Houston Opinions

Houston Area Survey: We're optimistic on economy, worried about traffic, tolerant on social issues

We're optimistic on economy, worried about traffic in latest survey

downtown Houston skyline at dusk
The Kinder Houston Area Survey is the nation’s longest-running study of any metropolitan area’s economy, population, beliefs and attitudes. Photo by Jim Olive/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Stephen Klineberg Rice Unversity
Dr. Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice University's Kinder Insitute for Urban Research, presented the findings of this year's Kinder Houston Area Survey on Thursday. Timeline.Centennial.Rice.Edu
Houston traffic Galleria area traffic jam
According to this year's survey, 65 percent of Harris County residents said traffic congestion has gotten worse. Local.AllState.com
downtown Houston skyline at dusk
Stephen Klineberg Rice Unversity
Houston traffic Galleria area traffic jam

Houstonians feel increasingly optimistic about the local economy in spite of the recent downturn in oil prices, are increasingly pessimistic about the area's worsening traffic problems, and have progressive views on such hot topics as immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and the death penalty.

These are some of the results of the latest Kinder Houston Area Survey.

 "All of America is going to look how Houston looks today in about 25 years. It makes what's happening in the city particularly important." 

Each year, Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research conducts a survey to assess Houstonians' opinions on a range of topics. Dr. Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute, discussed the findings Thursday at a luncheon at the Hilton Americas-Houston.

The Kinder Houston Area Survey, now in its 34th year, is the country’s longest-running study of any metropolitan area’s economy, population, life experiences, beliefs and attitudes. The 2015 survey included 1,611 respondents from Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

Local Economy

According to the report, Houstonians are optimistic about the local economy in spite of the recent drop in oil prices. Positive ratings of local job opportunities ("excellent" or "good") increased from 60 percent in 2014 to 69 percent in 2015. Klineberg says these subjective evaluations mirror unemployment rates for Harris County, which dropped from 5.7 percent in February 2014 to 4.3 percent in 2015. 

Only 18 percent of area residents in 2015 named the economy as the biggest problem in the city, compared with 37 percent in 2012.

Klineberg noted that although the rapid decline in crude oil prices in recent months might have caused Houstonians to feel less positive about the local economy, the 2015 survey found that it has not had a significant effect on most area residents.

Traffic and Public Transportation

The report revealed that 65 percent of Harris County residents who have lived in the area for three years or more feel that traffic congestion has continued to worsen, up from 56 percent in 2013 and from 53 percent in 2011. Moreover, 28 percent of respondents spontaneously named traffic as the city's biggest problem.

When asked to indicate which of three proposals would best solve the area's traffic problems, 43 percent of respondents chose "making improvements in public transportation, such as trains, buses and light rail," and 27 percent called for "developing communities where people can live closer to where they work and shop."

Just 26 percent of Houston-area residents thought that the more traditional solution — "building bigger and better roads and highways" — would be the most effective way to reduce traffic congestion.

Diversity and Beliefs About Immigration

Historically, the proportion of area residents giving positive ratings (“excellent” or “good”) to the overall relations among the city's racial and ethnic groups has increased in all major ethnic communities, although the number of positive evaluations declined for all groups between 2013 and 2014. 

Klineberg notes that this year's survey, however, shows that ethnic relations have started to turn around. Between 2014 and 2015, the ratings improved for Anglos from 53 to 56 percent, were stable among blacks at 37 and 36 percent, and showed significant growth from 35 to 46 percent for Hispanics.

Similarly, the proportion of Houston-area residents who would like to see the U.S. admit more or the same number of immigrants in the next decade as were admitted in the last decade grew from 54 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2015.

Differences Between Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery Counties

This year, in addition to surveying Harris County residents, the Kinder Institute also asked the same questions to 400 residents each from Fort Bend and Montgomery counties to allow for direct comparisons between the three areas.

While 28 percent of respondents from Harris and Montgomery counties spontaneously named traffic as their predominant concern, Fort Bend County residents felt even more worried about traffic with 40 percent of respondents naming it as the area's most significant problem.

One of the most notable differences between the three counties relates to political affiliations. Roughly 45 percent of Harris County respondents identified as Democrats and 32 percent as Republicans. In contrast, 53 percent of Montgomery County residents said they were Republicans and 29 percent were Democrats.

Fort Bend County, on the other hand, was evenly split with 41 percent identifying with each of the two parties. Klineberg noted that the remainder of respondents considered themselves to be either independent or expressed no political preference.

Social Issues

The 2015 survey found that while 58 percent of Harris County residents said they personally believed that abortion is "morally wrong," 63 percent are opposed to "a law that would make it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion."

Klineberg noted that while Houstonians personally maintain traditional values, they are also respectful of the right of others to make their own decisions, indicating that the city's residents are increasingly progressive and tolerant.

Area residents are also increasingly accepting of same-sex marriage, with 51 percent of those surveyed this year agreeing that "marriages between homosexuals should be given the same legal status as heterosexual marriages." That percentage is up from 43 percent in 2009, 37 percent in 2001 and 31 percent in 1993. Additionally, 49 percent of residents consider homosexuality to be "morally acceptable." Klineberg called this a "sea change" from the 21 percent who responded the same way in 1997.

Moreover, support for the death penalty among Houston-area residents has declined, with 56 percent of the 2015 respondents saying they are in favor of capital punishment "for persons convicted of murder," a significant change from 75 percent in 1993.

What It Means

Klineberg told CultureMap that the results of this year's survey are especially significant due to the notable changes across the board in terms of participants' responses from years past.

"The city is changing," Klineberg said. "This is a city that is reinventing itself, rethinking what it means to be successful.

"All of America is going to look how Houston looks today in about 25 years. It makes what's happening in the city particularly important."