August 11, 2008
Abetting walking

It's early in the game, but there are proposals in the works to make various parts of Houston's inner core more pedestrian-friendly.

After two years of work, Houston's Department of Planning and Development has released recommendations that cover pedestrian zones, building styles, driveway spacing and other elements of development in corridors served by Metro's light rail lines.

The goal is to produce urban environments where transit riders could walk to various destinations, reducing the need for driving.

Proponents of stronger local planning said the new policies would help the city accommodate population growth in its core without disrupting established neighborhoods or increasing traffic congestion.

"It's real progress," said David Crossley, president of the nonprofit Gulf Coast Institute. He serves on an advisory panel working on the proposals.

Some real estate professionals and organizations, however, said the policies could increase costs and create more problems than they solve.

"It would be a mistake to use mandatory building requirements as a means to force Houstonians out of their cars and onto hot sidewalks," said Kendall Miller, president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit group that seeks to limit new restrictions on real estate development.

See, this is a good example of why I don't take Houstonians for Responsible Growth seriously. How would any of this "force" someone out of their car? Most of the focus of this study is downtown and Midtown, where walking is pretty common to begin with, and might be more so if it were a bit friendlier. I look at it this way: By making it more attractive for people to choose to walk a few blocks rather than drive from parking lot to parking lot, you're making more room on the roads for those who have to be driving. What's Kendall Miller's argument?

And before anyone starts up about the heat, I'm going to point to TxElectricRy's comment on the story, in which he says "Houstonians from ages past must have been made of tougher stuff." Eight months out of the year, Houston is a pretty nice place to be outside walking around. The other four aren't so pleasant, but some of us would still choose walking in the heat to walking in the snow; having done plenty of the latter growing up, where I didn't have a choice, hot days don't faze me. And hey, you can still choose to drive during those times, no matter what Kendall Miller says.

The recommendations fall into two broad categories: requirements for the "pedestrian realm," which would encompass sidewalks and related amenities, and rules or incentives to promote development styles that provide opportunities for transit riders to walk among homes, workplaces and entertainment.

The new policies would apply to new development or redevelopment, but not to existing buildings.

The proposals encompass the existing Main Street rail corridor and the planned north, southeast, East End and Uptown corridors. Proposals for the University corridor, for which Metro only recently chose a final alignment, will be developed later, city officials said.

In all the corridors, the city would require a 15-foot pedestrian zone from the curb to the front of the building. Sidewalks would be on the 5 feet closest to the building, with the other 10 feet set aside for landscaping.

Also in every corridor, the city would enforce restrictions on the spacing of driveways so pedestrians would have to stop less often for cars pulling in and out of businesses. City officials haven't determined how far apart the driveways would have to be.

An area including downtown, east downtown and Midtown would be designated as the "core pedestrian zone," where the city's requirements would extend to design features such as bringing buildings close to the sidewalk and devoting a large share of the building facade to doors, windows or other features to avoid long stretches of blank walls.

In other corridors, the building design standards would be voluntary and generally would be limited to areas within a quarter-mile walking distance of transit stations, said Steve Spillette, a senior planning fellow. Developers who met these standards would be exempt from certain requirements such as parking or building setbacks.

The devil is always in the details, and whatever they eventually come up with is sure to need plenty of feedback-based alterations, and will never fully satisfy everyone - as David Crossley notes at the end, it's a lot of tradeoffs. But I think this is a necessary step to take to enhance transit and deal with the problem of increasingly crowded surface roads. I'm glad to see it happen, and I hope we don't get distracted by frivolous blather about forcing people out of cars.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 11, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

They really ought to include Montrose in the "core pedestrian zone." I live on a tree-lined street where the trees arch over the street. It's much cooler under the shade and very pleasant to walk. These Irresponsible Growth people need to understand that tree-lined streets (e.g., Bayland Street) and parks with trees and fountains are more desirable (and add to property value) than the concrete parking lots and treeless expanses of grass they want to impose on us. We have more than enough cheap and nasty developments already.

Posted by: Temple Houston on August 11, 2008 10:38 AM

Necessity is the mother of invention as they say but also of things that are good for you and walking is good for all of us. As gas prices went up and parking rates along with them, I and many others decided to try Metro rail and liked it. Sometimes the walk to the line is not pleasant. But those streets that have retained their magnificent oak trees in particular are not as hot as the others. Hopefully the city will begin to realize the importance of trees to not only beautify the city but also encourage more use of public transportation which many don't use because they fear dropping dead of heat stroke before they reach the bus or train stop.

One of the things wrong with the Kirby Drive plan is it removed trees that provided shade. The more shaded a street is, the more likely people will walk rather than drive. Even if they're only going a block or two away.

We need more trees, not less trees.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on August 11, 2008 4:47 PM
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