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West 11th construction is about to start

Get ready, here it comes.

City staffers are finalizing a plan to add protected bike lanes along 11th Street in the Heights and reduce the number of driving lanes, despite pushback from some residents in the area.

Crews will begin work rehabilitating 11th Street this month, with plans to start construction on the bikeway part of the project in October, said Erin Jones, spokesperson for the city’s public works department.

“The bikeway design is still being finalized to include METRO bus stop improvements/relocations,” she said.

[…]

“When Mayor Turner announced the 11th Street project would move forward after that short pause, he said something that struck me,” said Joe Cutrufo, the director of BikeHouston. “He said that, ‘we’re not building the city for where we are now, but building the city for where we are going.’ And I thought that was really well-phrased.”

Bike lanes will be added on both sides of 11th between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street, where there will be one vehicular lane in each direction with a center, left-turn lane along the stretch between Yale and Studewood streets. The plan also calls for bike lanes along Michaux between 11th and Stude Park to the south as well as protected crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at intersections such as 11th and Nicholson Street, where the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail crosses 11th, and Michaux and White Oak Drive.

There now are two vehicle lanes in each direction on 11th between Shepherd and Michaux, and no center turn lanes.

The project will cost about $600,000, with funding coming from capital improvement dollars for bikeways, according to the city.

See here, here, and here for some background. I fully support this and I am excited to see what the finished project looks like. I also recognize that the construction will be inconvenient, and it will directly affect me. Like most people in this neighborhood, I regularly drive all of those named streets. The carpool we have for getting Daughter #2 to and from high school also involves taking on kid home north of Garden Oaks, for which I take Shepherd already under construction) via 11th. It’s going to suck for awhile, no two ways around it. But hey, I’ve survived more highway renovations than I can count. I will survive this, too. And in the end, the neighborhood will be a better place. Let’s do this.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.

CURBS Houston

In my last post about the West 11th Street project, I’ve noted that opposition to the project has been featured in news stories about it, but I have not seen any mention of organized support from the neighborhood – BikeHouston is of course a major advocate, but I’m looking for something based in the Heights. I wanted to know this partly to help me assess the scope of the opposition – as noted in that previous post, their web skills are lacking and their claims are at best boastful, but I do see their signs in some yards around 11th Street – and also just because I support this project and want to know who else is out there.

Now I know. Janette Garza Lindner, who had run for HISD Trustee in District I (where I live) last year, reached out to tell me about CURBS Houston and its associated website Safe11th.org, which has its own petition in support of the project on its Take Action page. I met up with her and a couple other folks involved in CURBS last week, and it felt good to know that this work is being done to get much-needed improvements to bike and pedestrian mobility and safety in the neighborhood. I’ve now seen a couple of CURBS Houston signs in support of the West 11th project in front of houses and businesses along 11th Street, and hopefully will see more over time.

Via the CURBS Twitter page, I also found this Leader News story from a couple of weeks ago about other support for the West 11th Street project.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner considers whether to move forward with the city’s plan to transform traffic on 11th Street, a collection of civic associations in the Heights area has thrown its weight behind the long-debated project.

President Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, comprised of delegates from eight neighborhood associations, said it voted May 17 to write a letter of support for the 11th Street Bikeway, which calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on the Heights thoroughfare while adding protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. Williamson said the letter was submitted to Turner, local city council members and David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, earlier this week.

Turner, after saying in February that the multimodal infrastructure project would move forward following three years of public engagement and related modifications, announced during a city council meeting early this month that he would take at least 30 days to “take a closer look at it,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I honestly have no idea whether anything that any of these groups say will carry any weight,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the mayor’s 30-day freeze.

“I would like to think we’re not shouting into the wind and we’ll get listened to,” Williamson added.

[…]

Williamson said six of the eight civic associations within the super neighborhood council voted in favor of a letter of support, with the Houston Heights Association abstaining and the East Sunset Heights Association not sending a delegate to the meeting. The groups that voted in favor are the Clark Pines Civic Association, Montie Beach Civic Club, Norhill Neighborhood Association, Shady Acres Civic Club, Sunset Heights Civic Club and Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Each of those six groups already had submitted letters of support to the city, according to Williamson, who said their collective support comes with a series of caveats. The super neighborhood council asked the city to address some concerns expressed by businesses and residents, such as delivery truck access for 11th Street businesses and the potential for cut-through traffic on side streets as well as possible conflicts between motorists and cyclists at the entrances and exits to 11th Street properties. The letter also asks the city to dedicate resources to monitoring the project area after completion and addressing any unintended consequences that might arise.

Additionally, the super neighborhood council asked the city to expand the number of protected pedestrian crosswalks in the plan, which presently calls for a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street – identified by Houston cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city – and protected crosswalks at White Oak Drive and Michaux Street as well as near Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill St.. The letter asks for similar infrastructure near Harvard Elementary, 810 Harvard St., and along 11th between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street.

“There are definitely ways that the project could be better than what’s been proposed,” Williamson said.

We’re now past the “30 day pause” period – that was a subject of discussion I had with the CURBS folks – and are waiting to hear what happens now. I’m just glad to see this kind of institutional support for the project. It really does make a difference.

Finally, on a tangential note, I mentioned the Shepherd and Durham major investment project right at the end of the year. It’s moving along now, and while it won’t have any direct effects on the West 11th project it’s definitely part of a larger whole of street and sidewalk improvements. It’s also a lot more visible now, with active construction happening on a regular basis. You can keep up with it at ShepherdDurham.com and on the Shepherd Durham Project page.

The limits of Vision Zero

A long read about a tough problem.

Los Angeles was not the first U.S. city to sign on to Vision Zero: Chicago (2012), New York City (2014) and San Francisco (2014) had already adopted the Scandinavian-born safety movement. But L.A. moved quickly, revamping 18 corridors — including the Hollywood and Highland intersection — with “Vision Zero safety countermeasures” like curb extensions and protected left turn signals. In 2017 the prestigious Transportation Research Board cited the city’s effort as national model, producing a report intended “as a guide to help cities develop their own robust, data-driven Vision Zero process.”

But since 2015 the streets of Los Angeles have grown more deadly, not less. In 2021, 289 people died on L.A. roadways, a 20-year high. “Is Vision Zero a failure?” a headline in the Los Angeles Times recently asked.

Residents of other American cities might pose the same question. In New York City, traffic deaths in 2021 were the highest since committing to Vision Zero seven years earlier. Portland, Oregon, saw more traffic deaths last year than it had since 1990, and Austin set a new all-time record (both became Vision Zero adherents in 2015). Deaths are surging in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well. In fact, it’s hard to find any Vision Zero cities where traffic deaths have declined. (A rare exception is Hoboken, New Jersey, which went three years without a single fatality.)

While some have blamed Covid-19-related societal disruption for the growing toll, U.S. cities were already struggling to keep traffic fatalities from rising, let alone reducing them, before the pandemic hit.

Vision Zero’s track record in the U.S. contrasts sharply with Europe, where road deaths have been drifting downward for years. In 2019, Helsinki had exactly three traffic fatalities — and none was a pedestrian or cyclist. For comparison, the capital of Finland has roughly as many residents as Las Vegas, a Vision Zero city where 304 people died on the road that same year.

Despite Vision Zero being one of the hottest ideas in traffic safety, its European success has not translated across the Atlantic. Current trends suggest that is unlikely to change, absent a fundamental rethink around policy implementation.

“Vision Zero had something of a honeymoon phase,” said Leah Shahum, director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network. “Now we’re butting up against the system.”

The system, for US cities and road networks includes streets designed to maximize automotive traffic flow, national vehicle safety standards that don’t take pedestrian safety into account, local obstacles to implementing various traffic-calming projects (see, for example, the resistance to the West 11th Street project), a lack of speed and red light cameras, and more. The predictable result is more traffic fatalities than we should have. Go read the rest.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

Stalking Coco, the food delivery robot

A delightful tale by Chron food editor Emma Balter, who was determined to prove to herself that Coco the food delivery robot actually worked as advertised, even on Houston’s notoriously un-pedestrian (and presumably food-delivery-robot) streets. It took a couple of tries to place an order that would actually be delivered by Coco, and we pick up the story from there:

I placed an order on DoorDash, this time for the Diavola pizza and a Coca-Cola, and loudly squealed when I received a text leading me to a Coco tracker page. Exactly 32 minutes later, we saw a Bollo staffer load a pizza and a Coke into a Coco, which departed less than a minute later.

Coco whizzed out of the restaurant’s parking lot onto the sidewalk on West Alabama Street, and within the first 10 feet of its journey, encountered a pronounced step between two slabs of uneven pavement. Coco bumped against it but was immediately able to surmount the obstacle. I was very impressed.

It careened around the corner onto Greenbriar Drive and picked up speed, so much so that I had to break out into a slight jog to keep up with it. Two minutes later, Coco was faced with an orange cone and yellow caution tape; it paused briefly and went around it on the street shoulder. Another minute went by, and Coco was met with protruding tree roots. It slowed down almost to a stop, then awkwardly but successfully navigated past it. Coco sped up again—at which point I was convinced it was taunting me for doubting it. By the time we reached Westheimer Road, I was out of breath from running after it, although it was unclear if this was due to me being unfit, giggling uncontrollably, or both. (I was humbled to later find out that Coco only travels at a maximum speed of 5 MPH.)

Once at Westheimer, Coco arrived at a crossroads, literally: How would the little fella get to the other side of the busy street? It hung out, facing the road in front of Kevin Spearman Design, for about 30 seconds as cars whooshed by in both directions. It moved another 10 feet to a different spot, before getting barked at by a dog, then giving up on its perch a minute and a half later. Coco retraced its steps for almost a whole block, but just as I thought it might have been returning to the restaurant, defeated, it darted in front of traffic in a blatant jaywalk, narrowly avoiding a silver Chevy Cruz traveling westbound toward it.

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I exclaimed as I witnessed the scene, recorded in a video that is now on Chron’s TikTok for posterity.

Read the rest and judge for yourself if this is a better idea than your typical human-delivered meal, picking it up yourself, or (vastly my preference) eating at the restaurant. I too have seen a couple of social media posts from friends who have observed a Coco robot in the wild, but I have not yet witnessed one. Have you seen or interacted with a Coco, whether in the city or out in the woods? Leave a comment and let us know.

The next street safety project my neighborhood will be fighting about

My wife came back from this month’s civic association meeting and handed me a flyer for this, along with more or less the exact words I’ve used in the title of this post.

North Main Street runs north from I-10 bordering Downtown Houston to Crosstimbers St. in Independence Heights. It is a 5-mile stretch, including 1.2 miles with center-running light rail operated by METRO. North Main becomes a four-lane undivided street fronted by many local and small-scale businesses at Boundary Street, where the light rail deviates onto Fulton Street. The four-lane section between Boundary Street and Airline Drive is being improved for safety.

There are notable crash problems on North Main between Boundary St. and Airline Dr.

  • More recently, between 2017-2021, there have been 224 total crashes, including eight crashes where someone was seriously injured.
  • A half-mile segment between Holy Cross Cemetery and Melwood St is on the Vision Zero High Injury Network(External link) because there were two serious injury crashes and one fatal crash between 2014-2018. This segment includes the IH 45 intersection, which may be contributing to the higher number of severe crashes.

With substantial support from Council Member Cisneros, the City of Houston has been undergoing an analysis and redesign of North Main:

  1. As of March 2022, the project is at 95% design between Boundary Street and Cottage Street.
  2. At the same time, METRO has been redesigning one of their frequent bus routes, the 56, which runs along Airline Drive. In addition to improved bus service, the redesign includes high-comfort bike lanes from North Main St to W Cavalcade St. Airline Drive intersects with North Main.
  3. To connect the proposed bike lanes on Airline to the proposed bike lanes on North Main, the City is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill the 0.5-mile gap between Cottage St. and Airline Dr.

To get more information about existing conditions, please review the Overview document.

The Overview document and the presentation from a May 2021 meeting shows the work so far and the proposed solution, which if you’ve been following along you know will include a “lane diet”, better sidewalks with pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes. There’s a heat map of five years’ worth of car crashes along this stretch of road, and I am totally unsurprised that the left turn from North Main onto Pecore, which happens quickly after the I-45 intersection and right past the entrance to the McDonald’s on the corner, is the hottest spot on that map. I fully expect there will be whining about this, but as with the 11th Street project, this makes a lot of sense. I look forward to seeing future updates.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

More on the 11th Street project

The Chron editorial board mostly approves of the city’s plans for 11th Street in the Heights.

Ever since Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled his Vision Zero Action Plan — an ambitious program to end traffic fatalities by 2030 — the city has focused on priortizing pedestrians and bike lanes in the urban planning process.

The 11th Street redesign reflects these shifting values. We applaud Mayor Turner for pledging to move forward with this project, which will make the corridor safer and more accessible. Judging from all the new development along the nearby MKT trail, the project may boost local businesses. The hope is that in the long run, the city’s incremental approach to street redesign, while frustratingly slow to some advocates, will pay off as more of these projects move through the pipeline. The consequences of not proceeding with this redesign, and thus conceding to the car-centric philosophy that has dominated Houston’s urban planning for decades, will be devastating for the city’s long-term ambition of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

[…]

Local residents have voiced concerns that the changes to 11th Street could send traffic circling onto nearby streets. We share this concern, though slower speed limits and stop signs on those residential streets should mitigate traffic hazards somewhat. [David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston,] is also bullish on a pilot program the city launched in Eastwood called Slow Streets, which has shown to have some effect on discouraging motorists from driving on local streets. At key intersections in this neighborhood, the city installed simple, movable barriers encouraging through-traffic to take alternate routes. Vehicles traveling to homes and businesses may continue to access these streets, along with all emergency vehicles, and no parking spaces were removed. Fields is pushing to expand the program citywide.

In the big picture, the 11th Street project does more than just fill a gap in the larger bike network; it will mean more people walking and biking around town, frequenting businesses whose clientele would otherwise be limited to the number of available parking spaces. The goal of street design should be to create a community, not just a throughput ferrying motorists from one destination to the next.

See here for some background, and another CityCast Houston podcast for further discussion. I don’t have a good feel for how strong or organized the opposition to this plan is. The comments left on the project information webpage are slightly more pro than con, not that that’s conclusive. I get a bit of a Richmond Rail vibe in that the most vocal opposition appears to be coming from some businesses on 11th and some homeowners near 11th who are worried about traffic diverting to their streets, but the rest of the area is in favor. I could be wrong about that, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

The big difference here is that unlike the Richmond battleground of yore, there’s no politician representing the area that I know of that has come out against the city’s plan. I don’t know what CM Karla Cisneros, State Reps. Penny Shaw and Christina Morales, or Sen. John Whitmire think about this, but I do know they’re not making like John Culberson back in the day. That makes a difference, both in that there’s no one in power that Mayor Turner or his representative on the project would need to respond to, and also because it suggests that there isn’t enough of a constituency in opposition for an elected official to have to heed. This could change – for sure, people in my neighborhood know how to make themselves heard – but until and unless I see such a thing, I’m going to consider this a strong favorite to move forward. Which it seems likely to do beginning in the summer.

The 11th Street makeover

Gonna be interesting to see how this turns out.

A main thoroughfare through Houston’s Heights is the latest street where city officials are preparing for fewer car lanes, in an effort to consider more ways that people get around.

The plan by the city’s planning and public works departments is to transform 11th Street from two vehicle lanes in each direction to one, with bike lanes and occasional turn lanes.

The changes, which city officials argue will not severely impact drivers but will provide huge safety benefits, come as many communities struggle to improve sidewalks and smooth barriers to the use of bicycles and wheelchairs along roads while also providing capacity for cars. A recent plan for Broadway in San Antonio, for example, pitted city and state officials against one another last month over what is the best design for the street.

In Houston, while some have voiced skepticism, there is less political maneuvering as many concede changes are needed along some streets.

Convenient, safe options for walking, running or bicycling in the Heights all run into the same problem as local drivers: 11th Street.

Lined mostly by businesses between Shepherd and Studemont, the street acts as the main east-west road for the neighborhood. Other streets may cover some of the neighborhood, but 20th is the only other major roadway that runs the entire width, mostly straight, with few stops.

As a result, drivers on 11th tend to hit the gas.

