Finding transportation solutions in Houston means creating transportation options.
Adding lanes and more highway milage alone has proven to be an ineffective means to deal with traffic. For example, the Katy Freeway travel times have increased up to 55% longer than before the widening in 2011, which cost taxpayers 2.8 billion and was supposed to alleviate traffic congestion.
As Mayor Turner recently said “We need a paradigm shift.” We must create a Houston where more people are interested and excited in getting around without a car. Making Houston less car-centric is not only about fixing our transportation problems. It is also necessary if Houston is to have a shot at solving a host of other complex problems – public health, sustainability, economic competitiveness, and public welfare. Nonprofits such as BikeHouston have been working with the city and other partners make this transition to a more option-oriented city. BikeHouston has seen 1000% membership growth in the past year and co-funded the Houston Bike Plan. You can find out more and join as a member at bikehouston.org.
Change is in the air and on the pavement in Houston. People are talking about buses and bikes (not to mention Uber). New bike trails are being built daily – the Bayou Greenways 2020 project is going to build 200 miles of new trails. A new METRO system with more frequent bus service and expanded rail lines has been rolled out to much fanfare. Although it is still early to call the bus network reimagining a success, ridership numbers were up 8% just 3 months after implementation. For 2015, METRO received the Outstanding Public Transportation System Award by the national American Public Transportation Association for expanded service and increased ridership across the entire transit network. And the Houston Bike Plan, which will be released for public comment on Feb. 15th, seeks to connect trails, buses, and destinations to create a Gold level bike network.
Just as importantly, Houston is beginning to densify. Creating an effective and efficient walking, transit, and bicycling network are difficult in a sprawling environment. We see this change largely in the downtown and inner loop areas. While this change is part of transportation solutions, if we don’t ensure affordable housing packages are part of urban redevelopment, we will see people continuing to be priced out of inner loop areas. This forces the very people who most need transportation options to move outside of the inner core to suburban areas where getting around without a car is slow and dangerous.
While these changes are happening, many Houstonians remain stuck in their daily grind of traffic jams. METRO ridership is increasing, but it is not at capacity. Similarly, the number of people bicycling and riding is on the rise, but is not increasing nearly as fast in cities who have made dedicated efforts to build safe streets for people walking and bicycling. Between 2000 and 2013, as DC built out a safe bicycling network, the percentage of people riding bikes to work increased by 498%.
What should Houston do to increase mobility options?
Take any city that boasts a healthy street life, with people going about their business walking, biking, or hopping on a bus. A casual observer would notice that the fabric of that city – the streets, buildings, and public spaces that tie the city together - looks different than Houston’s. It is that fabric that makes walking and biking the obvious choice of going to your destination. Walking and biking are also essential to making public transportation work. We need to get to and from a bus or light rail somehow.
And how do we make Houston walkable and bikeable?
Urban designers that have successfully worked at this problem would point out that for a walk or a bike ride to be favored by a city dweller, it must satisfy four conditions. It must be useful (most daily destinations are close and easy to access by foot or by bike), it must be and feel safe from automobiles, it must be comfortable, and interesting. Right now, Houston fails on all four conditions. In fact, it is hard to avoid the sensation that the city was designed with a mandate to defeat pedestrians and cyclists.
Fortunately, there is low hanging fruit that can have a high impact and costs little.
1. Pass the Houston Bike Plan and begin Implementing Short Term Projects, Policies and Key Connections. Building these trails, lanes and safer streets would triple our comfortable bikeway network – and start to create the fabric needed to get people out walking and bicycling.
A. Short Term projects includes re-striping bike lanes and adding in stop lights on main roads, to allow easier crossing for pedestrians and cyclists.
B. Policy changes include slower speed limits and narrower lane widths on some streets to make us all safer and allow room for people to feel comfortable bicycling and walking.
C. Key Connections – to fill in critical gaps between trails and major destinations with safe, comfortable bikeways.
2. Sidewalk/Complete Streets. Every roadway project should consider all users, even if the priority is one mode of transportation. Every person is a pedestrian at some point in every travel.
3. Vision Zero Fatalities campaign for all road users. Looking broadly at our roads we see that 227 people died in road violence in Houston 2014 (~ 2 people every 3 days) which is on par with our 239 homicides and 50% higher than in Austin, Dallas or Fort Worth.
How can we pay for this?
1. Dynamically priced street-curb parking, Parking Benefit Districts, and freeway tolls. After all, parking and street access are scarce resources, and isn’t Houston all about free market solutions?
2. Removing minimum parking requirements for commercial enterprises, to limit the scourge of empty parking lots, and removing building set-off requirements.
3. Public-Private Partnership and Bonds. Building out our trail system along the Bayous via Bayou Greenways Public-Private partnership has been very successful. Let's do it again for our utility corridors so we can get north - south.
4. City of Houston General Fund is responsible for providing core city services such as public safety, facility development and maintenance, and parks and recreation. Bicycle program resources and non-capital projects would most likely be supported through these categories within the respective department’s allocated budget through the general fund.
5. City of Houston’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) allocates funds for all major capital improvement projects. This program is an important tool for improving bicycle facilities and utilizes funds from a wide variety of sources including bonds, fees, and federal grant sources.
6. Municipal Bonds, like the Bayou Greenway Initiative, which is approved by voters.
7. Municipal Management Districts (MMDs) are special districts created by the Texas legislature. These districts are empowered to promote transportation and economic development, along with several other functions within their boundaries.
8. Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZs) are special zones created by City Council in efforts to attract new investment in an area.
9. Impact Fees – currently the City of Houston employs impact fees in relation to managing wastewater capacity and demands and drainage through ReBuild Houston.
10. Voter Approved Sales Taxes
11. Federal grant programs such as Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBGP), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program, The Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), Section 405 National Priority Safety Programs, The Recreational Trails Program, Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER).