Kyle Shelton | @KyleKShelton | March 25, 2016
Houston is experiencing an urban moment. Across the region, cities and citizens are considering ways to bring vitality to our parks and town centers. Political officials and advocates are working together to consider new mobility options from MaX lanes, to bike-share systems, to a better pedestrian realm. The inner loop is experiencing a boom of mixed-use projects and signs of residential density are even creeping into traditional single-family suburban areas like the Woodlands and Sugar Land.
All this work has brought Houston national attention. Our bus reimagining and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s paradigm shifting speech in front of the Texas Transportation Commission have each drawn comment and acclaim from metropolitan observers across the country. Houston, for so long the prototype of an unplanned city, is swiftly garnering a different reputation.
But a moment is, by definition, fleeting. Momentum can slow to a crawl or reverse course. How can Houston act to preserve this work and energy? What steps can be taken in order for the city and region to consolidate and build on its gains?
Those were among some of the most pressing topics discussed on Wednesday at a series of events co-sponsored by the Kinder Institute and TransitCenter, a public transportation research and advocacy group from New York, about transportation innovation and advocacy in Houston.
TransitCenter Executive Director David Bragdon noted in his opening remarks that for all the positive trends visible in cities across the country in public transportation, multi-modal mobility, and pedestrian scale urbanism, much of the effort is still nascent. While there is a great deal to celebrate, these projects are too often one-offs or policy aberrations. Unlocking ways to systematize the efforts and make them foundational to civic policy is the next major challenge.
Fortunately, Houston is in an excellent position to do just this. The recently passed general plan offers an opportunity for action and reflection. During a panel discussion at the event, Patrick Walsh, the Director of Planning and Development for the City of Houston, highlighted the importance of using the specific goals set out by the general plan to evaluate and realign the City’s current priorities and practices. The process offers the chance to ask whether our approach to any number of topics—from sidewalks to setbacks—are achieving our goals and to consider what new steps should be taken if they are not.
Too often, cities and transportation agencies get stuck in ruts of past choices and careful reflection remains an afterthought. Planning processes and innovative project approaches offer a chance to break from that retreaded territory. Panelist and METRO Board Member Christof Spieler held up the bus reimagining effort as a example of how to break with the received wisdom of the past in a productive way.
The need to improve public transportation and mobility is not, of course, an issue limited to Houston. One of TransitCenter’s primary goals is to identify and share transportation best practices from across the country. To promote a national conversation, TransitCenter shared the findings of “A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation,” a publication that draws from example cities across the United States to highlight the elements needed to foment and cement revolutionary urban transformations.
The report finds transformational change occurs most readily in cities with dedicated transportation advocates, forward-looking public leadership, and transportation agencies with a mandate for change.
These entities, TransitCenter argues, act in concert to create a stable and productive space for innovation. Advocates often offer an agenda-altering viewpoint and push officials to consider alternatives. Importantly, they must also support public officials when leaders push policies that may be political hot potatoes. For their part, public leadership can respond to advocates’ calls for change and help overcome obstacles to progress. Finally, public leaders can free transportation agencies to pursue a wider range of mobility practices that break with traditional, auto-first approaches.
Again, Houston possesses many of these elements. As Mary Blitzer, Interim Director of Bike Houston, highlighted, the city’s population of active advocates is growing each day and groups such as Bike Houston are working with public officials to structure new visions for the city and support efforts like the Bike Master Plan. Mayor Turner’s leadership on transportation builds on the successes of former Mayor Annise Parker’s work, forming a seamless transition of support for these efforts. And METRO, TxDOT, and the City of Houston have each shown signs that they are open to new methods and practices.
Challenges, though, certainly remain. Dr. Carol Lewis, Associate Professor of Transportation Studies at Texas Southern University, pointed out that engagement, advocacy, and action should be encouraged and distributed equally across the metro region. It’s too often the case that advocates from vocal communities garner much of the attention. Addressing the mobility needs of a wider swathe of the Houston region remains paramount.
In a series of workshops that preceded the public portion of the event, TransitCenter’s Director of Communications and Advocacy, Jon Orcutt, spoke about the challenges facing advocates and agencies as both groups work to improve the transportation landscape of cities. Citing example after example of successful intervention, Orcutt emphasized that the obstacles to effective transportation, safer streets, and healthier cities are not technical. We know how to build bus rapid transit, bike lanes, and commuter rail. We know that lower speeds and narrower streets are safer for users of all modes. We know people enjoy activated public spaces.
We possess much of the knowledge of how to make our cities better.
The challenge facing our cities and each of us as urban residents is how we overcome structural and political obstacles that prevent implementation of existing best practices? How do we manage the change and momentum that is building in our cities and bring all residents along with that change in an equitable way?
This larger conversation is just getting underway in Houston and cities across the nation. Much has been accomplished in Houston over the past few years in the realm of transportation, but much remains to be done. The Kinder Institute looks forward to joining with Houston’s advocates, agencies, and officials to hold that dialogue. And we hope to continue to bring national partners, like TransitCenter, to Houston to add their voice to the debate, to learn from us, and to share insights from across the nation with Houston.