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.