Comment of the Day: Houston’s Primary Unit of Measure

COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOUSTON’S PRIMARY UNIT OF MEASURE The Measure of Freeways“Unfortunately it will take much more than sprucing up Buffalo Bayou Park to make Houston a more pleasant place. The big problem is that for most people in Houston, the only way to get to a nice place like BBP is the only way you can get anywhere — by car. And that fact alone will take years of political will, planning, and hard work to change. And as long as it doesn’t change, Houston will remain what it is currently: a road system that people sleep and work around. The primary datum in a place like NY is the human body. Planning with the human body as the primary reference point generally makes for a pleasant place for people. Here in Houston, the primary unit of reference is the automobile, as such Houston primarily accommodates cars, not people. Scale matters. Infrastructure (such as sidewalks, small neighborhood parks, bike lanes, rails, etc) matters. Buffalo Bayou Park is a nice place because it is designed for people. Houston on the other hand . . . In terms of civic amenities and property values, ‘you can’t have both’ only in the market as it currently exists. We ought to be able to have a decent city and also live in it, but that can’t happen until we decide to decide that enough’s enough and begin actually planning our city. There are people and institutions in Houston working hard to that end, but so far they are too much ‘a voice in the [civic] wilderness.’ I’m optimistic though. I see people noticing what makes a nice city, where our shortcomings are, and working toward implementing necessary changes.” [Andrew, commenting on Comment of the Day: The Buffalo Bayou Park Pinch] Illustration: Lulu

9 Comment

  • THE CAR STAYS. Houston, just like with no zoning will manage and build it’s city that’s it’s city and everything else will work.

  • Point well taken, but let’s not forget that the vast overwhelming majority of houstonians live in low-density areas way outside of the range of affordability/efficiency for the mass transit you’re identifying. Most all have made this decision as a matter of choice and lifestyle factors, not because of economics. We also lack centralized commuting patterns further decreasing the cost effectiveness of mass transit options. What percentage of Houston’s office market is even inside the loop? What percentage is even serviced by mass transit?
    It’s important to remember that it’s not political will, planning and hard work that build the best mass transit systems, it’s density and money; two areas that we’re sorely lacking in. Just because we want something better doesn’t mean we should ignore how good we already have it.
    Personally, as a middle income family I love Houston the way it is as I can actually afford to live neartown and close to the best amenities with some lifestyle sacrifices. In every other american city with high mass transit utilization and access to similar income ranges I would be barred from living anywhere close to the same level of amenities.
    Again, I can fully understand the push for mass transit, but with so much of the inner loop wrecked by poor schools and economic segregation we have many other options and tools at hand to decrease commuting times and increase standards of living. Buses work and we could use a lot more of them before going broke on rail. I’m still optimistic for a self-driving car revolution as well.

  • I agree completely. I will say that since Gilbert Garcia has been running METRO, there have been (small), but major shifts in the way this city thinks about getting from point A to B. But he and the METRO board cant do it alone. TxDOT, HGC, HCTRA, COH, Harris and surrounding counties need to come together to really plan a region that isn’t stifled by highways clogged all throughout the day. After TxDOT expands 45 North and the Gulf Freeway and adds the 288 managed lanes the last highway project should be the SW Freeway. All other highways are at maximum expansion! The bus network revamp, extended HOT/HOV hours and more Park & Rides under construction are great starts to reducing the number of cars on the road. But if you ask me the only way to truly get cars off the road is to take a lane off of each side of a highways feeded road and place train tracks, run the trains every 10 min and have large Transit Center/Garages at the stations so that people can leave their cars! have these trains also have stations at the junctions of the highways so that people don’t have to go all the way to a central station! But that’s just my honest solution

  • A great comment and right on the money. Houston also needs to take the reins of community building instead of letting developers drive that bus. Subdivisions/neighborhoods are currently created by private developers without any thought to how they relate to adjacent communities, resulting in islands of development unconnected to each other in any meaningful way. How many times have we seen major roads come to a dead end because there’s a subdivision/office park/whatever right in the way? Houston’s lack of long-range regional planning (and no, I don’t mean zoning) is now coming home to roost, and I only hope it’s not too late to change direction. And for God’s sake, when will we end our love affair with automobiles and learn that more and wider roads are not a solution but rather an incentive for even further sprawl??

