The Houston Area Survey covered a bigger area than usual this year.
One is mostly white and mostly Republican. It hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since native Texan Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago.
The other is as racially and ethnically diverse as any place in the country, swelling with black, Asian and Hispanic residents and much harder to bring under one umbrella.
But Montgomery and Fort Bend counties are much more similar than they are different. A new poll by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research shows that the two contrasting suburbs share common ground with their attitudes on traffic, development and immigration, among other key local issues.
The shared perspective matters as Houston goes through another growth boom, extending deeper into these counties. They will play an important role in the region’s future as it becomes bigger, busier and more diverse.
Separated by 50 miles of Houston sprawl, the two counties see bumper-to-bumper traffic as the region’s biggest problem, ahead of crime and the local economy, the poll found. And despite the car-oriented cultures of both places, four in 10 people surveyed say they would prefer to live within walking distance of work, restaurants and shops.
On new immigration, Montgomery County residents generally have stronger reservations, while Fort Bend County is more enthusiastic about its increasing diversity. But the differences are slight, said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice sociologist who has conducted the Houston Area Survey for more than 30 years.
“In this time of such political polarization, you would expect to see greater divergence on the issues,” Klineberg said. “But there is a surprising degree of consensus on what we need to do to succeed as a larger community, and that’s reassuring.”
The poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed – in each county – say improving public transit, such as light rail, buses and trains, is the best way to confront traffic woes. Fewer than one-third of people in the counties say they prefer building bigger freeways and roads.
In Fort Bend County, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said the poll’s results are not surprising considering the explosive growth in both counties.
“We’re dealing with the same issues,” including an aging infrastructure and the need for more water, Owen said. “I don’t care which side of Houston you live on, you have these problems.”
Missouri City, for one, is expected to nearly double its current population of 70,000 people by 2025. The growth is being driven by people working in and around the Texas Medical Center, 15 miles away.
Owen, echoing the poll’s results, said the area needs light rail to get people where they need to go.
“We have to get people out of their cars,” he said.
The recently released Kinder survey was based on interviews with 1,611 people, with about half in Harris County. The other half of the interviews were conducted in Fort Bend County and, for the first time, Montgomery County. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Klineberg expanded the poll to understand how these communities view the “dramatic” changes unfolding across greater Houston.
The rail numbers are interesting, though I don’t know how exactly to interpret them. I’ve browsed through the HAS page but have not found where (or if) they broke that data out by county. I’m guessing that support for rail in Montgomery is noticeably less than in Fort Bend and Harris. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, since there’s nothing on the drawing board for Montgomery (not counting the high speed rail proposal, which may not touch Montgomery anyway). Fort Bend has the possibility of the US90A rail extension, which may be in a better place politically now. They’d still have to enable Metro to operate inside the county for it to worthwhile, though. Anyway, as always the Houston Area Survey is a wealth of useful information. It’s good they’re including responses from outside Harris County now. The “Houston Area” isn’t complete without Fort Bend and Montgomery.