Earlier this week Reddit Houston hosted a blockbuster thread entitled “Houstonians: If you made the calls for just 1 day, what are some realistic changes you would make to the city?”
This being Houston, most of the ideas for change centered around transport. This being a Subreddit, most of the contributors ponied up ideas that, sadly, were cool but unrealistic.
Idea #1: Rail to the airports.
Why It’s a Cool Idea: Getting to both Intercontinental and Hobby sucks. Sure, if you take the Hardy Toll Road to the latter, drive time is seldom all that long, even though IAH is 25 or so miles north of downtown. Still, the drive is infamously hideous and depressing along any of the three IAH-bound thoroughfares or the various routes to Hobby, which is not that far out. And when you arrive, what then? Airport parking is not cheap.
Take a bus? Sure, it’s possible, on paper, but neither airport is served by an express service. (I’ve used both, and they both take an hour to get you downtown, where most locals must then transfer to another bus or light rail.) Shuttles run about $25 each way to central Houston, and cabs from IAH are more than double that. You can beg a friend or family member to take you but then you owe them a favor, and that sucks. Wouldn’t it be great if Houston had trains to the airport, like twenty of the other American cities with rail service of some kind, including Dallas, where DART is leaving Houston in the dust? Since Houstonians hate losing out to Dallas only slightly less than being condescended to by Austinites, you’d think for that reason alone there would at least be some kind of freaking concrete proposal for rail to the airports, but . . .
Why Houston Can’t Have It: Big Remote Parking and Big Taxi fight the proposal tooth and nail, but more importantly, area residents funded Houston’s three newish pleasure palaces—Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park, and NRG Stadium—to the tune of $1 billion a decade or so back. Those debts are yet to be paid in full. Backers of the stadium deals knew that a property tax increase would never fly, so they chose instead to stick tourists and visitors with the bill via jacked-up rental car taxes. Where are most cars rented? The airport. Are these taxes among the highest in the country? Yes, yes they are. Does the county make mad jack off all that? Yes, yes it does. Does this at least in part explain why locals can’t ride a train to the airport, and thus must incur significant hidden travel costs, or burden loved ones, with no real prospect for change in the foreseeable future? Yes, yes it does.
Idea #2: More and better sidewalks.
Why It’s Cool: Who doesn’t like sidewalks? Children need them. They get walkers where they need to go. Outside of what are designated by city of Houston ordinances as “business districts,” cyclists can use them too (though many locals and some cops don’t seem to know this). But almost everyone agrees: Houston’s sidewalks are terrible: nonexistent in some suburban neighborhoods. Cracked, buckled, and broken in the older districts. Or punctuated with telephone polls or dangerous metal grates. (While legal, cycling on them can be most unwise.) Despite some metrics damning Houston with the faint praise of being the most walkable city in Texas, some critics don’t believe the reality of the pedestrian experience measures up to the raw numbers of sidewalk miles.
Why Houston Can’t Have It: In most cases, property owners are responsible for the sidewalks that abut their property, and most of them don’t care. The city does have a program to repair sidewalks near schools and care facilities, but the waiting list is more than five hundred people deep, some of whom have been biding their time since the Texas Longhorns were the reigning NCAA football champs. And if you want people to use a sidewalk in Houston from April to October, it will have to be shaded. Among the things trees do, especially the live oaks so beloved by Houstonians: provide shade and hate sidewalks. Maybe the city of Houston could take over sidewalk repair? That would be very expensive. Taxes would have to be increased. Houstonians hate taxes. So we will continue to trip and stagger along our sorry sidewalks, contenting ourselves with the knowledge that number-crunchers elsewhere say our “walkability index” is among the best.
Idea #3: More and better bike lanes!
Why It’s Cool: With its flat terrain and six months of tolerable weather, Houston has two key components of a cycling paradise. Advocates claim that there’s no reason Houston could not rival Holland in this regard. And there is a bike boom going on, with miles of new hike-and-bike trails along former rail lines now linking up with the pre-existing bayou-side network. On the other hand, Houston’s so-called bike lanes within city streets, while extensive in theory, are in actual fact a travesty: narrow and full of tire-shredding nails and glass. Two-wheel veterans advise you to avoid them and just take your lane, but they will also tell you that you will enrage motorists by doing so, motorists who will yell at you for leaving the safety of your little reservation. So we need those big protected ones like they have in the Netherlands!
Why Houston Can’t Have It: And where is that space gonna come from? You think Houston motorists are just going to lie back and let you take away their lanes? Hah! They might give you some space for a while, but they will get it back soon enough, as when the city briefly granted West Alabama spacious (federally-funded) bike lanes, and then eradicated them in 2003. The city had granted cyclists those lanes as part of a federally funded bike network overhaul back in the nineties in order to prove the city’s air quality (as mandated by Washington), but by 2003, the feds were gone. Meanwhile, TxDot announced that Spur 527 (a key conduit from the southwest into downtown) needed a total overhaul. To cope with the additional traffic flow, Houston responded by eliminating the bike lanes on West Alabama and replacing them with a contraflow lane. Cyclists were shunted off to a lane-less “bike route” on nearby backstreets. Work on the Spur wrapped up in 2006, but West Alabama was never configured back to the bike lanes that the feds helped pay for.
So while these ideas, all for improving pedestrian life, are lovely exercises in city planning with a civic bent, forget it, Reddit: cars win. Because in H-town, they always do.