Houston’s next mayor will have to address the city’s mobility challenges. Here’s where he can start.

This piece was originally published by Houston Tomorrow.

 

Image via flickr/Michael Bludworth Image via flickr/Michael Bludworth

 

Between 2016 and 2022, I would encourage the new mayor to focus on two elements of mobility improvement:

  • Making the City of Houston a leader in the effort to implement, improve, and promote a truly metropolitan transportation system.
  • Engaging with Houston communities to understand local transportation needs and improve neighborhood mobility.

These two areas offer the Mayor a chance to shape mobility and transportation at both the regional and local level.

Too often transportation choices are viewed in “us vs. them” terms. “Highways are for suburbanites.” “Light rail is for urban residents.” “Commuter rail would just serve Sugar Land, not me.” “I don’t ride the bus, why should I care how effective it is?” “Bike? In Houston? Are you crazy?”

Instead of allowing this type of compartmentalization of modes to continue, the new mayor should focus on promoting the idea that the metropolitan transportation system is just that: a system. Highways are essential for moving people around the city. Light rail is an important mode for connecting dense urban places. We are not all served by the various modes of mobility in the same ways, but that does not mean that all of the elements we have at our disposal cannot work together to form a cohesive transportation network.

Our daily movements are interconnected to those of others. My driving affects your walking. More commuter buses change highway traffic. A better-coordinated regional transportation network can lead to positive outcomes for everyone’s mobility.

Of course, the City of Houston is just one actor in the complicated process of regional transportation planning, but it’s a strong one. If the next mayor can encourage regional decision makers to view inner city bus improvements and exurban highway construction as part of the same system, rather than as discrete or even antagonistic projects, we stand a better chance of improving these elements in ways that best serve the entire region.

Metropolitan level discussions, though, can also quickly drown out local voices from the mobility discussion. The next mayor must also be willing to grapple with the community-level mobility needs of Houstonians. In particular they should find ways to improve neighborhood mobility.

The comprehensive metropolitan network I discussed above is knit together as much by neighborhood streets and sidewalks as by freeways. Many of those local pieces are in disrepair or unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists. Moreover, many neighborhoods are disconnected from nearby amenities whether by design (dead ends and cul-de-sacs), obstacle (highways or major thoroughfares), or inaccessibility (lack of sidewalks).

The next mayor should learn directly from Houstonians about their neighborhood mobility needs and build on existing localized programs such H-GAC’s Livable Centers. Each Houston community can provide the city with a vision for what its residents want or need. And the mayor should work to implement those in ways that work with the larger system.

Balancing localized and the regional transportation is no easy task. Finances and politics make it more difficult. But understanding our transportation as a simultaneously regional and local organism is essential step for our next mayor.