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Complete Streets

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.

Better sidewalks needs to be everyone’s job

It’s the only way we’re going to make progress.

Houstonians annoyed by cracked, missing or buckled sidewalks along their streets may be surprised to learn that city rules make residents responsible for fixing them.

At the urging of council members three years ago, Houston Public Works tried something new, launching a program that let homeowners get quotes for sidewalk repairs from city-approved contractors, then pay for the fix.

Though 155 residents signed up and 105 got cost estimates, only two agreed to pay the bill — likely because the average quote was $5,000.

Public Works officials acknowledge the city’s involvement added overhead that resulted in estimates double or triple what a resident otherwise would pay. The program has been scrapped.

Still, city officials say adding more sidewalks is a worthy goal. The issue, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said, is that Houston has no sidewalk repair budget and sets aside just $2.6 million a year to add new sidewalks through a few targeted programs. Compare that with the $83 million needed to fulfill 580 pending requests for new sidewalks.

“There’s a funding shortfall,” Weatherford said. “We’d love to expand it, we’re having conversations about different ways to expand it, we’re looking at priorities for grants, other alternative funding sources. But until we’ve worked out a way to get that, it’s going to be a balancing act.”

Residents can apply to have up to four blocks of sidewalks added near schools and along major streets, but typically must wait three to five years. Residents with disabilities also can apply to have up to 1,500 feet of sidewalks built around their homes. These Pedestrian Accessibility Reviews, which have produced about 75 finished sidewalk projects in the last five years, get top priority.

[…]

Advocates with the 6-year-old Houston Complete Streets Coalition want to work toward a sidewalk plan for the city, assessing the presence and condition of existing sidewalks, compiling the resulting information in a database and using it, alongside identified priorities, to guide decisions on where to install and repair sidewalks.

Michael Huffmaster, who leads the group of civic clubs known as the Super Neighborhood Alliance and represents that group on the coalition, said one proposal is to incorporate public facilities like community centers, libraries and parks into the program that adds sidewalks around schools.

“It’s up to City Council to fund sidewalks at a level that makes a meaningful contribution to the needs of the city,” Huffmaster said. “It’s sad that we put the burden of the sidewalk on the adjacent property owner because it’s an improvement that’s within the public right of way. Mobility in the city, pedestrian safety, should be priorities.”

Weatherford said he does not oppose adding facilities like libraries to the school sidewalk program or the idea of a sidewalk plan, but he said the funding question must be solved first, lest the backlog of unfunded sidewalk requests swell and the new plan sit unused on a shelf.

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the city should revisit that Public Works program, but in a style similar to one that already exists for financing the installation of solar panels: Have the city pay for the work up front (floating a bond if need be for the capital costs), then letting homeowners who get their sidewalks fixed pay that back via a charge added to their monthly water bill. The overall amount the city would have to borrow isn’t that much, and individual homeowners ought to be able to pay it off in three years or so; payment options can be given for that. I don’t see a down side to this.

I would also expand upon the Super Neighborhood Alliance idea. How can we get other government entities involved? As I have said several times before, the city of Houston is also (almost entirely) within Harris County. Metro has done some work at and around bus stops since the 2012 referendum giving them a larger share of the sales tax revenue. I’d like to see that continued and expanded with the 2019 referendum. HISD and the other school districts should kick in for better sidewalks around their schools, as a matter of student safety. H-GAC should seek out state and federal grant money for sidewalks. This still needs to be a primary responsibility of the city, but there’s no reason it has to be the city’s sole responsibility. If we want to solve the problem, we need to make it everyone’s priority.

Houston Tomorrow presents its Vision Zero plan

Here you go.

Following other “vision zero” programs nationally, Houston Tomorrow encouraged officials – especially Houston lawmakers – to crack down on speeding and distracted driving while investing more in rebuilding streets so that vehicles can share them safely with pedestrians, cyclists and other users.

“Vision Zero does not discriminate based on how you choose to get around,” the report’s authors said. “We want people riding in cars to be safe. We want everyone to be able to ride their bike to work safely. We want people walking around town without risk of losing their life or someone they love.”

