taking it to the streets
Can Houston move beyond its car-first ways? Public transportation's brightestminds push
Beyond the Motor City, a PBS documentary that is part of a nationwide campaign called "The Blueprint America Screening Tour," was shown on Thursday evening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Brown Auditorium. The film explores how America's historic decisions to invest in highways and automotive infrastructure has come, in many cities — and particularly in Detroit — at the expense of accessible metro transit systems, sustainable development, historic preservation and urban vitality.
While focusing on the hard lessons learned in Detroit, the film also offers the hope that America's largest cities are now uniquely poised to shine a spotlight on — and to offer sustainable and cutting-edge solutions to — our nation's transportation obstacles.
A panel discussion followed the film, moderated by Camilo Parra of the American Institute of Architects Urban Design Committee. Panelists included Robin Holzer of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, David Robinson of the City of Houston Planning Commission, Jeff Taebel of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, and Christof Spieler, director of technology and innovation at Morris Architects, lecturer at Rice University and member of the Metro board. The participants grappled with the tough questions facing planners and citizens in Houston today.
"We have the bones of a very good system," Taeble, says. "What I think the challenge in Houston is how we adapt our land use and planning to really allow that system to maximize that potential. And I think we're still grappling with that question."
For example, the film draws attention to the lack of commuter transit options in American cities, but Holzer is quick to point out that Houston offers commuter transit in the form of HOV buses. Among commuter systems created within the past 50 years, it ranks second in number of passengers after Los Angeles.
And there are expanding opportunities to implement smart growth transit: Take the federal government's new Tiger Grants, which fund transportation proposals that aren't tied to a specific mode, but are instead rather flexible. The grants are awarded on the actual merit and innovation of the proposal.
Still, much work lies ahead of us.
"We are totally behind," laments Spieler. "And what's ironic about that is that we were so ahead. The streetcar was invented in the United States. The electric railroad was invented in the United States — 100 years ago, we had the fastest trains in the world."
Although available funds for transportation are miniscule in comparison to those of half a century ago, Spieler points out that money is being used — just not wisely:
"It's not that we're not investing in infrastructure at all. It's not that the Katy Freeway construction was free. We are actually spending a lot of money on infrastructure, but where we're putting that money is not always right. Shouldn't we be building sidewalks in Montrose where people are trying to walk rather than people having to step out into the street lanes because there literally isn't a sidewalk?
Or should we be building new roads through empty fields? A lot of the time now, we're doing the latter. Part of what we need to look at is just our priorities right now. Our funding is not set up to make intelligent decisions, and it's not set up to make those decisions quickly either."
To illustrate his point, Spieler painted a picture of his day, going between his home, work, a downtown Metro board meeting, a meeting at Greenspoint, dinner downtown, and finally the museum — all of which he accomplished with seamless public transit.
The only hiccup in his day, he explains, was getting from the door of the office building in Greenspoint back to the bus stop — he was presented with a vast, empty parking lot with no pathway or trees to protect from the scorching sun. It was only a couple of hundred of feet, but it highlighted how current policy is not focussing on details like sidewalks and street vegetation.
Cars come first
There are other policy issues that are largely unrecognized as problems. The city forces buildings to be built away from the sidewalk, which makes neighborhoods less walkable. There are also requirements that every building owner provide parking, but there is no provision for a bike rack or even a path to the front door. States Spieler, "A lot of the regulations we have are wrapped around this idea of car dependency."
The issue of quality connectivity is never going to be more or less relevant — there is a notion of permanence with all of our infrastructure decisions. Recounts Spieler, "A few months ago, I was in Philadelphia and took a train up to New York City, and that line I was riding down was grade separated and electrified in the early 1900s. And the infrastructure that engineers built back then is still carrying hundreds of thousands of people to their work, to go on their everyday lives.
"The decisions we make now will last for a long time. This light rail we're building will influence how our city grows and is built for the next 50, 100 years. So I think another one of the lessons I want to drive home is that it matters how we do this. It matters if we do it well."
Getting lapped by Europe
The Spanish government's monumental initiative to become the world's leader in rapid transit is frequently addressed in Beyond the Motor City — crying for the question of how did the world's 20th century leader in transportation fall so far behind?
In the 1990s, the Spanish established a plan for 2020, in which 90 percent of Spaniards would live within walking distance of rapid rail transit. The film interviews the minds behind the plan, who admit to having so heavily admired America's triumphing the automobile in the previous 100 years, but also overflowed with pride for what their nation had accomplished — reviving formerly disconnected villages, stimulating the economy and putting citizens into closer contact.
"The comments about the vision for 2020 that Spain had resonates with what we're doing now in Houston," Robinson says.
"We can make changes locally," Holzer emphasized as an introduction to her announcement of Tuesday's downtown meeting of the Harris County Commissioners. The 9 a.m. meeting is the one public opportunity for shaping the capital improvement plan for the next five years, involving the allocation of between four and five billion dollars. Between now and the Tuesday morning meeting, Holzer advocates contacting the county judge and local county precinct commissioner to voice particular opinions.
Look in your neighborhood
What the panelists emphasize most is to think locally, and strive for an unprecedented level of resourcefulness.
"Planning isn't something any of you should expect the government to do for you," Spieler insists. For his part, Robinson is working with the most visionary members of the Neartown community to conceptualize what the train stops will look like and how Richmond Ave. will appear with rail down it, asking questions like, "How wide will those car lanes have to be?" and, "Why is it that the City of Houston will not build a 10-foot wide lane if that might give back a few more feet to the pedestrian right of way on the sidewalk, which we want to enhance?"
To solve these questions, the panelists advocate working from a grassroots standpoint on the level of a neighborhood association, a civic club or non-profit organization, to determine what an individual area demands. Explains Spieler, "If the Metro board has a group come to us and say, 'We've already built a consensus around a project,' that's pretty powerful — politicians understand a force like that."
The aim is to curate a high quality environment along the roadway that promotes pedestrian and retail culture. After all, the economy is quite directly linked to the city's transit landscape. Holzer cites an excerpt she read in a report from Harris County this week, stating that while property values in the remote, mostly vacant parts of the county continue to plummet, the value of of lots in the Inner Loop continues to soar.
"I like to think that if the county can figure out that markets are shifting, then perhaps our public investment in county infrastructure should follow that," Holzer hopes. Adds Spieler, "We've had more residential units under construction along Richmond between Main St. and Greenway Plaza than most of the master-planned communities on the edge of Houston."
Why are people willing to pay more to be inside the city? The panel agrees on the importance of the notion of "place" — that people simply want to live in places they enjoy being in. Concludes Spieler, "This is about making places that people want to be in, and then putting in place connections to other places they want to be in."
Learn more about Blueprint America and Beyond the Motor City: