Comment of the Day: Sorry, But Houston’s Never Gonna Be Walkable

COMMENT OF THE DAY: SORRY, BUT HOUSTON’S NEVER GONNA BE WALKABLE “Unlikely Houston will ever have the density or transit similar to the world’s great urban centers. The inner loop would have to triple in density (current average 5-8k/sq.mi), just to start on that path. Houston is growing, but I don’t see the population tripling any time soon. Think about how many housing units would be required; where would they go? In the predominantly single family neighborhoods? At best, the current trend will continue for a few more years until growth plateaus, and we’ll see Houston basically as it looks now; houses with occasional 4-8 story apt. blocks, maybe reaching ~10k density in some areas, but never the 20k+ necessary for real walkable neighborhoods. Also, the heat and humidity. That’s never going away.” [outtahere, commenting on Comment of the Day: Downtown Orthodontia] Illustration: Lulu

46 Comment

  • You don’t need a Ph.D in Urban Planning from M.I.T. to know this, all you need to to have observed other similar sunbelt cities, like say: Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix,–Houston will and has developed in a pattern similar to all these cities–compare Houston to Atlanta not New York or Chicago–

  • This is Texas, not China. Houston will sprawl out to Columbus and Huntsville before that kind of density is seen.

  • Excellent point, outtahere! If walkability is what we insist on, then we’ll have to placate ourselves by driving to those great islands of walkability known as shopping malls.
    In all seriousness, Houston’s density being what it is, I still think our efforts would be best spent making Houston more bicycle friendly. This would give us a viable alternative to the car, with a lot less work… And it’s a great way to stay in shape. :-)

  • Density is a factor, but not the only factor. Nor is weather.

    Some very dense cities are not walkable – LA for example actually has a denser urban core than Chicago, but is much less walkable.

    And some not-so-dense cities are walkable. New Orleans has a less dense urban core (centering on the French Quarter) than Houston does, but is delightfully walkable. As for heat and humidity, New Orleans has us beat there, too.

    So how is not-so-dense New Orleans more walkable than very dense L.A.? Part of the answer is history. New Orleans flourished in the 19th century, when cities were built walkable. Houston flourished in the late 20th century, when walkability was last on people’s minds. But I would suggest two other factors: creativity, and a desire to be walkable. If Houston wants to be walkable, my suggestion would simple be to start walking. We have the power to shape our own destiny. The 21st century can be a walkable century.

  • Comment above should read “L.A. and Houston flourished in the late…” etc.

  • I think the commenter is conflating walkability and density. There are already regions of the city which are highly walkable and not terribly dense.

    Making Houston a walkable city only requires that we support and encourage pedestrian traffic and that we do not continue to build impediments to it.

  • Houston will never be New York or London, because it is Houston. The same way I will never be a raven because I am a man; nor will the raven ever be a man because it is a raven. Yet we can’t sit and ignore that cities – like humans or ravens – evolve and change over time.

  • True–I was born in New Orleans and lived near Tulane until I was 10 and we moved to Houston–New Orleans is more humid and muggy than Houston yet people walk, they don’t go on and on and on about the humidity, they just walk, be it in the Quarter, Garden District, Uptown, Audubon Park etc–So many people in Houston just won’t walk anywhere, they bitch about having to walk from Neimans to the parking garage–it’s absurd–parts of Houston are very walkable –River Oaks, Southampton, West U, Tanglwood, yet you are so few walking at all–people always talk about making the city more walkable, but if the populous wont walk to their car from the grocery store (valet is a must you see) then what difference does it make

  • I should have added (but deleted) Houston was of course at one time very walkable, and had a well run and maintained transit system. To ignore that part of our history is ignorant. And even the most walkable big cities have areas where walk-ability is lower. To think Houston will never have density is absurd. There is a limit to happiness and distance from work/school/entertainment.

    And while it is hot in mid-May through mid-September, from mid-September through mid-May it is very pleasant to walk here. You can’t ignore that it is very cold and dreary in places like NYC and Chicago from late-November through April.