“People drive way too fast,” said David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston, noting average speeds on the street often top 40 mph.

For folks trying to cross at the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Nicholson, that can pose problems.

“Never mind stopping, people speed up,” Scott Bottoms, 36, said as he waited to cross 11th Tuesday afternoon on his way back to his townhome.

[…]

Some of the biggest coming changes, however, will be at major intersections where the city is hoping to eliminate conflicts. Traffic along Yale is unaffected, but the planned street redo removes left turns at Heights, from all directions. The ensuing lack of left turns could send traffic circling onto nearby streets and force drivers familiar with the area to alter their habits.

Planners defend the decision as one that de-complicates common collision points in the neighborhood. Bike lanes, turning drivers, runners along the Heights Esplanade and proceeding traffic make for a variety of movements, which leads to confusion and close calls, although only a few dozen crashes in the past decade.

Fields said officials still are trying to resolve concerns about sending traffic onto side streets, but will not sacrifice significant safety gains for ease for drivers. The hope, he said, is to balance both, for all road users.

“When we can do something that checks all those boxes, then we think the community will embrace it,” he said.

That was from a couple of weeks ago. This opinion piece from last week addresses some of the issues that opponents have raised.

For starters, this is not a thrown-together plan the city is trying to sneak past neighborhood stakeholders. It’s part of the 5-year-old Houston Bike Plan and the more recent Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by the year 2030, and the city has provided traffic data that shows the street is more dangerous and prone to crashes than other roads with similar configurations.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in a statement provided to The Leader on Wednesday afternoon, reiterated the city’s commitment to “making our streets safer for all” and said the 11th Street project is moving forward.

“(Eleventh Street) is a high-crash corridor with 10 percent more crashes than similar streets across the state,” Turner said. “After three years of significant engagement, including with the council members offices, Super Neighborhood and Houston Heights Association, incorporating perspectives from the community, we are moving towards final design to make 11th St. safer for all.”

The point of the project is to provide protections for cyclists and pedestrians – think moms pushing strollers along the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail – and to slow down drivers on 11th who have a demonstrated history of driving too fast and making unsafe movements. Let’s not forget the No. 1 priority for the city employees working on this project, which is being funded with taxpayer money, is to keep people from getting killed or seriously injured.

And as I’ve reported during the last three years, Houston Public Works and the city’s Planning & Development Department have held multiple, regular public engagement sessions in which they’ve explained the project and its finer points to residents, businesses and property owners, giving them the opportunity to provide support or criticism as well as suggestions for improving the plan. The city’s planning and traffic engineers have heeded much of the feedback, too, making several tweaks and even broader changes, including during the last few months.

For example, residents did not like the idea of limiting left turns to only two intersections between North Shepherd Drive and Yale Street, because of concerns about increased cut-through traffic on residential side streets. So the city amended the plan and now intends to allow left turns at all but three intersections on that stretch of the project area, which extends east to Michaux Street and then south toward Stude Park.

[…]

[David Fields, the chief transportation planner with the city and the project co-leader,] refuted one of the big concerns expressed about the project, that a street that’s already busy with car and truck traffic will become overly congested. He said traffic counts show the proposed lane configuration will be more than adequate to move vehicles along 11th, even at peak hours. He also said the current four-lane, two-in-each direction setup would not even be on the table if the city were constructing a new 11th Street from scratch, because the traffic counts do not warrant that much lane capacity.

He also challenged the notion that bike lanes are not necessary because people do not frequently ride bikes along 11th, saying that cyclists did not ride along Houston’s bayous until bike lanes were added there. But now that infrastructure is regularly used.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite baseball movies, if you build it, they will come. And why would anyone come while it’s still too dangerous to ride bikes on 11th?

The 11th Street Bikeway is part of a broader initiative to make the city more bike-friendly and to reduce its reliance on automobiles and by extension, fossil fuels with byproducts that pollute the air. There’s a reason why Houston often has hazy-looking skies.

And this particular project will help provide further trail connectivity in the future, with it slated to link up with the bike lanes going in along Shepherd and Durham drives as well as along Interstate 10 in the southern part of the Heights.

See here for more on the project. I’ve noted the Shepherd/Durham plan to make the larger Heights area more bike and pedestrian friendly, which complements this one. The bike trail on Nicholson and the protected bike lanes on Heights Boulevard will also connect the 11th Street lanes to more existing bike infrastructure. That’s kind of the point.

Not everyone is on board with the idea, of course – you can see one example of such pushback in the embedded picture, which I took about two weeks ago. On this past Friday’s CityCast Houston podcast, Evan Mintz noted a similar meeting at Buchanan’s, a block away from Berryhill (both meetings were also noted in the second article). Evan also observed that the response to this project is basically split between the urbanists on Twitter, who love it, and the NextDoor crowd (however you would describe them) who very much do not. Yet another reason I’m glad I quit reading NextDoor all those years ago.

I’m a supporter of this project. Many people, myself included, drive way too fast on 11th Street. I’m not at all surprised that stretch of road is more crash-prone than average. I’m afraid of fatalities, because you do see pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the road, as well as other vehicles pulling into and out of parking lots and driveways along the way. For the most part, there’s not nearly enough traffic on West 11th to justify it having two lanes each way. I understand that some people get very upset whenever something comes along to challenge the notion of moving the maximum number of cars along at the maximum speed, but this is a neighborhood. It’s okay to want to let people traverse it by other means.

(If White Oak/6th Street went all the way through instead of truncating just past Yale, maybe this would be less contentious. West 11th is the main east-west route through the Heights, I get it. It still doesn’t have to be a speedway. Also, too, I’m old enough to remember when Heights Blvd was two lanes in each direction. We survived the change to its current one-car-lane-plus-one-bike-lane configuration, we’ll survive this.)

I suspect we’re in for a long battle, and it’s just a matter of time before I see a sign in front of a business somewhere advertising a website for the opposition. I will try to keep you updated on developments.

The Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project

Get ready for some major construction, but the end result will be well worth it.

Beginning next month, those who travel along North Shepherd Drive and Durham Drive in the Heights are going to have to cope with road construction – for at least the next five years.

For decades after that, though, driving down the parallel, one-way thoroughfares figures to be smooth sailing. And the same goes for walking and cycling.

Construction is expected to start in late January on the Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project, which will overhaul the two north-and-south streets between North Loop 610 and Interstate 10 to the south while adding bicycle lanes, new and wider sidewalks, landscaping and new underground infrastructure for water, wastewater and stormwater drainage. The project could take at least five years to complete, according to president Sherry Weesner of the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, which is spearheading the $115 million initiative and providing a significant portion of the funding for it.

“It’s going to take a lot of patience from all of us, but it’s going to be worth it,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Heights as part of District C.

[…]

Protected bike lanes have been part of the plan for the TIRZ 5 project between 610 and I-10, where they will be on the east side of both Shepherd and Durham, according to Weesner. METRO bus stops on Shepherd also will be on the east side of the street because there is room to accommodate both, she said, while the bus stops on Durham will be on the west side.

New, wider sidewalks will be installed on both sides of Shepherd and Durham, where vehicular traffic lanes will be reduced from four to three on both streets with the addition of designated turning lanes at select intersections with typically heavy traffic, such as West 11th Street. Weesner said two different traffic studies showed that congestion on Shepherd and Durham was caused mostly by the absence of turn lanes at busy intersections, so there does not figure to be a negative impact on traffic flow even with the overall reduction in lanes, she said.

In addition to the work on Shepherd and Durham, the project also calls for improvements on several of the cross streets that connect them – 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th streets.

Weesner said two other features of the project are city-owned street lights and an underground bio-retention system – called the Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater Management System – that will be beneath the trees planted on each side of Shepherd and Durham. The idea is to capture stormwater to help drainage and promote the growth of large trees.

“This is a really great project, because it can do so much,” Weesner said. “The area is really changing. The area has lots of new restaurants and other facilities, and people want to be able to walk there. People need to be able to walk from one business to the next business. Improving all modes of transportation is very important.”

I like this a lot. There’s been a ton of mostly residential construction in the area, and there are now a lot of places to eat along both Durham and Shepherd. Making it easier to get around by non-car means will be a big difference maker, and will be a boost for bus riders as well. I hope they figure out a way to connect the bike lanes directly to the Heights bike trail as it passes underneath. It will be a pain going through five years of construction, but I can’t wait to see what the result looks like.