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, Houston and other southern cities where car travel is more common have a far higher incidence of traffic fatalities – a figure that includes drivers, vehicle passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. In 2014, 227 people were killed in Houston in traffic-related incidents. New York, despite having 6.2 million more residents, reported 269 fatalities.

“Almost as many people die on the streets of the City of Houston as are murdered each year,” the report read. “Our response to this shocking statistic should be simple: We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as seriously as we treat homicide, as a major public health and security crisis.”

Here’s the full plan, here’s the executive summary, and here’s Houston Tomorrow’s announcement. I’ve written about Vision Zero, for here and elsewhere, several times. The figure Houston Tomorrow cites for the 13-county greater Houston area is 667 deaths for 2014; there were also 135,170 total crashes and 3,468 incapacitating injuries. For Houston, those 2014 numbers are 60,472 crashes, 1,222 injuries, and 227 deaths. They didn’t include a figure for all of Harris County, which I think would be useful, but at a guess I’d say 400 to 450 deaths. I’d bet that the total number of Harris County traffic fatalities exceeded the total number of Harris County homicide victims.

Some parts of what Houston Tomorrow is calling for is already in the works. Complete Streets, coupled with the ongoing work of ReBuild Houston, will accomplish a lot to improve road safety. Some of what they want will require changes to city ordinances and/or state laws, and some of those things, like texting-while-driving bans and reduced speed limits, will cause a fight. And some of what they want will involve more enforcement of existing laws – speeding, running red lights, the 3 foot rule for bikes, etc. Mostly, they emphasize the need for better metrics. You have to be able to measure something accurately to know how it is trending and whether any of the things you are trying to do about it are having an effect. Read the report and see what you think.

Beautifying Broadway

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Not that Broadway

Broadway between Hobby Airport and Interstate 45 may offer a first impression of Houston to first-time visitors, but not the one many civic boosters would like.

The 2 miles along the main road between the airport and the highway include strip developments and aging apartment complexes. Grassy medians along the road are scattered with few trees and shrubs. Little landscaping or lighting welcome travelers or residents coming home.

“Tired” is one word used to describe the area by Anne Culver, the president of Scenic Houston, a nonprofit working to raise $7.5 million to upgrade the area.

“You only have one shot at a first impression,” Culver said. “For many coming to Houston, that first impression is Broadway. … It’s not welcoming.”

Civic leaders envision a Broadway lined with oaks trees, flowers and shrubs in median. Gravel pathways and benches would be placed along the road in the now patchy esplanades. Art Deco-style LED lights would illuminate newly paved walkways and crosswalks.

The push to improve the street comes as Hobby is expected to bring an estimated 1.5 million new passengers annually into the area once its international terminal opens in the fall and as the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston nears.

[…]

Scenic Houston and the Hobby Area Management District, the district set up to boost economic development in the area, say it’s the right time to do whatever they can to make the area look as good as it can. They have set out a $7.5 million plan for trees and LED light fixtures up and down the roads. Along the esplanades, gravel and walkways would wind in between benches, flowers and the new lighting. Sidewalks would be improved. The groups are working to raise money from private donors and some funding will come from the management district.

“This was a great opportunity to step into the breach,” Culver said. “If you’re coming in from the airports, the first impression for miles is that the city is unattractive.”

I’d argue that the stretch of I-45 in from IAH, with its unending stream of used car lots, strip clubs, and billboards, is the uglier and worse-impression-making of the city’s entry points. At least Broadway provides a nice view of Sims Bayou. Still, I take their point. Any reasonable thing we can do to make the city look better is worthwhile. Given that TxDOT is already paying to rebuild the street, it makes all kinds of sense to make the upgraded street more functional, which in itself should help to make it more attractive. I tend to fly United so I don’t get this way that often, but I will look forward to seeing how this turns out.

Uptown needs bikes

So says this op-ed.

