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How Will Mayor Turner Change Houston’s Streets? Here Are Some Hints

What would it take to turn traffic-clogged Houston into a more walkable, transit-rich place?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Newly elected Mayor Sylvester Turner made waves earlier this year when he called for a paradigm shift in the region’s transportation policies, prioritizing transit instead of highway expansions. Now a copy of Turner’s transition plan leaked to the Houston Press sheds some light on what the new administration is thinking [PDF]. While the Press apparently considers some of the ideas to be scandalous (Turner wants additional bonding capacity to expand METRO’s transit network), the document is an encouraging sign of where the mayor is headed.

Here’s a look at the major ideas.

Turner wants to bring pedestrian, bike, and transit improvements all under one roof

Turner’s policy brief notes that Houston has a number of transportation plans, including the new bicycle network plan, but they aren’t well integrated. “There is no pedestrian masterplan or transit strategy for the entire City,” the document notes.

All these blueprints should be brought together to create a “comprehensive, multimodal transportation plan.”

The document recommends developing the plan over a two-year period and hiring a “Transportation Executive” to oversee the initiative.

Read more…

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Houston Unveils a Bold New Citywide Plan for Bicycling

Houston's new bike plan proposes to take the city's "low-stress" network from what you see on the right in the long term, to what you see on the left. Source: Houston Bike Plan

Houston’s new bike plan envisions a real network instead of disconnected segments. Source: Houston Bike Plan

The same team that helped overhaul Houston’s bus network is turning its attention to the city’s bike network.

This week, recently-elected Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled the city’s first bike plan since 1993. The plan envisions a network of low-stress bikeways — a welcome improvement over Houston’s previous bike plan, from 1993, which mostly consisted of “share the road” signs and sharrows on wide, high-speed roads, according to Raj Mankad of OffCite, a blog of Rice University’s Design Alliance.

In 2012, Houston voters backed the creation of the Bayou Greenways network, 150 miles of linear trails along the city’s low-lying bayous. But without on-street connections, the greenways would be fragmented and people would have to bike on dangerous streets, writes Mankad.

The new plan calls for about 800 miles of on-street bike lanes — up from just 8 miles today — and about 400 additional miles of off-street paths. Though the plan doesn’t give a concrete timeline for completing the network, the goal is to achieve “gold-level” status from the League of American Bicyclists by 2026.

The estimated cost would be between $300 and $500 million. To put that in perspective, the pricetag is at most one-tenth of what the region is pouring into the “Grand Parkway,” a third ring road for the region.

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What Will It Take for Houston to Eliminate Traffic Deaths?

Houston has a bad traffic safety record and local advocates are calling for change. Photo: Houston Tomorrow

Houston’s traffic fatality rate is more than three times higher than NYC’s, and local advocates are calling for change. Photo: Houston Tomorrow

In 2014, 227 people were killed in traffic collisions in Houston. Per capita, that means the city’s streets are more than three times as deadly as New York City’s.

Despite the toll, there’s a culture of acceptance surrounding traffic violence in Houston. Now a group of local advocates are trying to change that.

Houston Tomorrow, a local think tank devoted to urban issues, released a report last week calling for the city to adopt a Vision Zero policy [PDF]. The idea is to bring together various city agencies around the long-term goal of eliminating traffic deaths.

Houston is a city built around driving, but local leaders shouldn’t use that as an excuse to accept the loss of life on the city’s streets, the report authors say. Other car-centric cities — like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Antonio — have embraced Vision Zero strategies and are working toward safer streets in a systemic way.

“We’re trying to make everyone understand that Houston has grown numb to — in the whole region – three people dying every two days,” said Houston Tomorrow’s Jay Crossley. “The news doesn’t report traffic deaths anymore. It’s not even a news item that another family member died today in a car.”

“This is a moral issue. This is people’s family members,” he said. “We know there are things that we could do and we could change policies that could make a difference.”

Read more…

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Ridership on the Upswing After Houston’s Bus Network Redesign

Houston's bus system before, on the left and after a complete system redesign on the right.

Houston’s bus map before and after a thorough system overhaul.

In August, Houston debuted its new bus network, reconfigured to increase frequent service, expand weekend hours, and improve access to jobs.

The implementation was contentious at times, and when we last checked in on the results — two months after the changes took effect — bus ridership was down 4 percent overall but up dramatically on weekends. That was to be expected, wrote transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who worked on the project, because it takes some time for people to adjust to changes and familiarize themselves with the new routes.

Now, after just two more months, METRO is reporting that bus ridership has climbed above previous levels. November totals were up 4 percent compared to the previous year.