Downtown kiosks

I’m not sure yet how I feel about this.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a plan to install up to 125 interactive digital kiosks around the city, a proposal that has drawn support from city officials who tout the advertising revenue benefits and opposition from some who equate the kiosks to sidewalk billboards.

If approved by council, the city would have Ohio-based IKE Smart City LLC install at least 75 kiosks within the next three years, focusing on commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. The kiosks, which are designed to resemble massive smart phones, would display dining, transit, event and lodging options and provide free Wi-fi and 911 access, among other features.

The city would receive 42 percent of the revenue generated from digital advertisements displayed on the kiosks, providing an estimated $35 to $50 million over the course of the 12-year contract, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Under the agreement, IKE Smart City would guarantee a minimum payment to the city of $11 to $16 million over the 12 years, depending on the number of kiosks installed.

City officials would have the option to extend the contract for another 10 years, in two five-year increments, if IKE Smart City meets certain performance goals. The company would pay for installation of the kiosks without using any public dollars.

Opponents of the kiosk proposal include Scenic Houston, a nonprofit that helped push for the city’s 1980 sign code that bans any new billboards. In a letter sent Friday to Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, Scenic Houston Executive Director Heather Houston said the board “strongly feels that the digital kiosks constitute digital billboards with a primary purpose to advertise.”

Icken disagreed, arguing Houstonians and tourists would find the kiosks helpful in navigating the city.

“I just don’t think of this as a digital billboard,” Icken said. “I believe they are interactive display screens, much like your iPhone, that allow people to get information.”

The kiosks also would display local job listings, arts and culture options, such as museums and theaters, a list of government buildings and services in the city, and a list of homeless shelters. Advertisements could not include racially derogatory, political or sexually explicit content, nor any ads for tobacco products.

Cooke Kelsey, chair of Scenic Houston’s advocacy committee, said the group also is concerned that business owners would lack the ability to prevent kiosks from being placed on sidewalks in front of their establishments.

Additionally, Kelsey argued the kiosks would defy the purpose of the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which he said generally is supposed to be used for traffic-related street signage, such as stop signs.

“That’s what a right-of-way or easement is, an understanding that they use it for those types of purposes,” Kelsey said. “So, putting an 800-pound smartphone in front of your front door, even if it’s a map, that’s stretching it. If they’re starting to broadcast messages that have nothing to do with traffic, you’ve gone way outside of that.”

The embedded image is of one of these things in San Antonio, from a Scenic Houston action page to email your opposition to City Council. I get the concerns, especially about sidewalk space, and I agree that business owners should have a say in whether one of them is on their sidewalk. There are already colorful direction-oriented signs around downtown, which these would either supplement or supplant. I guess this would feel like less of a big deal if our bus stops had advertising on them, as they do in many other big cities. Honestly, my reaction is a shrug, perhaps because I just don’t see these things on the same level of ugliness as billboards. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, I don’t know. CM Sallie Alcorn is on record in the story as being opposed, while CM Ed Pollard is in favor. I predict someone will tag this, and then we’ll see what the rest of Council thinks. What’s your opinion? Campos, who does not like them, has more.

Scooters banned from sidewalks

Fine by me.

Houston has scuttled scooter rentals along city sidewalks, and kicked riders of the two-wheel transports in busy areas into the street.

City Council on Wednesday approved changes to Houston’s codes outlawing any rental activity that impedes public sidewalks or blocks a city-controlled parking spot, a move aimed at eliminating businesses that use temporary trailers and the public walkway to offer rental scooters. The businesses have grown in popularity, but critics complain they block sidewalks and encourage novice riders to rocket along crowded sidewalks.

“They ride them recklessly, they don’t have helmets on,” District G Councilman Greg Travis said. “It is a disaster.”

In addition to banning scooter rental companies, the council revised existing rules to outlaw scooter use on sidewalks in a business district, effectively moving them off walkways in downtown, Uptown and the Texas Medical Center.

Scooter rental companies earlier this month complained they are being singled out for offering a popular activity where customers want them. Forcing them them onto private property, such as parking lots, or to permanent locations limits where people can find and use the rentals, the owners say.

[…]

Though they approved the measure, council members said shifting the scooters to the streets comes with its own challenges. Pedestrians will not have to share space with the motorized two-wheelers but scooter users now must contend with vehicle traffic.

The scooter rules are identical to those for bicycles, which also are banned from sidewalks in business districts.

Despite the need to ensure safety, some observers lamented the council’s actions limited mobility but did not improve the on-street conditions that make some of those interactions calamitous.

“A truly pro-business city might see this as not just an opportunity but a duty to build safe rights-of-way on our downtown streets so people can get around efficiently, and to create an environment that supports entrepreneurship,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said he will discuss additional safety needs in an upcoming Quality of Life Committee meeting, “so we can do what we can to keep (scooter users) safe, as well.”

Advocates said those discussions should include the addition of amenities, including dedicated bikes lanes similar to those along Lamar, Austin and Gray in downtown and Hardy and Elysian north of the central business district.

See here for the background. No question, these things do not belong on sidewalks, for the same reason that bicycles don’t – they’re a hazard for pedestrians. As noted before, the “leave your scooter on the sidewalk when you’re done with it” method for returning them is an extra hazard for people with disabilities. This was the right call.

I do think there should be a place for electric scooters in the overall transportation ecology in Houston. As with B-Cycle, the scooters can be an alternative to driving for people who need to take a short-but-not-short-enough-to-walk trip in the cited locations – downtown, Uptown, the Medical Center. It’s a question of doing it safely. I’ve ridden B-Cycle bikes downtown, and I generally felt fine riding in the right-hand lane on the one-way downtown streets. For the most part, the right lane is for buses and right turns only anyway, so you’re generally not being trailed by a car that’s dying to pass you. There are more bike lanes downtown now as well, and I too would like to see more of them. I think scooters and scooter riders will be fine doing this. Maybe it’s not as great an idea for entertainment purposes, but that’s the way it goes.

Houston’s scooter problem

Wait, when did we get scooters?

A plan in Houston to prohibit vendors from renting motorized scooters on city sidewalks has suppliers of the two-wheel contraptions revved up, and city officials holding the line to have scooters clear the way.

To address what it says are growing issues along sidewalks, especially in the central business district, Houston’s administration and regulatory affairs department plans to ask City Council to amend three codes that would push vendors off public spaces around parks and other gathering spots and move scooters off downtown sidewalks into the streets.

“These vendors at times become a nuisance or even a threat to public safety,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the regulatory affairs department and head of ParkHouston, which operates the city’s paid parking and parking enforcement systems.

Rental companies said they have tried to work with the city to develop rules that would allow them to stay, but the city has scooted past that to an outright ban.

“Instead of coming up with a permit for us, like they did with ice cream trucks or the (Houston B-Cycle) bikes, they say we are blocking the right of way,” said Juan Valentine, owner of Glyderz, which started setting up by Discovery Green in May.

The rule changes would outlaw parking a vehicle or trailer on public property for the purposes of renting a good or service, ban the parking of motor-assisted scooters on sidewalks, streets and any rights of way, and outlaw the blocking of any part of a sidewalk that makes it impassable.

“The sidewalk exists for pedestrian use,” Irshad said. “It is not set up for a business.”

Separately, Irshad said officials want to tweak the rule that applies only in the central business district related to sidewalks so scooter riders would have to use the street. Bicycles are banned from downtown sidewalks and only may operate legally in the streets — the proposed change would add language putting scooters on an equal footing and out in the road.

[…]

Customers rent scooters and return them to the same location. Scooters are powered by a small electric motor, with many models capable of speeds around 20 mph. Valentine said most scooters have a range of around 40 miles before running out of power.

Not all vendors, however, opposed the city rules while reacting cautiously to the city code changes. Randy McCoy, owner of ScootsTx that operates in Midtown and Galveston, told city officials in a letter that he only set up near Discovery Green when other vendors appeared on the street.

“I would not want to limit my scooters just to give street vendors a competitive advantage over me,” McCoy wrote.

