A scene from Sunday Streets HTX on Westheimer Road. Photo by Andrew Seng / University of Oregon Emerald via aaonetwork.org
It’s little secret that Houston, Texas, is on the rise. From 2000-2010, Census data shows that the city’s metro population grew by 26 percent to 5.95 million people. In 2013, that number had risen to 6.34 million, and the Houston metro expects to add another 1 million residents by 2020. While this growth is exciting, it also creates new challenges like stress on existing street infrastructure.
In particular, Houston’s streets now need to accommodate a wider range of users and activities. To respond to this need, Smart Growth America visited Houston in April 2013 with the goal of equipping the city with the tools and techniques to develop and implement a Complete Streets policy. Complete Streets policies result in streets that are planned, designed, operated and maintained to be safe, comfortable, and convenient for people of all ages and abilities, whether they are walking, cycling, driving or hopping on public transportation.
At the workshop, stakeholders from the City of Houston, local institutions, neighborhood groups and organizations like Houston Tomorrow and Bike Houston came together to discuss how to work towards making Complete Streets standard practice in their city. Since the workshop, Houston has made exciting progress toward developing and implementing Complete Streets throughout the city.
In November 2013, Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued an executive order to develop a Complete Streets and Transportation Plan. The plan will comprehensively address thoroughfares and freeways, bikeways, rail, the METRO bus system, greenway trails and pedestrian infrastructure, acknowledging that each has an important role to play in Houston’s transportation infrastructure. Says Houston’s Director of Planning and Development Patrick Walsh, “The City of Houston is committed to sustainable growth and safe, walkable neighborhoods. Having a Complete Streets policy is a win-win for citizens because it directs the City to design and operate the right of way for all users, regardless of age and ability.”
Director Walsh adds that the Complete Streets and Transportation Plan “will build upon existing and ongoing local and regional planning efforts to establish a mobility network that can be utilized for transportation and recreational use, in a safe and efficient manner.” The city’s Complete Streets efforts are also expected to inform Houston’s first ever General Plan, which is under development as well.
Other progress towards Complete Streets includes Mayor Parker’s announcement of the Goal Zero Fatalities Bike Safety Campaign. The campaign calls for an update to the Bike Master Plan and seeks to prioritize cycling infrastructure improvements by identifying the most dangerous streets for cycling in Houston. Goal Zero will also educate Houstonians about the Safe Passage Ordinance that the City Council approved in May 2013 to fine vehicles that drive too closely to cyclists. Cycling continues to gain popularity in Houston; not only did the city’s B‑cycle bikeshare add a 29th station in December 2013, but B‑cycle also reports that the system logged an impressive 43,530 bike checkouts in the first half of 2014.
Additionally, Houston has broken ground on the ambitious $215 million Bayou Greenways 2020 project. As the Houston Park Board explains it, this project will create “a continuous system within the city limits of 150 miles of parks and trails along Houston’s bayous.” In connecting the city’s parks with biking and walking paths, Houston will fulfill a vision for an interconnected parks system first proposed over 100 years ago. Not only will Bayou Greenways 2020 connect more people and places throughout Houston, but the project is also expected to improve air and water quality, reduce flooding and promote economic development.
Yet another initiative making Houston’s streets more complete today is Sunday Streets HTX, a pilot program to close selected streets to vehicle traffic on Sundays in the summer. Sunday Streets HTX is part of Mayor Parker’s broader Healthy Houston initiative that seeks to reduce obesity and increase healthy eating and exercise opportunities for Houstonians. So far, the community has been incredibly receptive to Sunday Streets, both city officials and neighborhood representatives report.
“It’s a cultural change” that has taken place in Houston, says Kathleen O’Reilly, Vice President of the Museum Park Super Neighborhood, the organization representing Houston’s Museum Park neighborhood. Now when City staff and community leaders come together to discuss issues—from parking management to public utilities to the METRO bus system—“Complete Streets have become part of the conversation.”
Like other cities across the country, Houston was originally built with a pedestrian-friendly street grid, but the streets themselves came to cater to automobiles over time. Neighborhoods like Museum Park still have that pedestrian-focused grid, O’Reilly explains, which is why she believes the biggest key to passing a Complete Streets policy and beginning to implement Complete Streets-minded projects was to change the culture of how the community expects its streets to perform.
Because Houston residents, community leaders and officials now embrace the idea of Complete Streets, they also recognize that because Complete Streets satisfy a variety of uses and users, the planning, implementation and maintenance of Complete Streets must be the work of a variety of City departments as well. Both City officials and community representatives point to enhanced communication and coordination across departments as a reason for Houston’s impressive progress since the workshop.
Local advocacy groups like Bike Houston and Houston Tomorrow have also been influential in moving Complete Streets forward. Explains Houston Tomorrow President David Crossley, “Houston reached a tipping point where suddenly walkability and bikability were at the center of every discussion. With the recent kickoff of a first ever General Plan for Houston’s future, Complete Streets are at the heart of issues, and the support for them is just off the charts.” Houston Tomorrow, an organization dedicated to research, education and discussion to improve quality of life in the Houston region, is one of Smart Growth America’s coalition partners.
Not only did these and other organizations work individually to further Complete Streets in Houston, but many also worked together as members of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets. Comprised of 33 organizations including Houston Tomorrow, Bike Houston, the Museum Park Super Neighborhood and the Houston Park Board, this group’s coordinated efforts helped win support for the passage of the Complete Streets and Transportation Plan and continues to champion Complete Streets in the city.
All of these efforts to make Houston’s streets work for more people and activities will ultimately “change the tone” of the streets there, says Kathleen O’Reilly. City of Houston Sustainability Manager Lisa Lin agrees. “It goes to show that as Houston is embracing jobs and economic development, high quality of life and livability are equally important to us.”