What’s Your Bold Idea For Public Spaces in Houston?

Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | May 20, 2016

Crews paint the ground in preparation of a new pedestrian plaza in New York City.

Crews paint the ground in preparation of a new pedestrian plaza in New York City.

If you could close off part of the street and make space for a pedestrian plaza somewhere in Houston, where would you do it?

What about adding a bike path? Or a sidewalk?

Any suggestions for slowing traffic through your neighborhood?

If you could wave a paintbrush or add some traffic barriers and remake our streets, where would you start?

Houstonians have repeatedly been asked similar questions in the past few months at the Kinder Institute’s KI Forum.

Both Gabe Klein, the former Chicago transportation commissioner who spoke in Houston in October, and Janette Sadik-Khan, the former New York City transportation commissioner who spoke this week, challenged Houstonians to be willing to remake and rethink their streets.

One way to do this is by finding ways to give more of the street — which is, after all, public space — over to pedestrians and bicyclists. Neither Klein nor Sadik-Khan advocate for the complete removal of cars from our cities. Instead, they ask for something all the more revolutionary for its actual achievability. They ask that we imagine — and act — to create a streetscape that works for every road user.

Each of these speakers offers Houstonians, and countless others in cities around the world, a simple way to achieve this goal: be bold, propose ideas and test them out. Nothing need be written in stone or law. Projects do not need to be funded for decades or require federal support.

Start with paint. Maybe a planter. Or even a beach chair, as New York found so successful in it Times Square plaza project.

Testing and pilot projects are the way to get things done. It lets people try out a new idea in an old space. They can experience what a parklet or a plaza does for a space, a street or a neighborhood. They allow for the collection of data, so officials can determine things like how a project affects traffic, safety, retail business and other factors. If it works? Great. If we hate it? Back to what it was before.

There are many conversations swirling around Houston about how we can achieve some similar outcomes. Plan Houston and the Houston Bike Plan both call for projects that may help achieve similar (and simple) goals. Even last week’s NextCity Vanguard conference proposed some small, but powerful projects across the city.

Sadik-Khan’s talk got me thinking about spaces where a pedestrian plaza or protected bike lane (where parked cars protect cyclists from traffic instead of the other way around) might work here.

Just thinking about my neck of the woods in Houston, I can think of several promising sites.

The Main Street Pedestrian Mall

Ever since Metro’s Red Line opened along Main Street, the two traffic lanes on either side of the rail have carried far less car traffic than before. Why don’t we fully embrace that change and turn the whole of Main Street into a pedestrian, biking and transit spine from Wheeler Avenue to McKinney Street?

Few turns are allowed on Main Street already. Downtown, the road is disconnected between McKinney Street and Lamar Street. So closing the street to traffic isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Allowances could be made for deliveries or existing entrance and egress. It just takes a willingness to test it out.

Might this shift revive or increase commerce up and down one of Houston’s historic roadways? What if we started with a pilot from Alabama Street to McGowen Street?

We could focus on an already vibrant stretch of shops in the area, along a path that would also include Houston Community College, the MATCH and Ensemble Theaters and a variety of social service providers. Creating a more active street would benefit each of these entities by increasing sales, drawing new users and increasing safety.

Maybe we use a Sunday Streets event to jump-start the effort. Close it off for a day and leave part closed for the next month. Sit back. Count. And keep it going if it works.

Rice Village Pedestrian Plaza

Rice Village is one of the region’s most active shopping centers. Its scale is relatable and digestible. And, as we found in a study last year (and as any who has visited knows), it lacks a central space for congregating or events.

Why not close one of the smaller side streets and make it into a plaza? Even half a block between two busy shopping centers could create a spot for events, outdoor eating or simply taking a break between shop hops.

This would require some thinking about ensuring access to existing parking. It might also push us to think about improving other modes of access into the shopping center. But portions of Kelvin Drive have been closed for the past few months, and the Village has persisted. What if, instead of closing the road for resurfacing, the closure was for a plaza that included umbrellas and cooling misters? Maybe Rice Village restaurants could bring their fare out to the street (or at least their cold desserts).

A Montrose Bike Lane

Houston has some wide roads. What if we took eight feet off main roads like Montrose Boulevard and made it into a two-way bike path? Or what if we installed a bike lane on each side of the road? This could happen without losing a lane of active traffic in either direction.

Renovations at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston already have lanes shifted for two blocks, and traffic has not come to a stand still. What if we started with a temporary lane from Bissonnet Street to Westheimer Road?

Asking drivers to stay inside a 10-foot lane instead of a 12-foot lane would mean slower traffic speeds, which is safer for all users. More bikers on main commercial drags bring more business.

Countless Possibilities

Similar projects can be found throughout our region. My suggestions just scratch the surface of my trips through the city. I’d love to hear ideas for other projects across Houston.

Some may think of these proposals as hair-brained or hard-to-pull-off. Close a street in Houston? Can’t happen. But in some places, it already has.

The central walkway of Texas Southern University used to be Wheeler Aveue. Now it’s an important walkway for students and brings vitality to the center of the campus.

Discovery Green used to be parking lots. I have no doubt that at the time, someone lambasted what has become one of this city’s crown jewels for taking away parking. I know that’s a trade off I’d take a hundred times over.

Don’t want to take off space in a major thoroughfare? Let’s look at Dunlavy Street or other smaller streets that have the potential to be retrofitted. The city’s bike plan highlights dozens of them. We may have to sacrifice some parking or a few feet of lane lines, but again, this can happen as a test, not a permanent reality. My bet is that many will stick.

This can be done — even in Houston. All across the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner has touted the need for complete communities. These projects could help spur that effort by giving communities a voice to share their ideas on what projects they’d like and where they’d like them.

These can be imagined and acted upon in every community. All we have to do is embrace the idea that it’s possible. The streets are the public realm, and we can imagine them as spaces for more than cars.

We want to hear from you! What’s your idea for improving a public space in Houston? Tweet your ideas to @RiceKinderInst.

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2 Responses

  1. Tory says:

    Good ideas except for the cooling misters, which unfortunately don’t work with our high humidity (has to be a dry heat for them to work).

  2. Kelly says:

    I really like the idea of turning Main Street into a pedestrian realm. I don’t know what it’s like during the workdays Monday through Friday, but on weekends Main Street is filled with people walking and biking, getting on and off the light rail, in and out of bars and restaurants, and relatively little car traffic. I bet if you closed a portion off as a pilot, as you’ve suggested in this post, people in cars would quickly and easily find alternative routes.

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