  • Walkability is so 18th century, we are civilized now and have amazing technology that will get each individual person from their house to any destination they desire within the city in mere minutes.

  • To much land in TX for that ever to happen. Next!

  • Walkability is a fairly vague concept. I live within 20-30 minute walks of hosts of businesses, granted, not one of them cool or local. Nevertheless, my neighborhood has a mediocre walkability score. How far is considered ‘walkable?’ Maybe it’s a more complicated algorithm.

  • I too am originally from NOLA and we don’t ever walk anywhere, we “saunter.”

  • I had a follow-up comment in the source thread. I think the three ingredients of a great urban neighborhood are walkability, density, and transit. You can have each in isolation, but the experience that people are increasingly willing (desperate?) to pay for is the mix of all three. The target of my comment — inner-loop Houston — has the most potential but has yet to realize this, if 1) it is the goal Houston wants to realize and 2) if it can be accomplished at all on a generational time scale.
    A few neighborhoods in Houston outside-the-loop hit 15-30k density, but their walkability is compromised by a suburban development pattern: wide streets with fast traffic and few sidewalks, large single-use parcels and owners, strip-mall development, no shade and poor sidewalks, and no plans for fixed route transit (BRT or LRT). Some were happily developed in this model as a short-term solution to the housing needs of Houston’s first bubble, and transitioned to their current high density by increasing household size. Additionally, in many places the pattern is mixed — large high density apartments, bounded by single family neighborhoods… making it even harder to increase the surrounding density to match, and creating political obstacles to increased transit. So, you find these parcels of very high density that weren’t built on traditional urban walkable scales and with amenities such as small pocket parks, mixed use blocks, etc. Houston is hardly unique in this pattern — LA, Silicon Valley, etc.
    I also use slightly larger aggregates when I look at neighborhoods; individual census tracts the size of a block or two can hit very high densities (60-100k) due to single use, but not reflect the larger neighborhood. On this scale, the highest density is Gulton ~30k, a few ~20k areas near the Beltway and perhaps Pasadena, etc.
    I’d love to hear people’s comments about increasing the walkability of these originally suburban style developments. Breaking down block and lot sizes as apartments are rebuilt over the years? Increasing sidewalk shade and protection from traffic? BRT service, with possible upgrade to LRT? Decreased commercial parking requirements?

  • And FYI, I walk and use transit every day. I know how hot it is :)

  • Midtown is walkable. Montrose is walkable. Grocery, restaurants, bars, parks all mixed in with residential means that people can walk if they want to.

    With all the breakneck development and rent increases in those areas, I’d guess people in Houston want to live in walkable neighborhoods. You know what comes next? increased density and more complaints about valet.

  • Houston may never rival NYC or Chicago for transit or walkability. But if we get half the density can we expect at least half the walkability / transit? Instead of just giving up and not building any transit / bike paths, etc – we should at least try the best we can to support making Houston as pedestrian friendly as possible. Nobody is suggesting we will be like NYC. Although I do think at some point Houston will require grade separated mass transit (not current HOV system).

  • Things are changing rapidly in Houston. The 1st Ward will look like Rice Military in about 5 years. Land will basically run out inside the loop for more townhomes. That will mean that midtown through downtown up to the possibly revived Hardy Yards project might end up being a very dense corridor if the developers don’t screw it up. There is plenty of land that is either ready to go or currently underutilized. Just remember that Houston’s boom is occurring during a very tepid and weak world economic recovery. If the economic picture just went from weak to good, Houston will bust at the seems.

  • Dear commonsense,
    The technology you refer to is only for those who can afford it.

  • I agree with outtahere in terms of the links between transit and walkability. It’s nice to be able to walk to shops and restaurants in my immediate neighborhood, but until I can walk to efficient transit (NOT the current bus system), get to another part of the city, and then walk to wherever I want to go, walkability will only go so far.

    My other thought is that walkability in residential areas will never really improve until they change the rules about individual property owners being responsible for maintaining the sidewalks in front of their houses. I’ve lived in Montrose and the Heights, both pretty walkable neighborhoods theoretically, but the residential sidewalks are in such poor repair that most people walk in the street.