Others say they went where the customers wanted them. In less than a year, Glyderz has gone from 20 scooters operating out of a trailer to 100. Valentine is preparing to open a permanent location, but said staying on the street is smart business, especially at his location just off Discovery Green.

“You swing by here at 9 or 10 at night and we have a bunch of people renting scooters,” he said.

He questioned why officials allowed Houston B-Cycle to install kiosks on sidewalks, but will not allow him to park a trailer at nights and operate off the sidewalk.

A variety of businesses can obtain permits for street vending, including food trucks, ice cream vendors and sellers during special events.

Irshad said there are no plans to establish permits for scooter companies.

I’ve been following scooters for awhile. There seemed to be a brief moment for bringing scooters to Houston in 2019, but that never went anywhere. Other cities have had a more extensive relationship with them. San Antonio banned them from sidewalks, while Dallas has banned them entirely. The Chron article for that story, from last September, had no mention of Glyderz or ScootsTx, so I haven’t missed much. These things may be here now, but they haven’t been here for long.

For what it’s worth, I favor banning them from the sidewalks, and not just downtown – anyplace these things are going to be viable as a rental business, there will be a high concentration of pedestrians. I would either ban them from hike and bike trails or require them to cap the top speed for trail-use scooters at 15 MPH, which is about the speed of a pedal-powered bike being driven by a normal person. There should be some kind of enforced mechanism to ensure the scooters are picked up quickly and not left scattered on sidewalks, which is a hazard to all but especially to people with disabilities. With all of those caveats in place, I’d find a way to establish permits for these companies, and let them park a trailer in the same way that a food truck vendor can. We’re lucky we didn’t have to serve as the beta testers like other cities (Austin very much included), but now that we have their experience, let’s try to make them happen in a way that prioritizes safety but still lets them operate. If you have any thought about this, the city was soliciting feedback from the public here, though it’s past their stated deadline now. You can also reach out to your Council member and the At Large members. What would you prefer to see happen with scooters in Houston?

Bike lanes for the Red Line

I approve.

The belief that Northside Houston residents will bike to buses and trains if it is safer to do so is bringing more curb work to Cavalcade, paid for out the same pot of federal money that brought the neighborhood trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority on Nov. 19 approved the use of nearly $1.3 million left over from building the Red Line light rail extension — which opened nearly seven years ago — to add protected bike lanes to Cavalcade from Irvington to Elysian.

The upcoming work will extend bike lanes along Cavalcade from Airline to Irvington, adding about a half mile of protected lanes. Tikon Group won the contract with Metro, which includes altering the road where needed and striping for bike lanes in each direction, installing rubberized bumps — often called armadillos — to separate cyclists and motorists, and building new curbs at major bus stops.

The curbs and intentional curves force bicyclists to slow at spots where people will be standing for the bus, while making sure biking through “will not have a conflict with the buses,” said Bridgette Towns, vice president of project management and engineering at Metro.

The extension will connect bike lanes already in use along Cavalcade between Irvington and Airline to bike lanes along Hardy and Elysian that act as a major spine for cycling through Northside.

I’m a longtime proponent of combining bike capacity with transit capacity, so this makes a lot of sense to me. Fixing sidewalks is also a good way to make transit more attractive, as well as just being a general boon to the area. This work is being funded by some leftover money from the original Red Line expansion – it’s a bit of a story, read the article for the details. As we know, there’s more work coming from the 2019 bond referendum, but for obvious reasons things are taking their time getting started. There’s still other stuff in the meantime.

Eating on the street

This makes a lot of sense.

Main Street bar owners are expected to take to the streets now that the city has given them the OK.

City Council on Wednesday approved, after some delay, plans for the More Space Main Street program which would close the road to automobiles and allow bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating spaces in the street.

If all goes well, revelers willing to head out could celebrate some Christmas cheer on the road.

“I’m very hopeful we could be up and running for the holiday season,” said Scott Repass, owner of Little Dipper, a bar along Main, and a champion of the proposal to allow outdoor spaces.

The program, which city officials approved as a pilot until March 2022, includes possibly closing Main downtown from Commerce to Rusk, depending on which businesses seek to participate. Rules and regulations for the areas bars and restaurants could carve out on the street are being developed by officials across several city departments, including planning, public works, police, fire and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Barriers would be placed to close Main Street off to traffic, while allowing cross streets to continue for vehicle use.

[…]

Aimed at helping the bars and restaurants weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan to close Main builds on the More Space program Houston’s planning department created to allow restaurants to use their parking lots to provide al fresco dining.

Main Street establishments do not have parking spaces, so business owners and the Houston Downtown Management District pushed to use the street.

“We had about 15 businesses that expressed a strong interest in taking part as soon as they are able,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing for the downtown district.

See here for more about the dining-in-parking-lots plan. Main Street already has limited vehicular traffic – it’s one lane each way, you can’t make left turns, and it’s already got a couple of blocks closed off at Main Street Square. Houston can support some form of outdoor dining pretty much all year – you need shade in the summer, and portable heaters at times in the winter, but it’s almost never too cold to be outside, and that’s the key. We’re doing this now out of COVID necessity, but we should have done this a long time ago because it’s a good idea. The Press has more.

In which Houston becomes more walkable

It’s a start.

On 19th Street, one of Houston’s most enduring strips of shops and restaurants, there is a vacant lot tucked between two stores, about a block from the landmark “Heights” sign.

When developers recently expressed interest in putting a new building there, however, they suffered a setback.

Houston’s planning codes, written in the 1990s with automobiles in mind, meant the developers would have to put the new building 25 feet back from the road, set awkwardly behind the street-side strip of storefronts.

The city planning commission granted them a reprieve from the rule, but the episode illustrated how Houston’s code served as an impediment, not a spark, for so-called “walkable” development, said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and member of the planning commission.

City council on Wednesday took a first step toward changing that, unanimously approving ordinances aimed at making pockets of Houston more friendly to pedestrians and moving the city away from its car-centric planning code. The new regulations only apply to new buildings and redevelopment in certain parts of the city.

In those areas, the ordinances will bring buildings — not parking lots — closer to the street, widen sidewalks, and reduce or altogether eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to offer.

[…]

The ordinances create two distinct programs: areas with a ““Walkable Places” designation, where the city seeks to foster pedestrian-friendly development; and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program, where the city hopes to bring the same principles to most streets that fall within a half-mile of a bus or train station.

While the underlying regulations are similar, the Walkable Places” program initially takes shape in three pilot projects along Emancipation Avenue, Midtown, and Hogan and Lorraine Streets in the Near Northside. Other areas can pursue a “Walkable Places” designation if a majority of property owners support it. City council will have final say over all such designations.

The “Transit-Oriented Development” program will apply to city-designated areas across Houston that are close to transit stops.

For the streets covered by either program, the ordinances undo many of the automobile-centered rules adopted in the 1990s. For example, under those rules, all development on major streets must be set back 25 feet from the road, businesses must offer a prescribed number of parking spaces for customers, and sidewalks must be 5 feet wide.

The new rules waive the set-back requirement, bringing buildings closer to the street and pushing parking lots to the side or behind new buildings. The transit-oriented development ordinance cuts or eliminates parking space requirements.

A preview version of the story from Wednesday morning is here. You should follow the links in the excerpt to see more about the program. It will take awhile for the effects to be truly visible, but the potential is great, and there are a lot more places that need this kind of intervention – I for one would put Washington Avenue at the top of the list of corridors to be added to the existing list. Though this story begins with a development on 19th Street in the Heights, as of today none of the Heights is in scope. Which is fine, as most of the commercial parts of the neighborhood – think White Oak, 11th, and 19th/20th – are pretty good with sidewalks to begin with. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see this spread to more of the city. It’s a little crazy to think that we had these anti-pedestrian rules in the first place, but that was Houston in the 90s for you. Would have been great to do this kind of unwinding a long time ago, but better late than never.

City moves forward on Vision Zero

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday adopted a plan that aims to end traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries in Houston by 2030.

The “Vision Zero Houston” plan is considered a significant step in the city’s mobility strategy and will change how officials design roads and sidewalks, according to a city news release. The plan, adopted as part of an executive order, will prioritize “engineering, education, enforcement, equity and evaluation,” the release said.

“Some will say this goal is unachievable,” Turner said in the release. “But I say, no loss of life is acceptable on our roadways, None, ZERO.”