Always susceptible to gridlock, especially at Christmastime, the traffic jams now happen year-round and last longer each day. Clearly, Uptown badly needs convenient, reliable alternatives to cars for the tens of thousands of workers and residents who live, work and shop in the area, the largest business district in the nation outside of a traditional downtown.

One such alternative is bicycling. Houston has made impressive progress in recent years to make bicycling safer and more convenient.

The Bayou Greenways Initiative, Safe Passing Law and Complete Streets policy are recent examples, and an updated Bikeway Master Plan, now underway, will identify additional on- and off-street facilities to fill in the gaps in Houston’s bikeway network.

Uptown, however, remains dangerous to navigate by bike, especially during rush hour. Surrounded on three sides by major freeways, there are few safe options to enter the area by bike. Once there, a cyclist must navigate streets designed solely to move cars as quickly as possible, with few accommodations for cyclists. Post Oak Boulevard, Uptown’s signature street, is an obvious example. While biking there can be a death-defying experience, even walking is a daunting and frightening prospect, with sidewalks located right next to speeding traffic.

The proposed Uptown dedicated bus lanes project (“Bus project along Post Oak appears ready to roll ahead” Page B3, Jan. 29) will provide one alternative to driving, especially for commuters in the suburbs who have access to park and ride routes that run to the existing Northwest and proposed Bellaire/Uptown transit centers. The project features a total rebuild of Post Oak Boulevard to add dedicated bus lanes in the middle, while preserving existing lanes for cars.

Unfortunately, the plan as currently proposed includes no bike lanes, and maintains wide, high-speed main traffic lanes. Thus, while it will provide an alternative to driving for suburban commuters, the current dedicated bus lane plan does nothing for Uptown workers who live close enough to bike to work, but who won’t risk their lives (and their families’ livelihoods) to do so. It also does little for local residents who might like to bike to local shops and restaurants or into adjoining neighborhoods and parks, including Memorial Park (now a part of the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone.)

Adding dedicated bike lanes to the dedicated bus lane project would provide an additional alternative to those who want access to shops, workplaces and restaurants along Post Oak, as well as provide connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods, Memorial Park and the Greater Houston bikeway network.

Bike lanes would also enhance the pedestrian realm by providing a buffer between sidewalks and automobile traffic.

I agree completely. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money redoing Post Oak Lane and not end up with a street that is more bike and pedestrian friendly. There are two ways to deal with excessive traffic in destinations like Uptown: Make it easier to get there without driving, primarily for commuters, and make it easier for those who are already there to get around within the area without driving. Downtown does both of those things. Uptown is working on the first one, with the BRT line and the HOV lane. It really needs to do the other, and the opportunity to do that begins with the BRT line construction on Post Oak. I want to be clear that this is the Uptown Management District’s responsibility. Metro will operate the BRT line once it is built, but the Management District is doing the design and construction. Please do it right the first time, y’all.

Complete Streets coming

This is good to see.

Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.

Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.

“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.

Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.

Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.

“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.

The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.

As Stace notes, this has also been a priority for CM Ed Gonzalez, so if you like this announcement, thank him as well. Houston Tomorrow has a quote from the Mayor’s verbal remarks at the event on Thursday that I think captures what is actually being changed here:

Frankly, it’s always been possible to do a Complete Street in Houston, but the default has been let’s get those cars moving. Now we want the default to be a Complete Street and anything different than that to be something that has to be the exception.

That’s the key. The Bagby location in Midtown where the event was exemplifies this, because the developers of that area had to get a variance from the city in order to proceed. Under this change, they would not need a variance but someone who wanted to build something the old way would. That won’t have any immediate effect on existing streets, but as Rebuild Houston moves forward you should expect to see at least some of the affected streets get redesigned to incorporate this new vision. See here and here for a basic primer on what “complete streets” means.

The Mayor’s press release has more, as does the press release from CM Gonzalez. As noted in the story, the Bagby Midtown location also received certification as the first Greenroads Project in the State of Texas. See beneath the fold for that press release, The Highwayman and Texas Leftist for more on what this will mean in practice, here for more on what it was about Bagby Midtown that got it this certification, and here for more on Greenroads.

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