  • Mike, I’d be interested to see the stats on Chicago having a less dense core than Los Angeles. Looking at a 10 mile radius from each city’s downtown, Los Angeles does have a higher population–about 3.66 MM to Chicago’s 2.70 MM. But Chicago accomplishes this on roughly half the land. (Los Angeles’ downtown is well over 10 miles from the Pacific.) Houston, on the other hand, only hosts approximately 1.37 MM people within 10 miles of its downtown. Some may be happy to know this is more than Dallas, at 1.19 MM.

    While walkability may be subjective, density is not. The feasibility of effective mass transit (and future walkability, etc.) lies in our ability to become as dense as Los Angeles. Sunbelt, sprawling Los Angeles.

  • The big problem is some Houstonians don’t understand the value of mass transit. Afton Oaks have for the last 30 years insisted that the monorail and now the light rail skip around them. Fear of who rides the transit drove those decisions. Even if you can’t use the rail/bus for every trip, doesn’t make it any less important. Why should I have to drive 4 miles to the Galleria from the museum district? Why should anyone not be able to take the rail to the airport? Imagine if you knew it would always take 25 minutes to get to the airport. The cab business would boom if they could drop or pick us up at a downtown station.

    In addition, we have so many transplants from other dense cities that understand what walk ability is that it is coming to many pats of
    Houston whether you like it or not. Not every neighborhood will have it, but those that do will see dramatic increases in value, feeding upon itself for even more density. Allen Parkway will be the first to be lined with mid/high rises. After that, Hermann Park will build up. This next decade wil transform this already great city.

  • @Kyle, if you can’t afford a car, you also can’t afford to live in any of today’s walkable neighborhoods.

  • Everytime they knock down a semi-abandoned 50+ year old home in the Heights or wearhouse off Washington and in it’s place build 6 three-story townhomes built a foot from each other if not touching brings us that much denser. The city is becoming denser but it will never reach the levels of New York and London and quite honestly the infrastructure isn’t designed for it anyway. Existing business and residential centers are built too far apart for it really to be practical for people to concentrate excessively into ever more expensive property ignoring the limitless land around. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proponent of increasing Houston’s density and think it needs to happen and is happening. I am just predicting the equilibrium is somewhere in between current Houston and New York and not anywhere’s near either extreme.

  • There can be a lot of confusion around walkability. While density can certainly make a significant contribution to walkability, it has to be designed in the right manner, especially the street design and block sizes (as noted by outtahere above). Once density gets to be pretty high, especially if combined with well-patronized transit, people arriving on foot can start to become the primary market for a retail establishment. BUT you really need a WHOLE LOT of people living/working/using transit in one spot for that to happen. (See: downtown tunnels.)

    That said, you can have walkability even when density is just moderate. Small town downtowns are walkable even though most folks arrive by car. Many commercial neighborhoods in streetcar suburbs built before 1950 are this way. What makes them walkable: comfortable street design (sorry but 40 mph is too fast), frequent safe pedestrian street crossings, ample sidewalks in good condition, pedestrian-oriented buildings that aren’t separated by big parking lots, on-street parking (what Houston lacks in too many places), decent night lighting, and relatively small block sizes. Houston has subsets of these features in numerous places but the whole package is very rare – 19th @ Rutland, Rice Village (mainly just strip malls mushed together), Harrisburg @ 67th, the Historic District downtown, and the main gay bar area in Montrose (awful or nonexistent sidewalks though and lacking night lighting) come close, plus of course Bagby @ Gray. Hence developers building them from scratch (West Ave, River Oaks District, CityCentre etc.) to satisfy demand.

  • Sure Houston can have whatever walk ability it wants – just change the laws and regulations regarding setbacks, codes, and corridors, and soon enough you’d have a replica of the latest and greatest “cool city.”

    But that would reek of goalseeking, something many purported walkable cities are probably guilty of.

