This is a really interesting article on Houston. Probably the most car-centric city and certainly the most anti-zoning, given that it doesn’t have any, city in the nation, Houston is an urban planning disaster. But there are interesting trends taking place there:
Houston’s expansion is going in two directions at once. While development on the suburban fringe continues, there is intense focus on the urban core.
According to the Houston Area Survey published last month by Rice University’s Kinder Institute, fully half of the respondents said they prefer a walkable urban lifestyle to a suburban one. That still leaves plenty of people to fill the master-planned communities and subdivisions going up on the outskirts. But it also indicates that many Houstonians want amenities that only a denser city can offer.
The evidence of the demand is plain: From 2013 to 2014, the average home price in the city of Houston rose from $248,000 to $270,000. That $22,000 is a small step compared to many American cities, but a giant leap for Houston. Even with a slight drop this year, increases like that demonstrate that cheap housing might not be a limitless resource.
Many longtime city residents are understandably nervous, eyeing new development as a threat that could price them out of neighborhoods that have historically been affordable. Along with continuing to lure newcomers, can the city, as it gentrifies, avoid displacing low-income people?
To assess Houstonians’ deepest fears, the most recent Houston Area Survey asked an open-ended question: “What would you say is the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area today?”
Nearly one-third said traffic.
Previous surveys revealed concerns that were arguably more harrowing. In 1987, 71 percent cited economic woes. In 1994, 70 percent named crime. This year’s survey lists both of those concerns at 21 percent. In many ways, the responses mirror the city’s prosperity. The economic boom has meant less desperation, more residents and more cars on the road. Traffic is a sign of economic vibrancy, especially when many Houstonians have no alternative.
“We have been fairly successful at a traditional car-centric approach to providing access and mobility to our residents,” says Walsh.
That’s an understatement. With 16.4 public transit trips per capita per year as of 2013, Houston ranks 91st out of 290 cities included in a National Transit Database study. Philadelphia, with a comparable metro population, ranks 10th, with 68 trips per capita. That means that as the Houston region adds population, it adds a disproportionately high number of car trips.
However radical the retooled bus system is, it is nothing compared to the expansion of the city’s light-rail network.
Last May, the east-west Green Line opened along the median of Harrisburg Boulevard and through the East End, and the southeast Purple Line opened connecting downtown with local universities. Extensions are under construction. Monthly rail ridership is up 24 percent from March 2015.
Rather than shuttle white-collar commuters into a central business district from suburban areas, Houston’s lines are designed to take city-dwellers from one urban neighborhood to others. Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are now in easy reach of its biggest employment centers. The new east side lines give residents access not only to downtown but also to the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center, the latter of which is the largest medical center in the world. Its employment base of 106,000 is bigger than that of all but a handful of American downtowns.
“Houston ended up with probably the most interesting rail system in the country in that it really is concentrated on the urban core,” says Zakcq Lockrem, director of planning at planning firm Asakura Robinson, which has offices in Austin and Houston. “It’s about urban people living an urban life.”
The article addresses other problems Houston has–including gentrification and flooding. But just focusing on the transportation and density issues, this is a strong sign that even if the most car-centric city in the country, there’s a strong desire for density and good public transportation. So often we assume that because people move to a place like Houston and buy a suburban house that it’s because that’s what they are choosing. But those choices are heavily determined by public policy. If you are moving to Houston, what other choice have you had for the last 50 years? We need to stop assuming suburbia is the default desire of Americans and start providing actual opportunities for urban lifestyles. If the people of Houston are feeling this way, they almost certainly are everywhere else in the country.