Where the Sidewalks End
Being a pedestrian in Houston is challenging. It’s isolating. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Even more so when you’re a woman.
A few weeks after my husband and I moved to Houston, a despairing fact began to sink in. My adopted hometown had frustratingly few public transit options. I expressed my vexation to a friend from Austin, who responded, “I believe Houston will revamp its system only when there is no oil left and burned-out cars litter the freeway.” I sometimes fear he may be right.
My husband and I settled in Houston last January, a transatlantic relocation—my husband is from France, I am from India. When we started scouting for places to live, we chuckled at how some apartment complexes prided themselves in being in a “walkable neighborhood.” What a delightful pleonasm, I thought, working under the assumption that neighborhoods are “walkable” by definition. But this funny marketing gimmick worked and we were sold on one such community in Upper Kirby. Now that we have lived there for a while, I am finding that the phrase was not just a humorously perplexing (to us, at least) selling point; it was also somewhat inaccurate. While the neighborhood is more amenable to walking than other locations, people don’t really walk the streets. And it’s not just here. People in Houston don’t really walk anywhere.
Before moving to this city, I had lived in Mumbai all my life, with the exception of a year of working in the French city of Toulouse. When I was growing up, walking was an intrinsic part of my day. I went on foot everywhere in my neighborhood: to school, the market, the bank, the post office, railway stations, bus stops. During my stay in Toulouse, I led a similar on-foot lifestyle. So when I moved to Houston, an international hub with global recognition, I thought it would be a comparable urban experience.
Nothing could have prepared me for the disconnectedness of this oil-and-gas mecca: no clear city center, pitiable public transportation, and, most strikingly, no place to walk. For such a large city—655 square miles—it disheartened me to learn that the city had a walkability score of 44 (slightly below the national average), and that it had been among the top contenders for the highest Pedestrian Danger Index. Indeed, the experience can be terrifying. Finding solitude while strolling under a canopy of trees in the streets of River Oaks or the Menil neighborhood is one thing, but being singled out as a walker on bigger boulevards alongside speeding SUVs and pickup trucks is quite another.
It has taken a while to get accustomed to this city, the longest I have ever felt like Alice in Wonderland—except there is little wonder around me. For as far as the eyes can see, there are only cars and not a single person on foot. It’s no exaggeration to say that nowhere has my movement felt so restricted. Admittedly, part of this is self-inflicted. When we moved, I resolved to resist the social obligation of buying a car in Houston, a topic I wrote about for this publication last year. This means I have had to decode Houston’s confounding public transportation system, as well as rely on my legs to perform their basic function. Who would have imagined that you could get to places on foot in Houston? The truth is you barely can.
In this car-happy city, walkers and cyclists are a mere footnote in its transportation chapter, which emphatically underscores vehicular supremacy. Houston has not been designed for walkers—too few sidewalks, long distances between crosswalks, vast stretches between fundamental destinations—and that alone makes walking in the city an isolating experience. For women, that isolation is compounded. Not only do the logistics make it dangerous at times, but, because the act of walking is so unappealing to the public, another sort of danger is presented to the walking woman: being surrounded by nobody. Or rather, the heightened chance of being surrounded by the wrong body.
On a quiet afternoon in early February, after alighting from the bus, I started looking for the newly opened office of the Department of Public Safety on Veterans Memorial Drive. Along the way was a vast stretch of land occupied by auto dealerships. Such a microcosm of this city it was: cars of all kinds, sizes and brands were lined up, luring tired and despairing walkers like me. That’s when someone honked from his big truck, stopped next to the semblance of a sidewalk I was on, and asked, “Need a ride, young lady?” I shook my head politely and thanked the man with a big mustache who had apparently overheard my asking someone for directions earlier. “Sure? It’s quite a distance.” I declined again. He tried yet again and then was gone.
The man was right; the distance was great. What further complicated the situation was the necessity to trudge along the poorly maintained “sidewalk” which had unkempt shrubs and trees blocking my path, leaving me with no option but to occasionally walk or run on the very road where cars zipped by. Should I have taken the offer of the man with the mustache? But to distrust an unknown man who insists on doing something for you despite your firm negative answer is a basic instinct cultivated by women.
It’s an unfortunate truth, but the simple act of walking as a woman increases the chance of encountering predators, for want of a better word. Once, a man in a truck kept honking until I looked in his direction. He grinned and drove away. Another time, I was waiting for a bus in downtown when a young man approached me and asked if I was single. The instances are many, but the one time I cannot shake off from my mind is when I was walking in the Galleria area on a rainy summer evening with a girlfriend visiting from New York. The sun was beginning to set and we were headed to a bus stop. Seeing two women as the only walkers on the road must have emboldened a group of young men who were driving past to yell, “Hey, beautiful girls, walking all by yourselves?” They continued to jeer loudly till they were out of sight. A little later, at a deserted bus stop, a man approached us under the pretext of making small talk. We ignored his attempts, so he started hurling abuses at us with a threatening body language. Onlookers didn’t intervene, forcing us to abandon our plans of returning by bus and instead, seek shelter at a Walgreens till our Uber arrived.