“The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia in a press release. “The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

In October, Walker said he would expect ridership to increase about 20 percent by two years after the redesign, provided good management by the local transit agency. We’ll see, but the returns after just a few months are promising.

These results should be encouraging to cities like Columbus that are considering similar changes.

Metro is also getting ready to roll out a new transfer policy expected to boost ridership more. Previously, riders paying with cash did not get free transfers. Under the new policy, tickets will be good for a free transfer for up to three hours.

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Crashes Doubled After Houston Banned Red Light Cameras

Collisions increased dramatically after Houston banned red light cameras. Chart: Houston Police Department

Collisions increased dramatically after Houston banned red light cameras. Chart: Houston Police Department

Law enforcement officers warned there would likely be an uptick in collisions when Houston debated banning red light cameras in the early part of the decade. Turns out they were absolutely right.

Houston voters banned the life-saving technology in 2010, with the press mostly cheering them along. Last year Houston PD examined how that’s impacted safety at intersections. According to department data [PDF], their predictions have been borne out.

The HPD data contrasted crash figures from 2006 to 2010 — when the cameras were in operation — and from 2010 to 2014, after they were banned and removed. At the intersections that formerly had cameras, fatal crashes jumped 30 percent. Meanwhile, total crashes were up 116 percent. And DWI crashes nearly tripled, increasing by 186 percent.

Houstonians are now safe from $75 fines, but according to the National Coalition for Safer Roads, Houston now carries the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous city in America for red light running. Between 2004 and 2013, 181 people were killed in the city as the result of failure to comply with traffic lights.

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Take a Look at Houston’s First On-Street Protected Bike Lane

Photo: Barry Ocho via Twitter

Construction crews have begun work on a two-way protected bike lane on Lamar Street in downtown Houston. Photo: Barrett Ochoa via Twitter

Is that a beautiful sight or what? This two-way protected bike lane is all the more stunning because it’s in downtown Houston.

This weekend, construction crews began putting down green paint on Lamar Street for the city’s first on-street protected bike lane, which is expected to be finished by March 8. The three-quarter-mile bike lane will connect two important off-street trails. It will be separated from car traffic by low-lying plastic “zebra” humps and will have signals specifically for people on bikes, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The bike lane takes the place of a parking lane. Way to go, Houston!

Editor’s note: We first came across this item thanks to Jay Crossley’s morning news wrap-up on Streetsblog Texas. In the next few weeks we’ll be rolling out new ways to stay current with our partners at Streetsblog Texas, Streetsblog St. Louis, Streetsblog Ohio, and Streetsblog Southeast — stay tuned.

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Lousy Neighborhoods, Not Lax Zoning, Make Sunbelt Houses Cheaper

The middle class is getting priced out of liberal cities, while red-state urban areas remain affordable. Does that mean our cities should be less like tightly regulated San Francisco and more like permissive Houston? It’s a common argument — but it doesn’t fit the facts.

Modesto: It’s not quite San Francisco. (And it’s a whole lot cheaper.) Photo: Carl Skaggs/Wikipedia

To start with, Houston is hardly a paradise of deregulation. In practice, local experts explain, the city limits new building with a heavy hand. Zoning (thinly disguised as a special form of deed covenant) is in some ways even tighter than elsewhere — a subdivision can downzone itself by vote of its homeowners, even when a minority objects, and the elected city government has no power to override neighborhood decisions.

If the Houston housing market is no freer than San Francisco’s, what explains the lower prices in Texas? Supply and demand set house prices, and demand (the lack of which makes housing so affordable in Detroit) is strong in Houston.

These price comparisons have a buried conceptual flaw. They look at the average of all houses in the region, new and old. But the added supply that demand calls forth (what economists refer to as “at the margin”) consists of new houses alone. A shortage of supply should show up, most directly, in the price of new houses.

In American urban areas, most land is reserved for single-family houses. Close-in locations fill up first, so the marginal unit of supply is a newly built detached house on the exurban fringe.

How much does that new house cost? The table below shows the asking price (from Zillow) for a minimally featured new 3-bedroom, 1750-square-foot house on the outskirts of some major cities, along with the median sale price of single-family houses throughout the area. Affordability is measured by the ratio of house price to the metropolitan area’s median household income. The areas were selected to have around the same population, so that the commute (a painful one in all cases) would be a comparable deterrent to living at the fringe.

