COMMENT OF THE DAY: DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT THE WEATHER “I lived in Washington, DC for 8 years and the typical Washington summer day is every bit as miserable as a Houston summer day. (There are somewhat fewer of them, of course.) And all summer, the streets were crowded with people walking. In the dead of winter, when it was 20 degrees out, the streets were full of people walking. The difference is that the city was built for walking; sidewalks rarely vanished mid block. Pedestrian crossings weren’t a mile apart. There were relatively few city streets eight lanes wide to get across. Obviously the central city density was a big part of that, but funny thing: people seem to actually like walking. Part of that time I lived in Arlington, VA, which is about like the Heights in density, and I thought nothing of walking 15 minutes up the street to the Metro station or the main boulevard where the shops and cafes and whatnot were. I also would regularly visit friends in Takoma Park, MD, another surburban-ish area, and . . . people walked. When I was in college in upstate NY, people walked (most students didn’t have cars on campus, because why would you have a car on campus). People walked 20 minutes downtown on subzero nights to go drinking. People trudged up the giant hill to campus in snow and wind. They could wait for the campus shuttle bus a lot of the time . . . but mostly they didn’t. They walked. There are very real reasons that people don’t walk as much in Houston, but the weather ain’t one of them.” [John (another one), commenting on Comment of the Day: Walking Is Not Native to Houston] Illustration: Lulu
I totally agree. In the area of Houston I lived in (MOntrose) I walked all the time. I also walk around a lot in San Diego due to the area of SD I live in. But I have friends that live in burbs and literally none of them walk anywhere.
So long as the city forces a car couture on us via non market based parking requirements, we’ll never have walk-first neighborhoods
I walked all the time, all over, when I was a freshman and sophomore in college. Then I stopped wanting to share a room, so it was driving time (actually bus time until I graduated). My point is that these people walking everywhere are likely making big sacrifices in other areas. Also, what is the point of this? To shame people for not walking when we do not have the infrastructure for it?
Agreed. I got amazed looks from my fellow managers at UH who once drove to a meeting on the other side of campus. They tried to convince me to join them in their car going back but I politely refused. Guess who got there first? People think they are saving time by driving, but for distances of less than a mile, traffic lights and parking use up any gain in velocity.
As far as recreation is concerned. I used to run and walk the Buffalo Bayou trails in the early 2000s and rarely saw anyone else who wasn’t a hard core runner or cyclist. Then they upgraded the trails, beautified the area, added some rental bikes, and now there are people running, cycling, and walking all the time.
Build it and they will come.
The point is to kill the dumb narrative that people don’t walk in Houston because of the weather so we shouldn’t bother to make our streets walkable.
Walking is a great democratic equalizer. You may need money to have a car, but you don’t to walk. You may walk because you can’t afford a car; you may walk because you like getting some exercise. You may walk because you like to see what’s happening around your home at human scale. You may walk because you enjoy bumping into neighbors.
I’m not sure what one gives up by walking. Excess weight?
And by the way – I’m shaming nobody. I don’t walk nearly as much as I used to, because walking in Houston (in any weather) is pretty suboptimal – because of the missing sidewalks, the freeway-wide streets, the lack of pedestrian crossings at reasonable intervals, etc.
I think adding Metrorail lines would help create at least a limited pedestrian culture. The trains run at a fast regularity that allows for getting on and off then walking to and from destinations nearby, whereas the buses require waiting at stops in the weather for periods of 15-30 typically. Plus the urban vibe of walking/training is more attractive to many.
All of the existing Metrorail lines have become fairly busy now but, with the rail network being so limited, the passengers are mostly “po folk”, not professionals.
@Dana-X Those Metrorail lines cost between $75-$100 million/mile to build, without any consideration for operating subsidies. I’d rather spend the money on better sidewalks.
@txcon – Those sidewalks take right of way access too, and too often sidewalks and electrical poles share the same ROW which causes a lot of funky barriers.