  • As noted above, there are neighborhoods in Houston that are plenty walkable.
    How much of the confusion is that people are comparing the whole of Houston to the most walkable sections of other cities, you know the places you actually visit when you go to a city. Or, it is the only part that you remember because it was the only memorable part. I have never been to a city that wasn’t walkable, but that is because when I visit a city I only visit/remember the walkable areas*. New Orleans would win that competition hands down because I have only spent time there in the French Quarter/Downtown.
    There is a whole hell of a lot of New York MSA that is not walkable.
    If I had any out of towners ever visit me they would think that Houston was ridiculously walkable/dense because we would spend all our time in Montrose/Midtown/Downtown.

    *Dallas is the only city I have been to that I don’t love, but that is because when I go to Dallas I go to the suburbs.

  • Houston is booming and developing as it should…in its own way. Unlike some other cities, I appreciate that Houston has never been a city trying to be some other city. That’s what’s great about different cities, the fact that they’re all different.

    Planners/developers in land-locked more dense cities would kill for all the space Houston has for continued development. Similarly, while Houston (like many other Sunbelt cities) does endure a couple months of extreme heat/humidity, other Northern cities have to endure the opposite: extreme frigidity and biting cold for several months: who wants to walk in that?

    However, while I admire Houston’s proud originality and authenticity, the city is tardy for the party on rail and shows its ignorance for not having it; especially the excuses given, as there is no excuse for Houston not to have MetroRail lines in place in every direction from DT to just OTL (Outside The Loop). Once OTL, commuter rail should pick up to whisk commuters further throughout the city, to its soon to be 2 international airports, and its booming suburbs (The Woodlands, Kingwood, Clear Lake, Cypress/290, Sugar Land, Katy.

    What are you afraid of Houston? Rail won’t bite and having is not trying to be like New York or wherever. Having it is necessary and paramount for Houston to continue to thrive and to be taken seriously. Long-term, not having it could stop Houston’s boom in its tracks (or lack there of).

    While Houston is booming and building all these towers and developments, it’s 30 years past due that the city get serious and realistic and lay some tracks. For a city this gigantic, it looks stupid not having a world-class rail system. Houston is great, but rail is where it fails.

  • Density is not an issue concerning walkability. There are two major factors: 1) adequate pedestrian infrastructure (meaning nice sidewalks, which we do NOT have for the most part)and
    2) developments catered to the pedestrian. This means that retail outlets would be developed with entrances up on the sidewalks with the massive parking lots behind. If those things changed instantly, all else being equal, Houston would be extremely walkable.

  • Two walkable neighborhoods, originally built as suburbs, are Memorial Bend and Fonn Villas. Residents can, and do, walk to Town & Country Village as well as City Centre. Bendwood Park is nearby, along with several nearby churches. IMO the number and variety of amenities are better then most walkable areas of Midtown, The Heights, Oak Forest, and Montrose.

  • There has to be some type of policy process for discovering what type of walk ability Houstonians would prefer.

    This would be in contrast to simply replicating some other city’s concept of walk ability with that as the predefined goal already in mind.

  • Walking is over rated. Houston is better than any place else. Whatever we are doing here is working. Just keep it up.

    Yes, this is coming from a native New Yorker who has travelled the world.

  • Its simple. You dont need to have density to have walkability, but you need necessity. Density provides necessity, just like transportation limitations did pre-1900s.

  • Folks, walkability is not simply the ability to walk places (although that’s certainly a big part of the equation). There have to be places worth walking to. Where I used to live (I know–don’t talk about other cities), I could easily walk to work, the grocery store, parks, a river, a museum, the dry cleaners, bars, restaurants, clothing stores, hair salon. What I couldn’t reach by foot, I could by train or bus. We saved the car for long trips or when we had to pick up really big stuff (that couldn’t be delivered). The point is, the city was designed around pedestrians. Parking on the street (which keeps the speed down) or in the back, street-level entrances, buildings scaled for the pedestrian. These are things that made it fun. It didn’t matter that sometimes it was 10 degrees out, or that there was ice on the ground (and trust me, it’s easier to walk on ice than to drive on it). Nor did it matter that it was sometimes 100 degrees.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that walkability is a way of life. One that I don’t see too many around here in any rush to embrace (although in the words of Dr. Suess, ‘Try it, try it and you may’). So, I go on my merry way, walking around Houston as best I can, knowing that people shake their head at the crazy lady. I’ve been called worse.