Many cities that have adopted the plan reported steady declines in traffic deaths and injuries over the last few years, the release said. The mayor will establish an executive committee of leaders from city departments, surrounding counties, METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation to devise the strategy by this time next year.

See here and here for more on Vision Zero as it pertains to Houston, and here for further blogging. While Vision Zero has been adopted by San Antonio and Austin, but it’s been awhile since we’d heard much here. The Mayor’s press release is here, and if you want to do a deeper dive on what this means, see here, here, and here. This is a long-term process that’s going to involve things like lower speed limits, more and better sidewalks, and a bunch of other changes big and small that will be phased in, with new construction being done to the Vision Zero standard. You’ll be hearing plenty more as we go along.

A call to embrace scooters

Chron business writer Chris Tomlinson is a fan of scooters.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

After years of riding bicycles in traffic, I’m comfortable riding a scooter on the street where they belong. I find them a convenient and environmentally-friendly alternative to automobile congestion. But I’m in a distinct minority, according to new polling by Zpryme, an Austin-based research and events firm.

About 72 percent of Americans do not want electric scooters in their neighborhoods, according to the survey of 1,500 U.S. consumers. More than half of Americans believe that electric scooters are unsafe.

Only 5 percent of those polled have ever ridden one.

[…]

The scooters’ average top speed is 20 miles per hour, and the range is about 20 miles. An electric scooter performs about as well as the average bicycle commuter, but without sweating.

Zpryme’s survey of scooter users found most trips were less than a mile and cost less than $10 nationwide. But a substantial number said they routinely use scooters to travel up to 5 miles.

About 70 percent said they ride scooters for fun, according to the poll, and in San Antonio tourists use them for sightseeing. More than half said they use scooters because they are faster than walking, and a third use them for a daily commute to work. Last year, scooter users made 38.5 million trips in just a few dozen cities.

Because they are electric and consume little energy, the environmental benefits of scooters are substantial. A person on a scooter also takes up much less space on the road, which helps relieve congestion.

As long as they are banned from sidewalks and there is a plan in place to ensure that abandoned scooters do not hinder the mobility of others, especially disabled folks, then I can sign onto this. I still have my doubts about the scooter sharing industry as a business model, and I’m still not convinced that they’re safer on the roads for the rider than bikes are, but I do agree that they can play a role in various urban areas to reduce car trips. And they are coming to Houston whether we like it or not, so let’s try to make the best of it.

Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

San Antonio bans scooters from sidewalks

Speaking of where scooters do and do not belong:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Dockless electric scooters can’t be ridden on San Antonio sidewalks, per a new City ordinance that went into effect Monday, but many say they’re concerned about how well it will be enforced.

The new prohibition on sidewalk use comes a full year after rented e-scooters first arrived in San Antonio. It took months to arrive at the point where the City Council deemed riding on the sidewalk enough of a nuisance to move them off pedestrian rights-of-way and onto the street. But even though violating that law is a Class C misdemeanor that can carry as much as a $500 fine, some in the city are not sure that will be enough to deter violators.

[…]

Capt. Chris Benavides, with the San Antonio Police Department, said the sidewalk riding ban will begin with a 30-day grace period in which violators will be issued warnings about the new rule rather than citations. On Aug. 1, Benavides said, police officers will begin issuing citations in situations that call for them.

“The entire month of July will be used as an educational piece where we will issue written or verbal warnings for riding on the sidewalk,” he said.

“What we hope for is that the riders are mindful … that we’re able to work together to share that road and they’re aware of their surroundings.”

Gotta say, I appreciate San Antonio acting as beta testers for Houston’s eventual scooter experience. For sure, scooters – like bicycles – don’t belong on sidewalks, where they can endanger pedestrians. The enforcement issue can sort itself out; it’s my belief that plenty of scooter riders will now stay off the sidewalk just because it’s the law. As the story notes, there was a bill filed that would have banned scooters on sidewalks statewide, as well as capping their speed at 15 MPH (same as what the Houston commission recommended), and other things. This made it through the Senate but never got a hearing in the House. I feel like this should be a local issue, but at least this bill doesn’t appear to have done anything egregious. As with ridesharing, don’t be surprised to see this come up again in two years.

Another look at scooter mayhem

From the Associated Press:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

As stand-up electric scooters have rolled into more than 100 cities worldwide, many of the people riding them are ending up in the emergency room with serious injuries. Others have been killed. There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count by The Associated Press of media reports turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned.

With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets. Despite the risks, demand for the two-wheeled scooters continues to soar, popularized by companies like Lime and Bird. In the U.S. alone, riders took 38.5 million trips on rentable scooters in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

[..]

Data on injuries or fatalities linked to scooters is hard to come by because the industry is so new. In Austin, Texas, public health officials working with the Centers for Disease Control counted 192 scooter-related injuries in three months in 2018. Nearly half were head injuries, including 15% that were traumatic brain injuries like concussions and bleeding of the brain. Less than 1% of the injured riders wore a helmet.

Bird, one of the largest scooter-sharing companies, dropped its scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, California, in September 2017 and within a few months riders were showing up at the emergency room, according to Dr. Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room physician in Los Angeles and co-author of one of the first peer-reviewed studies of scooter injuries. The following year, Trivedi and his colleagues counted 249 scooter injuries, and more than 40% were head injuries. Just 4% were wearing a helmet.

“I don’t think our roads are ready for this,” Trivedi said.

Bird and Lime both recommend that riders wear helmets, and they’ve handed out tens of thousands for free. But last year, Bird successfully fought a California proposal that would have required helmets for adults, maintaining that scooters should follow the same laws as electric bikes that don’t require adult helmets.

Bird says helmet requirements are off-putting to riders and could lead to fewer scooters on the road. Almost counterintuitively, the company argues that it’s better to have more riders than less because it forces drivers to pay attention to them.

“There’s a safety in numbers effect, where the motorists know that there’s people out on the street, so they act accordingly,” said Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy for Bird.

Getting people to wear helmets is a challenge. Riders don’t want exposure to lice or germs that could be found in shared helmets, and many make a spontaneous decision to scoot while they’re already out and about.

You can add this to the Austin study, which is now beginning to paint a consistent picture. Here’s the problem as I see it: Scooters on sidewalks are a danger to pedestrians, while scooters on roads are a danger to themselves, with worse potential consequences. They’re all right on bike paths and bike trails, as long as those are not used by pedestrians, but there aren’t enough of them to support the scooter business model. I don’t know how they’re supposed to fit into an urban street system. There’s something to be said for the “safety in numbers” effect – the same is known to be true for bicycles – but how many scooters will there need to be to get to that effect, and how long might that take? I just hope that we can figure out some better strategies to minimize the damage until we get there.

(That definitely means making helmets mandatory. I mean, come on.)

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Senate passes scooter safety bill

Cool.

Sen. Royce West

Texans could soon be banned from riding electric scooters along sidewalks in the cities where the divisive devices have recently popped up. The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would add that prohibition and require that scooter users be at least 16 years old.

Citing safety concerns, some local governments have imposed restrictions on electric scooters, like creating restricted areas where they can’t be used — but Texas legislators wanted to impose minimum statewide guidelines.

“It’s like the wild, wild west out there with no rules,” said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Senate Bill 549, authored by Dallas Democrat state Sen. Royce West, would also prohibit more than two people from riding a scooter at once. Plus, the bill adds new guidelines for parking, so a rider can’t obstruct a road or sidewalk when they finish their ride.

[…]

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, decried the prohibition from riding on sidewalks, saying that there are some situations where it’s safer for a rider be on the sidewalk than on the street. But Houston Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, who says she’s been nearly hit three times by a scooter, said the sidewalk ban is key for safety.

“What about my personal liberty, my personal safety, when I’m walking on a sidewalk?” she said. “Not a side scooter-way, a side runway, or a side speedway — but a sidewalk.”

See here for the background. I don’t know what Sen. Hughes’ experience is, but we ban bicycles on sidewalks, too, and for the same reason. I’ll be rooting for this one in the House.

Metro working on sidewalks

I heartily approve of this.

Metropolitan Transit Authority is taking the lead on leveling sidewalks and bus stops to give riders an easier path to transit — or, in some cases, actual access to it.

