When he arrived in Houston two years ago, what David Fields saw belied what he had heard.
The nation’s fourth-largest city has long been known as car-centric and geared toward commuting, with a web of wide freeways that stretch from the heart of town to the far-flung suburbs. Driving, and fighting rush-hour traffic, could be considered part of Houston’s culture.
But Fields, a native New Yorker who also worked in the San Francisco area before taking a job as Houston’s chief transportation planner, saw a city in flux in terms of how its residents get around. Public transit options have expanded in recent years, and so has Houston’s network of sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails.
Fields, who has lived in the Heights and Montrose areas and works downtown, said last week he has yet to drive to his office, instead relying on buses and occasionally his bicycle.
“I think Houston has a reputation because it grew up around the car for many years, but the reality on the ground is not the historic reputation,” he said. “I did not realize how much was going on here until I got to spend some time.”
Although highway expansion continues in the region and driving remains the primary mode of transportation for most Houston-area residents, the city continues to inch away from its reliance on personal cars and trucks while expanding its infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users. The idea, according to Fields, is to make the city safer, to more adequately accommodate more residents and their preferred transportation options and also to combat climate change.
The city recently was awarded a $21 million federal grant for a transformative project on a 3-mile stretch of Telephone Road in the southeast part of town, where vehicle lanes will be reduced while bike lanes, wider sidewalks and improved connections with METRO – the region’s public transit provider – will be added. Similar projects have been completed in recent years on Austin Street in the Midtown area and Kelley Street on the north side, and many more are underway or in the pipeline.
A federal grant also is buoying an infrastructure project along Shepherd and Durham drives in the Heights area that calls for fewer vehicle lanes and an expanded pedestrian realm, and the city is doing much the same on a stretch of West 11th Street. Among the projects in the works at METRO, for which voters approved a $3.5 billion bond in 2019, is a 25-mile University Line that will stretch across the southern and eastern parts of town while connecting three universities.
Many of those projects have come to light under the administration of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was elected in 2015. Fields said the city has added 400 miles of bike lanes under the Houston Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2017, and meeting the needs of non-drivers is now part of the planning for every infrastructure initiative.
“The mayor has said over and over again we are in a transportation paradigm shift, which means moving people by all the different modes, making it safer for all the different modes and really rethinking our right-of-way space,” Fields said. “I can’t imagine any project the city is leading that is not looked at through a multimodal lens.”
Houston also is grappling with long-held perceptions and attitudes about how to get around the city and how its transportation resources should be invested. Fields said residents have expressed reservations about projects that will increase drive times and require prolonged construction – even if the tradeoff is improved safety – while Cutrufo said opponents of expanded cycling infrastructure often point to the city’s low number of bike riders compared to car drivers.
But [Joe] Cutrufo, whose BikeHouston organization has about 12,000 members, said Houston is “overbuilt for car traffic” and doesn’t require the lane capacity that exists on its roads. So there is plenty of space, he said, to accommodate those who prefer alternative modes of transportation.
“Nobody’s taking away your option to drive,” Cutrufo said of lane-reduction projects such as the ones in the Heights and on Telephone Road. “We’re gaining so much more than we’re losing. We’re not just gaining some space on a specific corridor that had to be quote-unquote taken away from drivers. We’re gaining a significant transportation option that we didn’t have before without losing the option to drive.”
It’s a long story, so go read the rest. Among other things, it name-checks the new bike bridges story, with the West 11th Street project implicitly included. Couple points to mention here. One is that the increased density of the greater Heights/Washington/Rice Military/Memorial areas is really only feasible with this kind of increased bike-and-pedestrian infrastructure. Both in terms of street traffic and parking space, you really want to encourage people who can get around these areas via walking or biking to do so, because there just isn’t the literal space for everyone to drive everywhere. This is a subject I’ve talked about before, in the context of increasing parking for bikes. Again, the key thing here is that making it easier for those who can walk or bike to get places really benefits those who have no choice but to drive.
The other thing to note, which gets only a passing mention in this story, is how much Metro has done lately in this space as well, from the big bus route redesign to more bike racks on buses, integrating with B-Cycle, and working to improve sidewalks around bus stops. The redesign of the local bus routes made a huge difference for me when I was working downtown and carpooling with my wife. It was much easier for me to get to and from work when our schedules didn’t overlap, and it was much easier to get to other places as well thanks to the frequent routes. I go downtown less frequently now that I don’t work there, but I rarely drive there when I do need to go. For those of you who rarely if ever take Metro, remember that every time I do, it’s one less car clogging up I-10 or I-45. You’re welcome.