The car-impaled culture in Houston encumbers a woman’s right to loiter, a phrase I borrow from the book Why Loiter?, which is worth mentioning here. Although that work grounds itself largely on Mumbai’s streets, the problem of real and implied risks associated with women’s presence in public spaces are universal. Writers Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade argue that it is only by loitering, a radical act for many Indian women, that a truly global city be created.
Even in Houston, while women can freely access urban space, we do not really have an equal claim to it. My husband, for instance, will step out at 9 p.m. to walk five blocks to our grocery store without even pausing to mull over it as I would. Never have I had to think twice so often before leaving home. It brings to mind a quote from Sylvia Plath’s journals: “I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.”
More than this, never could I have imagined this reluctance would be my reality in a large American city. In Mumbai and many other Indian metropolises, the lively street culture encourages people to be out in the streets. These crowds often act as a sort of safety net (albeit one with its own gaps and holes). My friend, Deepa Kamath, who moved to Houston five years ago from New Delhi, a city notorious for women’s lack of safety said, “While I did often feel unsafe in Delhi, I rarely felt alone. There were always other people around—on street corners, at roadside tea stalls and bus stops.”
Houston may not show any direct threat on the whole, but the fear of walking alone, especially after dark, is excruciatingly real. If walking renders me almost invisible, darkness shrouds me further, putting me at a greater risk of being mugged or attacked without anybody noticing it. Many women I spoke to while writing this essay, many of them from other countries, echoed this sentiment.
Marta Rodriguez, professor of architecture at the University of Houston moved here two years ago from Paris. She said, “Although neighborhoods like West University are deemed safe, I wouldn’t walk alone because there is nobody else on the streets. More importantly, the area is not well lit.”
The City of Houston is aware of that and has begun to convert the city’s existing lights to LED bulbs. While I understand why some people are against this—the intensity of the light is great and it dims the yellowish character of neighborhoods—the added brightness does make a woman feel safer.
In discussing this issue, cynicism comes easy—these concerns are commonplace to any woman who has found herself in a desolate place—but I remain hopeful that Houston will reimagine itself. After all, Amsterdam was a car-choked mess before it became a bike- and pedestrian-friendly space. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner recently sent out a strong message against the widening of highways as a solution to counter traffic woes, prompting nationally-recognized urban planner Janette Sadik-Khan to tweet, “When the mayor of Houston—home to Earth’s widest highway—says new roads = more traffic, there’s a seismic shift underway.”
But women’s safety cannot exist in a vacuum; it has to be interwoven with basic efforts to improve our urban setting. And I remain optimistic because this seismic shift already seems to be taking place. The bus transit overhaul, light rail additions, the bikeways program, and bike sharing initiatives are bound to engender a shift in the way people view transportation in Houston. These endeavors will likely get more people out on the streets, which would directly influence how women perceive safety.
Walking is a primal instinct, a most significant outcome of evolution. Walking is an ode to the incredible ability of us humans to assert our independence, to go where we will, unfettered and free, testing our physical limits, pushing boundaries. Putting one foot in front of the other makes for community bonding: going to the corner store, dropping in on neighbors, crossing paths with familiar faces, smiling and stopping to exchange news and views.
While I’m happy to romanticize the notion of walking, I know it’s difficult to convince others in Houston to join me on the admittedly woefully ill-equipped streets. (And I realize there is a very different set of problems for the handicapped, a group that must overcome challenge upon challenge to navigate a world that is already stacked against it.) But unless we venture out and get a feel of the predicament, how will we ask the authorities to do better for the sake of our health and the environment? Yes, Houston is not convenient for walking. It is either hot or very hot for most part of the year. But so is Singapore where people walk a lot. Yes, the sidewalks are uneven and disappear in the middle of nowhere, and the cars are so fast that they could throw you off track. But alternative paths exist if people take the time to map out different routes. And yes, I am also aware of my privilege when I say that I choose to walk, and that I have a personal luxury to live in a verdant neighborhood with decent sidewalks and trees to shelter me. But there are large indigent and homeless populations that could be personally, financially—and consequentially spiritually—lifted by a public transportation system that granted them easier, cheaper, and faster access to places.
I hate to say that I am getting used to this life because admitting it would be like conceding to everything that a city should offer but doesn’t. Remodeling Houston would also involve remodeling deep-seated cultural habits and attitudes. Half of the car trips are less than three miles, of which many are to the supermarket around the corner. So why not give the car some much-needed rest and walk if you can? A giant leap begins with baby steps, after all.
And the only footprint you leave behind will be yours.
Sukhada Tatke is a Mumbai-bred, Houston-based writer. She tweets @ASuitableGirl.