  • excellent writeup – objective and truthful. cheap land and a relative dearth of natural beauty compared to other parts of the country empower the developer class as the de facto city planning department. add the largely conservative population into the mix and the city’s lean upon the automobile has grown generationally heavier. finally, some progressive moves to create public amenities like BBP start to appear. hopefully, city leaders understand the promotion of excellent public spaces isn’t merely respite from the sprawling concretization, but essential components to quality-of-life invaluable to long-time residents and those yet to come.

  • Houston can’t change its essence for the same reason that New York City can’t: legacy infrastructure. My personal opinion is that if either city were hypothetically flattened and all of its legacy infrastructure and titles records were erased from history and it were rebuilt in the same location with modern technology, that 1) each city would probably be a lot smaller, their geographic advantages relating to deep water ports having been diminished and their legacy wealth having been erased as well, and that 2) if political leadership was sufficiently strong then they’d probably both look a lot more like The Woodlands or some other major master-planned community if and when rebuilding began in earnest.

    The thing is, that’s where the technology that we have leads us and its ALSO where future technology is likely to take us. Roads (i.e. flat open linear surfaces) are incredibly versatile. You can walk on them, run on them, rollerblade on them while being pulled by a harnessed dog, cycle on them, push a baby’s stroller on them, motorcycle on them, drive a car on them, be driven by a car on them, carpool and vanpool on them, ride in a bus on them, deliver massive quantities of goods from trucks that use them — and at least as an idea asserted by Paul McCartney, you could even “do it” in the road provided that nobody is really watching. There’s only one thing that you can do well with a given set of train tracks or other forms of dedicated rights-of-way, so such plans must be entered into only after great deliberation. You could max out investment in transit infrastructure and essentially none of it matters if you don’t have roads. You couldn’t even build transit without roads and people couldn’t use transit without roads to get them the ‘last mile’. No matter what kind of policy is given regarding the use of roads, a city must finance its roads. One could argue, as I would, that transit only exists to serve roads; yes, even in New York City, which had roads before it had transit.

    That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I think that everything is just hunky dory about our transportation policy. Quite the contrary, I happen to believe that vehicle registration costs should be sufficiently high to cause somebody to think twice about whether they really need a car and about how many cars they need and where they should live. Tolls need to be established down to the level of the collector street that would cause somebody to seriously reconsider going downtown during the morning rush hour; but also not have to worry particularly about going to their neighborhood grocery store on a Sunday and that would pay entirely for both the roads as well as the transit that benefits the use of the roads as well as that people that forego having many cars can rely on to make that decision viable.

  • I think cars are awesome. I’m thrilled to live in a city built for cars. I was born in NYC. Still have family there. Getting around NYC (and San Francisco, and lots of other places) is a pain in the ass.

    Self driving cars are coming. Mass transit in Houston will be INSANELY better when we can remove the cost of a driver from the equation. When you don’t have to drive your own car AND vehicle based mass transit becomes SUPER convenient, getting around Houston will be a breeze. Our current choo-choo train tracks will be ripped up just like they were the first time clueless Houston politicians built a rail system.

  • Everyone, please don’t forget General Motors, with Washington’s help, intentionally dismantled last century’s street-car status quo.
    Tomorrow’s self-driving car (if feasible) will also require corporate and government help (collusion?) Plus we’ll still have to pay for continual roadway maintenance while the city grows horizontally. How dumb!
    If any one of us was raised with streetcars & subways we would accept them as normal and ideal. Instead we vote for Every person for himself, It’s my right to carry my 100 SF of personal space with me everywhere I go!

  • Give me a break. “The primary datum in a place like NY is the human body. Planning with the human body as the primary reference point generally makes for a pleasant place for people.” This has got to be one of the most historically ignorant things I’ve ever seen anyone say. Before the automobile, NY was boundary limited as a matter of practicality. After the automobile, it expanded, because people who were previously crammed into low quality, high density, high crime, poor health areas *finally* had the opportunity to move somewhere better and still keep their jobs in the city. These days it is geographically and politically bounded, but there is nothing about it that was “planned with the human body in mind”. Houston was built on the personal freedom that cars provided, which allowed (and still does) people to move to places — and here’s the part city “planners” never seem to get — THEY PREFER TO LIVE.
    Find me this vaunted City Planner who has the ability to understand, predict and execute development based on the personal decisions of millions of people, and I will happily cede control to them, and take them out for a unicorn sandwich. Or, if you really want to level the playing field and give people the encouragement to move to places *you* think they should be moving, then eliminate school districts and let parents put their kids in any school, public or private, that they chose.
    Then again, I’m just one individual with peculiar ideas about where my family should live and how I want my kids to grow up, so obviously I am unqualified to make these decisions without some central authority telling me what’s best.