The big difference between summer weather in D.C. (compared to Houston) is that frontal boundaries tend to push through and off the the east coast on a regular basis all summer. This relaxes the high temps and the dewpoints every week or two.
This past summer (June through September) Washington National Airport – just across the river from the walkable paradise of the District – recorded 43 days with high temps 83 degrees or below and average dewpoints in the middle 60s. Absolutely pleasant weather.
Houston, on the other hand, recorded less than 6 (Hurricane Harvey) with average dewpoints in the middle 70s or above.
I hear you TXCON…sort of a chicken/egg deal here in Houston maybe…but there is a need for creative ways to get this infrastructure built.
One idea; BRT in Uptown is running something like $35 million a mile I’ve read. Metro’s driver payroll is something like $100 million a year (rough estimate). I think the advent of driverless buses, thus reducing payroll by X, could allow the X savings to be spent installing BRT, which could eventually be converted to rail if so desired using more X as it would increase each year. So eventually the city could be paved with rail paying for itself using payroll savings from driverless technology….in my layman’s theory.
You forget the winters. In Houston “winter” is very pleasant with only about two weeks of cold weather while Washington DC it is miserable most the time. Use the ENTIRE year, not just a select time to do comparisons
Spot on John (Another One), grew up in Houston but spent years in DC and Arlington working (off and on) for the feds and I have had the same experiences as you. Didn’t drive the car at all the last 18 months I was in Arlington and it was sitting in my parent’s garage when I moved back here. Weather is terrible in both cities so that is no excuse. One thing I would point out is that there is more sprawl in DC and northern Virginia then a lot of people realize, which is an even greater similarity to Houston, and that still does not stop people from walking and taking mass transit. Grew up in Sharpstown and lived in the Galleria are for years and rode METRO all the time. ..wife and daughter think I am insane when I ride METRO in from Kingwood on days I do not have to work weird shifts…although they may be right on days with two plus transfers.
“The point is to kill the dumb narrative that people don’t walk in Houston because of the weather so we shouldn’t bother to make our streets walkable.” — John (another), commenting up above
Listen, people can choose to walk or not walk. Even if you live in the most walkable part of Houston, you may choose to walk or not walk. But for those of us who choose to walk, I wish it was a) more accessible and b) SAFER (pedestrian safety is another soapbox rant, entirely). Having a walkable city makes the city attractive to visitors, too, many of whom can’t wrap their heads around Houston’s car dependency. Y’all can keep your cars and swear off walking….but that doesn’t mean you have to be against making the city walking accessible!!
No serious person would think that DC summers and Houston summers are comparable, but I see the point. Whether a city is walkable or not is largely a function of when the city was built. Cities like DC that were mostly built out before 1940 are walkable because most people did not have cars pre WWII. These cities were planned with centralized rail/subway systems that made it possible to get anywhere with a train ride and a 10-15 min walk. Cities like Houston that were mostly built out after 1940 are not walkable because everyone had cars. They have no centralized rail system and riding the bus is no convenience because you have to stop all the time are are mixed in with the rest of traffic. Plus, what good is public transportation when you get dropped off on Westheimer outside the loop and have to cross 8 lanes of traffic to get to the other side of the street. Add to all this the fact that the majority of Houstonians grew up in the suburbs and are accustomed to driving everywhere. So, when they move inside the loop, old habits die hard. Houstonians are not committed to cars because of the weather. They are committed to cars because the people who built most of this city after WWII built it for cars.
I am one of the few who walk to work every day – and by choice. It’s actually not bad if you work standard hours and live near your work. Even on the hottest days, it’s still fairly cool in the morning before 8 am, so I don’t sweat walking in. I do sweat some walking home in the early evening, but if I stick to the shady sidewalks, it’s bearable and I usually go to the gym or jog after work, so I don’t mind getting a little sticky at that time of the day right before I change into my workout clothes, which are going to get soaked in sweat anyway. I have noticed recently through my overweight, sedentary coworkers (the ones who constantly bitch about our office being unbearably hot, even though the AC is set to the low 70’s), that most people are out of shape and start sweating just by looking out a window at the heat outside. And those people will sweat profusely after walking only a few hundred feet, so they are quite vocal about how terrible our weather is and how evil walking is. Sadly, they would benefit the most from it.