  • You density Kool Aid drinkers are a lot like the global warming/climate change clowns.

    Agenda 21 anyone?

  • #29, mfastex gets it right. Change the code, and you change the city.

  • @#35: I guess the “market” is drinking the Kool Aid then, because that’s what is driving the density increases. Density isn’t very friendly to driving, and even less friendly to parking. Thus while density isn’t necessary for walkability (see my earlier post), walkability certainly helps adapt to density.

    Or do people think that preserving “easy drive, easy park” is so important that we artificially stop densification, through government intervention? Should infrastructure changes to enhance walkability be prohibited because of the same desire (“Oh no, you’ll slow down traffic and I might have to pay to park a couple blocks away. Horrors!”)?

  • The biggest deterrent to walkability in Houston isn’t the heat or the distances.

    It’s the broken up pavement, fragmented sidewalks, pits of mud, and pools of water. Or the absence of any sidewalks at all. And this (unlike heat or distance) is a solvable problem.

  • infilltered,

    You make a good point about L.A. vs. Chicago due to the lake factor, but L.A. is still far more dense (almost twice) than Washington, D.C., which is quite a walkable city (and I think 5 mile radius is more useful here). Houston will not have to become as dense as L.A. to be a walkable city. Did you read the part in my comment about New Orleans?

  • Agree with #38, I live in the Heights and just this weekend I tried walking 6 blocks with my son in a stroller to the park on 12th and Yale — It was like an offroad exhibition with all the instances of broken pavement, overgrown weeds, in one place on Yale St a tree root had upturned the pavement with like a 70degree slope… So of course people would walk more if they had confidence that going from A to B would have a reliable sidewalk… In houston, there are definitly many factors that would help it become more walkable, and fixing sidewalks is just one of them, albeit an important one…

  • Can we just widen some sidewalks please? Houston has some of the most narrow sidewalks, even in its “walkable” areas.

  • You know, a few years ago the city actually had a “sidewalks to code” or some such named program where they went in and repaired sidewalks on certain streets. The north side of Pecore was one street that stands out in my mind. Don’t know what happened to that. I think it was started by Bill White; maybe Mayor Parker wasn’t a fan.

  • Well Google is my friend…it’s called the ” safe sidewalks program” by the Public Works Department. It’s still in operation. The criteria are “Thoroughfares lacking safe passage for pedestrians.
    Areas around shopping centers, bus stops and other frequently traveled routes”. Quoted from the city website.

  • I think a great example of a potentially walkable area is Westheimer between Woodhead
    and Montrose. However, as others have mentioned, in many areas it lacks wide and or smooth sidewalks, shade in many parts, a broad enough mix of retailers (not everyone wants vintage clothes and furnishings or just wants to drink coffee or booze). I live close by and besides going to Brasil or Anvil, there is nothing of interest to make me want to amble about.

  • Oh fer Pete’s sake. Enough of this topic. I’ve lived in quiet upstate New York, suburban Boston, almost-downtown Philly and rural Illinois. I did lots of walking, biking and commuter bus & train-riding during the first few decades of my life. At one time it was a daily occurrence. I moved to Houston 12 years ago. (Just after Allison). AND I HAVE NOT BEEN OUTDOORS ONCE, NOT EVEN BY ACCIDENT. Nor am I going to start. Y’all are insane if you think I’m going outside. Now stop it and move on to another subject.

  • @ShadyHeightster: methinks this program gets utilized when there is a threat of an ADA lawsuit. The corner on my block–and some of the others on the street–were redone a year or so ago. (Of course, some were done below grade and flood.) There was zero done to fix the actual sidewalks, however, so people still walk in the streets.