses the word ‘vibrant’ in a public policy debate should just be ignored.

  • @Cody: In addition to only being open during business hours, the tunnels are private property. Access to them and security is managed by the buildings above. They were built exclusively for employees working in those buildings. That’s why they aren’t swarming with homeless people.

  • @ Innerloop pedestrian -> are you kidding? The world today means I can’t discern sarcasm from delusion anymore. People are in downtown to put $$ in their pocket not for spoon fed urbanists to bask in people milling about them on the streets like its some sort of nirvana. “the car ban shouldn’t be promoted as a car ban of course” And yes, it should be dismissed out of hand. Maybe we should have super-delegate citizens to determine what the rest of us really want, or is that the Kinder group?

  • AK-87: People have always been able to live downtown. The demand has always been low, and I would blame cheap land farther out and good roads long before I would blame the tunnels. Plus I love the tunnels. They are one of the things that make Houston special.

  • Instead of “the tunnel system”, perhaps it should be relabeled the Houston Underground …. that might help create an after hour nightclub culture, quirky shops, etc …. something interesting for tourists to remember and something Houston is sorely lacking in this land of strip centers and dying mega-malls.

  • Until the city government gets over its hard on for cars and parking, these problems are going to persist.
    We have a commercial property in midtown that’s seen its opening delayed by MONTHS as we work on parking. And this place will only be open at night (when street parking around isn’t used much). It’s surrounded by new residential (meaning lots of people will walk there). There is a light rail stop just a few feet away (less need for cars). They’ve secured several valet spots around it. And it’s a few minutes from the existing dense walkable montrose/midtown.
    The hang up now? The city wants yet MORE parking before they can open. The tenants secured a lot that’ll give them the extra spots they need but it’s 50 or so feet too far from the building to be considered.
    Why is the city involved in this at all? If they don’t secure the parking the ‘need’ (based on market demand) they’ll have fewer customers. But if they’re customers don’t care about the parking, why should the city?
    This kind of stuff just encourages the car culture by insisting people support it. There are so many cool concepts that could be opened if the city didn’t demand so much paved wasted parking

  • The trouble with the tunnel system, to me as an architect, is its design. The ceilings are oppressively low. There’s no natural light. They retail is shoe-horned in. They’re really, as AK-87 suggests, just glorified access tunnels from garages to buildings. If I could change them, I wouldn’t close them. I’d open them up with high ceilings, and skylights.
    To what Cody said about parking. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I don’t understand why we can centralize stormwater detention with MUDs, but can’t do something similar with parking. Even if they still required parking, building owners could just buy into centralized parking garages. A letter of availability would be all you’d need to show the City to get the whole issue taken care of.

  • The Houston tunnels, as they currently exist, are a drain to street level commerce, that’s obvious since many food places could serve the wide public in the city streets as opposed to M-F 6am-6:30pm office workers. A great city should not only cater to office workers who mostly come in from the suburbs. It needs to serve locals by offering restaurants, galleries, cafe’s, parks, and public transport in its own downtown. A vibrant city needs to serve all its inhabitants and not just the few well off. I refer to ‘vibrancy’ here in the sense of exciting, stimulating, and lively which is what every world city’s downtown strives to be.
    BTW, Montreal has shopping tunnels, many of them have skylights, and most are at their STM metro stops. Those tunnels are also open on weekends. So comparing that network to Houston’s present office tunnels is not entirely accurate.

  • I use the tunnels because I can avoid crosswalks, which add quite a bit of time to my walks around downtown. If you walk 10 blocks, you will typically have to stop at least 5 times waiting for a crosswalk light – the tunnels are sometimes a more circuitous route, but not having to stop saves a few minutes.

  • @Cody. Have you ever thought of running for public office? Or maybe you could start a campaign to get these rules changed. You have an in depth knowledge of these issues that most of us don’t. I think you’d get a lot of support.

  • The Houston tunnel system is pretty unique to the south, right? Instead of removing, what about somehow integrating a better interface b/w tunnels and surface attractions? Don’t know how you achieve that, but it might be cool. \admittedly nubeish comment.

  • The condo where I live is connected to the tunnels. It makes it very easy for getting to and from work, home for lunch, etc. And during the rush hours I don’t have to worry about avoiding cars, delivery trucks, and unsightly “street people” hanging out around Main Street Square. I hope that many of these new residential developments downtown can be connected to the tunnel system.

  • @WR: For the tunnels to be open at night, the buildings above them would have to be open as well. The tunnels are owned by the buildings above them. Think of them as conveniently connected basements.
    @ZAW: Natural light? Skylights? These tunnels are located in Houston. They have a hard enough time keeping the flood waters out without adding skylights.
    @Quantum: Restaurants might serve the “wide public in the city streets” if there was such a thing, and maybe a bunch of sandwich shops would lure people downtown after closing time. But to do so they would have to be at street level during the day, and most people downtown during the day would rather be below street level.
    @Monstermash: That would be great if the tunnel system was owned or managed in some way by the city. It isn’t, though. It’s all private property, built to serve the people who work in the buildings above the tunnels.

  • The tunnels is about the dumbest idea for a city I’ve ever seen. The westside is a ghost town after 6 and on weekends. Imagine if we had all that stuff below ground on the street? Add a residential building here and there, and you have a real city. You would enjoy features like W Gray in midtown. That is what a thriving city should look like.

  • Say what you like, but I love the tunnels. I walk them many days at lunch with a headset. To do that above ground is a death wish and I’d need a shower to go back to work. What’s more I don’t have to worry about stepping in the cracks of the sidewalks and ruining my heels–not an issue for you guys. AND, I like not be panhandled. The few times that’s happened in the tunnel, I can and have contacted the private security guards for the building. It’s bad enough that the staircase from street level to my car smells like urine daily and has had human feces in it on several occasions. Oh, and yes, I live in the City, and I walk above ground to and from my garage, AND go outside on many occasions when I actually use my lunch hour to have lunch. I don’t understand why anyone thinks that it’s a problem to have them.