January 22, 2009
More on streetcars and sidewalks
Andrew Burleson had a couple of good posts last week that followed up on Christof's streetcar suggestions and my post about a KIrby light rail line. Here they are: West Gray Streetcar, in which he takes Christof's concept for a streetcar line on West Gray and runs with it, and Will and Won't, which gets into the reasons people walk and don't walk in Houston. I think he's right on about this:
My contention is that most people in Houston will walk single-digit block distances without complaining too much. If you get into double digits, most people think it's too far. I've told people before, "let's walk to the train station, it's about 8 blocks," and their reaction is, "woah, that's a long walk!" I've told other people, "let's just walk to the train station, it takes less than 10 minutes and it's a lot easier than messing with parking." That gets a more positive reaction usually. It seems that as you get to about 10 blocks distance people think "that's pretty far." If you phrase it as time rather than distance, people usually think 10-15 minutes (which is probably more like 12-18 blocks depending on who is walking) is reasonable, and longer than that is "far."
In my experience, however, once you're actually walking, people quickly get tired of it if you're walking on broken old sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. They'll almost immediately ask "are you sure we shouldn't just drive?" But on nice sidewalks, especially when there's retail opening on to the street and other people out walking, most people will go longer distances without noticing.
That's something that I've thought about a lot as I've tried to imagine rail lines along Washington and Kirby, as I've proposed them. Washington is a street that should be far more walkable than it is, and I know that it's in line for a big overhaul in the nearish future, but for now it's got narrow sidewalks that abut the street, with no grass or anything as a buffer, with utility poles and other obstacles for walkers to dodge. Fixing that, hopefully in conjunction with planning for a rail line, will go a long way towards improving that whole area. (Fixing Studemont
as well would go even further.) Kirby is reasonably walkable in most places, and it's already undergoing a facelift north of 59, but for the rail line I've proposed something would have to be done to it between Bissonnet and Richmond, and to Yale Street on the north end of the line. I don't know what can be done about this now other than talk about it and hope to get other people talking about it, so consider this a contribution towards that end. What parts of town should have better sidewalks than they currently do? Leave a comment and let me know.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 22, 2009 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Kuff, you're right on about Washington and Kirby.
Washington is a tough deal because it needs more width than it really has to be more pedestrian friendly. I think if they made Washington and Center a one-way pair that it would leave enough open space to really improve the pedestrian environment and provide some much needed on-street parking as well.
A while back I saw a great student project that illustrated essentially this same idea: http://neohouston.wordpress.com/2008/09/09/good-concepts-for-washington-ave/
Kirby is a tough deal, but if money were no object I'd bury the remainder of 59 inside the loop the way they did with the Shepherd -> Main section. Then you could have a lot more crossings with much more pedestrian friendly designs.
The distances being discussed here as 'walkable' are way too high for frequent use - average people will walk that far as an occasional thing; say, as a weekend excursion, but research has shown that for daily transit users, the limit is basically a quarter-mile (usually 3 blocks in most cities).
People who choose to live a transit-dependent-by-choice lifestyle will, of course, be willing to walk a lot more, but you can't fill streetcars in a city like Houston (or Austin) with those folks - there aren't enough of them.
One afternoon there was an accident in the Med Center which caused an "announced delay" for the everyone waiting for the northbound train and fearing not getting to the county clerk's office before it closed I walked. The train finally passed by as I was passing by Macy's. I walk now when the weather is nice. A 30-45 minute walk depending on where I'm headed downtown.
Walking is good for you. We are just too spoiled in our society.
The Galleria/Uptown area. Along Post Oak Blvd., the sidewalks are narrow and seem to have been designed with the notion that no one would ever use them. Elsewhere nearby, sidewalks are discontinuous, neccessitating detours thru the street, landscaping, or on muddy paths. This is a surprising situation for an area that has the critical mass for it to make sense to invest in better pedestrian amenities.
While it's not likely ever to be a charming pedestrian district, people (like me) who live/work/eat-out or visit there would benefit from some improvements. Aside from us locals, it's disappointing to see out-of-towners trying to navigate this mess on foot as they might expect to do in analogous districts elsewhere in the world.
If people have a destination that is within walking distance and there is a pleasant path for walking, people will walk.
People walk in Houston but perhaps not as much on streets but in walking tunnels downtown and shopping centers like the Galleria. Also people walk a lot longer than one block or two, from where they park their car to their destination.
Making Washington Ave (or any street, for that matter) a one-way street would be a great way to destroy its nascent walkability.