OldSchool is right that whether or not people walk is more a function of city design than weather. But it’s not quite right to say it’s a post-WW2 phenomenon. The tendency to lay out cities for vehicles instead of people actually started in the 19th century. The thoroughfares of cities like New York and Chicago are far wider than necessary for pedestrian traffic. In Chicago, most streets are at least 70 ft between facades, and Manhattan’s range from 50-ft to 100-ft. Compare these to pre-19th century cities in Europe and Asia (or pre-19th century places in American cities) where the rights of way are much narrower.
Of course, post-WW2 the mistakes we made in the 19th century led us to bigger mistakes. Since our cities were so unpleasant, people moved to the suburbs, and rules requiring things to be further apart (setbacks, parking minimums, FAR caps, etc.) started to become ubiquitous. Eventually we began to think of those development patterns as “normal”, and re-created them in newer cities in the west and south, despite being a relatively recent aberration compared to the previous couple millenia of urban development.
I have lived in both Houston and Washington, D.C,, and to say that the weather in both cities is comparable in the summer is an exaggeration. Houston has three months of summer, with temperatures averaging in the mid 90s. D.C. only has about 6 weeks with highs of only about 88 degrees. Plus, the average relative humidity in Houston is higher, and thus, you feel sticky after walking about a block. True, D.C. has colder winters, but it is easier to walk in cold weather than when it’s stifling hot. More people appear to be walking in DC because it has more tourists all year round, and tourists like to walk in the the relatively pleasant weather to imbibe the local scene. I don’t understand why people in Houston who love walking could not simply enjoy this activity until they mislead everyone into walking with them.
I agree that DC is not really a very good example where climate is concerned — although I think that it is useful to point out that northerners tend not to be very well acclimated to heat and that when Chicago even approaches the sort of heat that Texas regularly experiences in the summer, people start dropping like flies. The effect of climate may be somewhat relative and it is very rare to spend time in just about any place at all and never hear locals complaining about the weather.
Better urban proxies for ‘walkable’ places existing in Houston-like climates would be Savannah or New Orleans. And hey, people are just about constantly milling about along the Las Vegas Strip or on Freemont Street…but not really anywhere else in Las Vegas. The problem isn’t at all that people aren’t masochistic enough to walk. It’s that when people choose to walk for enjoyment (as opposed to say crisscrossing through a Walmart Supercenter and traversing its parking lot, which is a practical matter and perfectly common), it usually has to do with social expectations about when and where walking is considered appropriate. Might a person walking somewhere be inclined to take a selfie, put it on social media, and expect a pat on the back (e.g. River Oaks Shopping Center) or would that make them just seem socially awkward (e.g. the TJ Maxx that’s one block away from the River Oaks Shopping Center)? That’s the lens through which I evaluate what is commonly called a ‘walkable’ place. It has to enhance one’s social identity in a way that they perceive is desirable and that calculus is totally loaded with all kinds of factors that are only peripherally related to the experience of transporting oneself with one’s feet. To that end, what we petty humans are really looking for is a novel experience, whether that is achieved by taking a water taxi on The Woodlands Waterway, a kiddie train in Hermann Park, a horse-drawn carriage or a duck tour in Galveston, a Segway scooter downtown, a pedal trolley along Washington Avenue, or a light rail line through a nice part of town — but not through a ghetto — or walking, but neither through a ghetto or anywhere that seems very ordinary. The more ordinary the transportation mode, the less ordinary and more novel must be the environs in order to justify it in a social context.