Metro area Median house price (000) Ratio to median income Fringe location New 1700 sq ft house price (000) Ratio to median income
Boston 398 7.5 Manchester NH 280 5.3
Houston 204 4.6 Cypress 185 4.1
Phoenix 199 4.4 Goodyear 169 3.8
San Francisco 770 12.2 Modesto 260 4.1
Washington 403 7.0 Charles Town WV 210 3.7

These figures will surprise many. The choice of fringe locations is certainly open to discussion, but there’s no question that the affordability of new single-family houses varies among cities far less than the average house price. If you insist on a brand-new house and don’t mind a long commute, San Francisco is as affordable as Houston.

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Downtown Houston Will Get Its First Protected Bike Lane

Houston's protected bike lane should look a lot like this one from Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT, via Flickr

Houston’s protected bike lane should look a lot like this one in Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT/Flickr

A piece of top-notch bike infrastructure is coming to the largest city in Texas.

That’s the word today from Kevin McNally at Houston Tomorrow, who relays the news that a two-way protected bike lane is on tap for downtown:

The City of Houston will install the City’s first on-street protected bike lane along Lamar Street in Downtown, possibly as early as October, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Mike Morris. The two-way protected bike lane will help to connect Downtown to both the Buffalo Bayou trails and the Columbia Tap Trail.

The bike lane will be three-quarters of a mile long and will be painted green, the Houston Chronicle reports. It will be separated from car traffic by “armadillos,” or hard, low-lying plastic bumps. McNally says:

Based on the description from the article, the bike lane should look similar to the above photo of a two-way protected bike lane in Seattle, with the exception being that the white plastic bollards will be replaced by plastic “armadillos” or “zebras” (see examples of those here).

Bike Houston Executive Director Michael Payne said the objective is to make “people feel comfortable” about biking and getting “out of their cars.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Washington Bikes shares a poll showing overwhelming support for Safe Routes to School among the state’s residents. And Bike Portland reports that advocates in that region are trying to ensure that every school district has a Safe Routes to School program.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Zoned Out

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Welcome to the dog days of summer! Before skipping town, Congress passed a transportation funding patch so they wouldn’t have to deal with the real problem of the unsustainable way our nation builds and pays for infrastructure. I give the briefest possible rundown of where we are now before Jeff and I launch into discussions about the issues of the day: zoning and ride-share.

Houston is famous for its wild-west attitude toward zoning, but that laissez-faire approach was put to the test recently when residents of a single-family neighborhood protested the construction of a 23-story apartment building. No matter how the situation resolved itself, it was bound to have ripple effects.

We also talk about new services offered by Lyft and Uber that bring them a little closer to true ride-sharing — though, as we note, they’re still a far cry from the platonic ideal: hitchhiking.

The comments section is open for your witty comebacks and retorts. Check us out on iTunes and Stitcher, or sign up for our RSS feed.

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Houston’s Plan to Make “Bicycle Interstates” Out of Its Utility Network

The blue lines show trails planned as part of the Bayou Greenways system. Image: Utility Line Bike & Hike Trails

Rights-of-way controlled by the Houston utility company CenterPoint (the dotted lines) could combine with trails planned as part of the Bayou Greenways system (the blue lines) to create a grid of off-street biking and walking routes covering much of the city. Map: Utility Line Bike & Hike Trails

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Long lanes of grass alongside power lines are almost as ubiquitous in Houston as highways. There are roughly 500 miles of high-voltage utility rights-of-way criss-crossing the city, and they’re mostly just dead spaces, forming weedy barriers between neighborhoods.

What could the city do if it repurposed these underused spaces? Inspired by an article in Rice University’s Cite Magazine, Alyson Fletcher decided to write her master’s thesis at the Cornell University landscape architecture program on that question. She drafted a proposal to turn these linear, grassy areas into a “recreational super-highway” — and it’s starting to look like a real possibility.

In May, the city inked an agreement with CenterPoint Energy, owner of some 500 miles of utility rights-of-way across Houston. The agreement provides the city with free access to these spaces, some 140 of which are high-voltage lines with very tall towers and wide rights of way, which are well suited for trails.

For years, city and state leaders had struggled to overcome liability concerns on the part of the energy provider. Who would be responsible if someone was injured? CenterPoint didn’t want to be that party. So Texas lawmakers got together last year and passed a law resolving the liability issue for CenterPoint.

Designers at Rice University, the University of Houston, and SWA Design Group estimate the project could cost about $100 million to complete. Community activist Michael Skelly has been leading tours of the utility areas for people who want to learn more about the proposal.

Besides the low cost of land acquisition, the project has another important selling point: It complements the Bayou Greenways plan. As we reported last week, Houston plans to add 300 miles of trails and 4,000 acres of parkland along its 10 major natural bayous. But since most of the bayous are oriented east-west, the plan has limitations from a transportation standpoint.

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