“This is a model of what an agency can do,” said Metro board member and disability access advocate Lex Frieden.

Noting will happen overnight to make each of Metro’s 9,000 stops smooth and ready for wheelchairs, but the effort and the money Metro is putting behind it — some of its own and the rest coming from city, county, regional and state sources — is unprecedented.

“This is not just rhetoric, we are funding this priority,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

Transit officials last year committed to tackling these treacherous trips, noting the deplorable condition of some sidewalks and bus stops in the region.

In many communities, transit users — especially the elderly and those in wheelchairs — are cut off from buses because they cannot make it to the stops because of blocked, buckled or absent sidewalks. When they can get to a stop, they wait exposed to the sun and rain, at places where bus ramps cannot quite line up with the sidewalk, if there even is a sidewalk.

“Some of them are just standing in the grass,” Metro board member Lisa Castaneda said.

Metro jump-started a handful of projects last year to repair sidewalks in key spots, as they assessed which of the system’s bus stops — including those at transit centers — were most in need of fixing.

On Thursday, officials are scheduled to approve a contract with Tikon Group for on-call construction services aimed at bus stops. The on-call contract will give staff the ability to hire Tikon for up to $3.2 million worth of work over the next three years.

Repairs at each stop will vary in price, but officials said the contract likely will lead to repairs at hundreds of bus stops.

[…]

Another $30 million in funding could follow, pending approval from the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The agency’s transportation policy council, which doles out federal money, is finalizing its list of upcoming projects. Staff have suggested giving Metro $30 million for key sidewalk and accessibility projects.

Addressing the problems, however, extends beyond Metro. Within Houston, the city has some oversight of sidewalks but cedes most of the responsibility to landowners, who are supposed to maintain pedestrian access along the property. The city lacks the power in many cases to force improvements, leaving many sidewalks in disrepair, especially in older parts of the city.

Harris County leaders have expressed interest in working with Metro to make some larger improvements, said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the county’s appointee to the transit authority.

I’ve been all in on improving sidewalks for some time now, so this is all music to my ears. I’m especially glad to see H-GAC and Harris County getting into the game. It can’t be said enough: Better sidewalks make for a better transit experience, which will mean more riders. It’s also vital for riders with mobility issues. Everything about this story makes me happy.

More details on the Metro referendum

Still a work in progress.

A planned 110 miles of two-way HOV along major freeways with eight new park and ride stations is expected to cost $1.37 billion, with another $383 million in improvements to operate 25 percent more bus trips across the region.

The projects promote new services within Metro’s core area and on the fringes of its sprawling 1,200-square-mile territory. Inside the Sam Houston Tollway where buses travel most major streets and are more commonly used by residents, officials want to increase how often those buses come. Outside the beltway where more than 2 million of Harris County’s residents live, park and ride lots will be expanded and commuter buses will go to more places more often.

[…]

Big-ticket items in the plan are directed at faster commutes and more frequent service in transit-heavy parts of Metro’s area. As officials prepare for eight new or expanded park and ride lots and two-way service even farther out most freeways, 14 core local bus routes are primed for development into so-called BOOST corridors aimed at making bus trips along city streets faster by sequencing traffic lights to give approaching buses priority and increasing the frequency of buses.

“From the outset, we are very pleased with where they are putting the investment,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation planning.

Still, Blair said the agency is hoping for more specifics on how Metro prioritizes projects, both in terms of funding and the timing with which initiatives are tackled.

“People want to know what they are getting and when,” she said.

Another aspect of the plan will be about getting to bus stops. Officials say they plan to coordinate with city planners and developers to make sure sidewalks lead to accessible and comfortable stops, something many riders say is transit’s biggest obstacle in Houston.

As a reminder, you can always go to MetroNext.org for information about the plan and public meetings to discuss it. In a better world, we’d be starting off with a transit system that already included a Universities light rail line, and would be seeking to build on that. In this world, we hope to build a BRT line that covers much of the same turf west of downtown, and turns north from its eastern end. Which will still be a fine addition and in conjunction with the Uptown BRT line will finally enable the main urban core job centers to be truly connected. The focus on sidewalks, which I’ve emphasized before, is very welcome. We need to get this approved by the voters, and we need to ensure we have a Mayor that won’t screw up what Metro is trying to do. I know we’re already obsessing about 2020 and the Presidential race – I’m guilty, too – but there’s important business to take care of in 2019 as well.

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.

RIP, Peter Brown

A dedicated public servant and a heck of a nice guy.

Peter Brown

Former Houston city councilman, mayoral candidate and civic leader Peter Brown has died, his family said Tuesday.

Brown, an architect and urban planner, was 81.

“A loving father, committed public servant, and fearless advocate, former Council Member Brown passed on to the next life the same way he lived in this one – surrounded by his family in the city he loved most,” his son, the elected City Controller Chris Brown, said in a statement.

“The Brown family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”

You can see Chris Brown’s statement here. After the 2009 Mayoral election, Peter Brown went back to his roots, talking about urban design and making city streets safer and more user-friendly for people on his Pedestrian Pete website. He was a visionary and an advocate for building a better city to the end. Rest in peace, Pedestrian Pete.

Improving Metro service for disabled riders

It’s a work in progress.

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act – and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from [Metro board member Lex] Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders – such as tense interactions with bus operators – the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

I wrote about the need for good sidewalks in my Vision for Metro post about boosting bus ridership. I admit I didn’t think of it in terms of making the system more accessible for disabled riders, which as this story notes would allow Metro to provide fewer of the more expensive MetroLift rides, but the principle was the same. People can’t and won’t ride the buses if they can’t get to and from the bus stops in a safe and convenient manner. It’s good that Metro is putting some money into addressing the issue, but let’s be clear that this is not, and should not be, strictly a problem for Metro to solve. It’s a Houston issue and a Harris County issue, too. We all need to treat it like the pressing concern that it is.

What makes transit successful?

It’s pretty basic, as this report lays out.

A new report released [Tuesday] by TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, finds that developing transit in walkable areas and offering frequent, fast bus and rail service is the key to increasing urban transit ridership.

The report, “Who’s on Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works” draws on results from three focus groups and a survey of 3,000 people in 17 U.S. metropolitan areas with varying levels of transit development and ridership. It builds on the findings from TransitCenter’s first Who’s On Board report released in 2014—the largest-ever attitudinal survey of transit riders—which showed that Americans from coast to coast think about and use public transit in remarkably similar and often unexpected ways. The latest edition of the Who’s On Board series offers several core findings to inform how government agencies and elected officials approach transportation, land use, and development policy:

  • The most important “first mile/last mile” solution is walking. The majority of transit riders, including 80 percent of all-purpose riders, typically walk to transit. This finding underscores the importance of putting transit stations in busy, walkable neighborhoods; building offices and housing within walking distance of transit; and providing more and safer pedestrian routes to transit.
  • The two most important determinants of rider satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time. The availability of information and conditions at the station or stop were also important, suggesting that real-time information and shelters are important amenities for transit agencies to provide. On the other hand, power outlets and Wifi were rated the least important items out of a list of 12 potential service improvements.
  • There are three common patterns of transit use: occasional riders who take transit once in awhile, commuters who take transit regularly but only for work, and all-purpose riders who take transit regularly for multiple purposes. Transit agencies should strive to grow this third category of rider, as they are the most reliable and financially efficient customers to serve. All-purpose riders are more prevalent where it’s easy to walk to transit, and where transit is frequent and provides access to many destinations.
  • Transit riders are sensitive to transit quality, not “captive” to transit. For decades, transportation professionals have talked about two kinds of transit riders: car-owning “choice riders” who use transit when it meets their needs, and carless “captive riders” who will use transit regardless of its quality. Who’s On Board finds that the “captivity” of carless riders is severely overstated. People who live and work near better transit ride transit more often, whether or not they own cars. When transit becomes functionally useless, there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.