Houston has lots of places that would easily meet the criteria for ‘walkability’ in many other cities; to focus on parks, consider that Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Memorial Park, and the grounds of the Menil Collection all have programming that is distinct from one another and yet each are gems and belong in a list of famous urban parks (e.g. Jackson Square or Forsyth Park). Each of them *can be at times* downright crowded…but not often during normal business hours and not if the weather is even a little bit questionable. Tourists deal with that stuff because their time in their enclaves and opportunities to explore are limited; locals can and will easily re-shuffle their schedule. Even when the weather turns sour for a few days, tourists still bleed money into the surrounding neighborhoods and keep related businesses going. They can be more reliable than locals in that context, although locals keep these businesses going through seasonal lulls. Of course, Houston doesn’t have throngs of tourists milling about on foot. Part of this is because Houston is a young and ordinary sort of big city which is neither a cultural powerhouse or a major seat of governance, part of it is that it is a city for business, and part of it is that tourists go where other tourists go, and Houston is neither a traditional destination or particularly compelling, making for a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Many other cities have this problem, compete head-on with other cities with the same limited set of options for improving, and building our way out of it is likely to be a multi-generational task if it ever happens. Until then and *to that specific end*, it doesn’t matter if our sidewalks are cracked and broken; when we fix them up in a particular neighborhood (Eastwood comes to mind), few people use them and outsiders will only very rarely have the opportunity to appreciate it, presuming that they are even attuned to it. It doesn’t matter if we install hundreds of miles of bike trails along utility easements and obscure stretches of bayou; only the local hardcore cyclists will even know about it. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do those things. It just means that we have to be realistic about Houston’s place in the world and have reasonable expectations about how we will benefit from what we do. We need to do projects like this for ourselves to make our day-to-day lives better. This city will be made better when we leverage our strengths rather than our weaknesses.
If Houston is going to emerge as a unique, special, and novel destination, it will most likely do so organically in unintended ways. Our restaurant scene, medical tourism, and the Bellaire corridor are our strong points — but very little about these things has anything to do with ‘walkability’ or would aided by efforts to shoehorn them into that construct. They are if anything emergent properties of a lack of strict planning. If the lack of planning and a libertarian (little ‘l’) disposition becomes thought of as a part of an archetypal character of Houstonians, well that’s something special. It would attract a certain kind of person and repel a different kind of person, and what may come out of that is a kind of local culture that is perceived as novel. If tourism is desirable — *IF THAT* — then this is our best shot at breaking through. And at that point in the far flung future, perhaps then Houston will be respected if you care about that sort of thing. But Houston will never be ‘walkable’. By then, inexpensive autonomous taxis and jitneys will have made walking very nearly obsolete for any practical purpose at all and the activity of walking will be reserved for destinations spanning many acres and for comically anachronistic reenactments of post-modern ‘walkable’ irony that are video-documented and shared on social media. The next generation will regard our values and what came of them as so much ticky-tacky cookie-cutter development, as so many generations preceding them have about their parents’ values. We will be mocked relentlessly, and new norms will most likely be applied prescriptively until they too are rendered obsolete by yet another generation that thinks that they have the correct way to formulate social identity all figured out.
The summer temperatures in DC are a couple of degrees cooler. Average July morning humidity is not quite as high there (85% vs 92%) but afternoon humidity is identical. Add in the urban heat island factor when you’re in the central city, and yes, it is incredibly hot there. If heat were a reason not to walk, DC’s streets would be empty in the summer. It’s vastly different than what I experienced when I lived in Boston and the NYC area. DC is also basically a giant bowl with the middle of the city at the bottom of it so you get temperature inversions and ozone days aplenty. I was really surprised when I moved to Houston that summer weather was only a little bit hotter (but, as I noted, much longer).
My point stands. Climate wise DC is essentially as hostile to walking as Houston, which is to saw, it’s sweaty, but manageable.
(Extra fun: I spent my first summer in DC with no air conditioning in my apartment! It was awesome.)