Who’s On Board offers several recommendations for local governments and transit agencies to improve transit service, including creating dedicated lanes to reduce travel time, improving frequency on routes with high ridership potential, and zoning to concentrate development around transit corridors.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules. Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable,” said Steven Higashide, Senior Program Analyst for TransitCenter and leader of the foundation’s opinion research program. “Transit lines that don’t follow these rules–like commuter rail with parking lots at every station or slow streetcars that don’t connect to other transit–tend to perform poorly. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

“Who’s On Board shows that discussions about transit often ignore what really drives transit ridership. In Houston, we bucked the trend by redesigning our entire local bus network to improve frequency and travel time—and total ridership is up more than 10 percent,” said Christof Spieler, a Houston METRO Board Member. “If every city followed the report’s advice and focused transit investments on frequency, travel time, and walkability, we could make transit useful to millions more people across the country.”

The full report is available for download here.

More information about the report is available here. If you look at the Recommendations on page 12 of the report, you’ll see that pretty much everything there was implemented by Metro in its bus system redesign. The main thing that still needs to be done, which is the first recommendation for local governments on page 13, is improving sidewalks. Every dollar that we can reasonably spend towards that goal will be worth it. Read the report and see what you think. The Chron story on this is here, and Urban Edge has more.

The latest attempt to kill the Uptown BRT line

Whatever.

“See this right turn lane filled up?” asked consultant Wayne Dolcefino to about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. “That’s going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That’s going away too.”

A woman’s jaw dropped, as though what Docefino said was inconceivable.

But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two-and-a-half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.

Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the “lack of effective commuter transit service.” To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.

On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won’t want to bother with the headache, and that the project is “stained ethically” because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston.

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John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that “this project has been vetted more than any public project I’ve ever been associated with” in response to critics saying it hasn’t been transparent.

Complaints about the Uptown line are nothing new – they go back to 2010 at least. A lawsuit was filed last year claiming that the project was in conflict with the 2003 referendum because it wasn’t light rail (!); that lawsuit was dismissed a few months later, though there was no resolution in the dismissal. A criminal complaint was filed in April over the way land was acquired for the project; there’s been no word yet as to whether there’s anything to that or not. Campos has the text of a letter this “Save Uptown” group has sent out, which calls on Mayor Turner to stop the project and says another lawsuit is in the offing. It’s not clear to me that the Mayor could stop this if he wanted to – Council approved funding as part of the overall Uptown/Memorial TIRZ expansion, but funding for this comes from other, non-city sources as well. It’s also not clear to me why Mayor Turner would want to top this given his emphasis on rethinking transportation. My question for “Save Uptown” or any other foe of this project is this: What’s your alternative to the status quo? I mean, if you think the traffic situation in the Uptown/Galleria area is fine as things are and nothing needs to be done, then fine. Say it loud and proud. If you don’t think it’s fine, then please tell me 1) what you would do about it, 2) how you would pay for it, 3) how much disruption any of your planned upgrades would cause over the next two years, and 4) what you have been doing since, oh, 2010 or so, to bring about your vision. Maybe the Uptown BRT project isn’t the best possible idea, or maybe the cost is too high, but you can’t beat something with nothing. This plan has been in motion for a long time. What have you got that’s better than it? Swamplot and the HBJ have more.

Uptown BRT construction officially begins

Here we go.

Crews are relocating trees in preparation for two years of construction, starting in July.

The Uptown Dedicated Bus Lanes Project will unfold in three phases, moving from north to south and starting with the West Loop to San Felipe segment. Designed to solve the area’s crushing mobility problem, the $121.5 million boulevard project is one part of a three-prong plan to make it easier for 80,000 employees to get to work.

“We’ve done about all we can with the freeway, but we need to improve how automobiles move through the area. We essentially have no commuter bus service,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding.

The boulevard will be widened from 120 to just over 136 feet. Buses will be moved to central lanes, with landscaping and sleek shelters, replacing the current esplanades. The project preserves six auto traffic lanes and their signalized left turn lanes.

The Uptown TIRZ is contributing $76.5 million and getting $45 million in federal funds for the boulevard. An additional $25 million in TxDot funds and nearly $70 million in federal funds will be spent to tie the boulevard’s buses to the Northwest Transit Center and a new Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center that will tap into the Westpark Tollway and the Southwest Freeway HOV lanes.

“We’re going to have the level and quality of service that the light rail system has with all the flexibility that the bus system offers,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding, whose group is also working with Metro to develop a new bus prototype for the boulevard that will be a hybrid of commuter rail vehicles and current buses. Giving the buses their own roadway will reduce travel time along the boulevard by 40 percent, Breeding said.

But his group also wants to create a more walkable environment for growing numbers of residents and visitors in the area.

The district estimates that Uptown’s current population of more than 45,000 people will mushroom to more than 69,000 by 2040.

To that end, the sidewalks are being expanded from four to 12 feet and planted with a shady canopy from two rows of new trees.

“If we can get people to walk to lunch, it really does take cars out of the intersections,” Breeding said. “We will not be successful just by adding mobility improvements. We have to make it a better place.”

Sleek light towers will also make the sidewalks more inviting at night. The boulevard’s trademark steel “ring” signage will remain, and its shiny arches will be re-engineered to accommodate the wider sidewalks.

“We don’t want you to walk out of a restaurant or an office building and go, ‘That’s a really great bus street,'” Breeding said. “We want you to think about how beautiful the environment is.”

There was a symbolic groundbreaking almost exactly a year ago. I guess I hadn’t realized there hadn’t been much done since then, other than more legal thrust and parry, anyway. My opinion on this project remains the same: I think it’s a good idea, I think it’s necessary, and I think that if it provides a good service, people will use it. I’d feel better about its short term prospects if the University line hadn’t been reset to zero, but if the Uptown line can be viable and useful, then that will make the case for trying again on the University line that much stronger. In the meantime, having express bus service go into the Galleria area will help provide some level of potential Uptown Line riders, and if the high speed rail line really does get built with a terminal at the Northwest Transit Center, then that’s another way to connect in. As with pretty much every rail or rail-like project ever, if it can overcome the hurdles people keep putting in the way of its construction, I think in the end we will be happy it got built. But first we have to get there. This is the beginning of that.

One more thing:

Breeding admits the project has one serious shortfall: No bike lanes are included.

“That’s an important, emerging issue,” he said, calling access for bikes “a holy grail” that couldn’t be accommodated, given “the national mood on the widths of thoroughfares.” He said the district is developing a master plan that could encourage bike traffic on other streets in the area.

That is unfortunate. I’ve been an advocate for integrating bikes into the plan for Uptown (and for transit in general), so I’m sorry to see this. I hope that master plan can find some decent alternatives that will still work well with what they’re doing.

Carrin Patman’s vision for Metro

I commend you to read Christopher Andrews’ report of a recent meeting between Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and group of local transportation-interested bloggers. I quote here from his recap of what Patman has in mind for Metro while she is Chair:

HoustonMetro

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it’s inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston’s Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston’s fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO’s Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It’s worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that’s a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO’s service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an “on-demand” service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland’s now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki’s north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It’s important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman’s final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO’s bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users.

Andrews notes my post on how Metro might market itself, then goes on to make his own suggestions. There are themes from my other posts as well. Patman specifically said that she reads what those of us who were there have to say about Metro and what it is (and should be) doing. My reaction after that meeting is that they’ve already got this figured out, and are doing or at least studying plenty of the things all of us had in mind. It’s encouraging to see, and again I urge you to read Andrews’ report as well as the one that was posted on the Metro blog.

I still have a post to write about where things are and where they may go with rail, but I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, there were some more tweaks applied to the new bus network.

The transit agency makes service adjustments three times a year. Those changes are made in January, at the end of the school year, and at the start of classes in the fall. The latest changes affect over thirty Metro routes and that includes both local buses and park and rides. They went into effect last weekend.

Metro’s Jerome Gray says one thing they’re trying to do is ease overcrowding on some of the more popular routes.

“We’ve added some trips earlier in the morning to accommodate people asking for that,” Gray says.

Changes also affect the park-and-ride buses. Gray says ridership usually dips toward the end of the school year and they also thought they’d have fewer riders because of oil and gas layoffs. But it turns out that wasn’t the case.

“Interestingly enough on several of those park and ride routes we’ve actually seen an uptick in the ridership,” says Gray. “I think a number of people are just opting to not drive their car all the way into work. They’re opting to park it and get on the bus.”

You can see all the changes here. As the KUHF story notes, there will be more to come, with a new Manchester/Lawndale route to the Magnolia Transit Center set to debut in July. I promise to have my rail post done before then.