Monday, January 28, 2013

Some of us would like to have our downtown and be able to get to it as well

Last week a David Kaplan profile of Downtown Management District Executive Director Bob Eury ($$$) popped up behind the Chron's pay wall.  The piece was unremarkable in the fact that it was a typical fluff piece about a private investor who's properly leveraged The Houston Way to his personal benefit. Now, given my personal proclivities, I'm sure you're sighing right now and saying "Oh no, another gripe piece from No Upgrades" and, understanding the sentiment, I'm here to tell you that you couldn't be more wrong.

Good on Bob Eury, that's what I say.  As far as I know he never used a letter written on City of Houston letterhead to promote his development as a matter of fact, from what I understand about the man he's genuine in desire to see Downtown Houston transform, and he's done great work getting that done.  In fact, I would argue that Houston needs more people with vision like Eury and less people with limited vision like (Kaplan's words) "quality of life advocacy group Houston Tomorrow" and yes, it's true that Eury and David Crossley's little urban Borg hive often see eye to eye, you don't hear from Eury the dogmatic, my way is the only way, pessimism that you often hear from the new urbanists.

I think this is an important point that gets lost in all of the cacophony that surrounds Houston's Urban/Suburban class wars.  Most people, truly want Houston to be a better place.  We'd all like to see the quality of life in Houston improved, that we have different ways of getting there gets lost in the wash by activists who feel that any opposing view is an attack on their person. It's hard to move forward in any discussion when the default response is to shut down the opposing arguments with straw men and appeals to authority etc.

If you want to know why Houston public transit has suffered, don't look only at the mean Republican local majority who, we're told, is totally fixated on road construction.  Look also at the so-called "transportation advocates" who refuse to listen to any argument that doesn't involve at-grade, inner-loop, car-smashing light rail. I know that it sounds like a broken record, but having grade-separated rail from the suburbs to different points in the inner city would be a winner.  You won't find much at-grade rail in world-class cities like Paris, London, Madrid, New York etc.  What you will find are trains leading into the city, and then a grade separated infrastructure (and buses) which move people around the middle. In other words, we have it all backwards in Houston and we're going no where fast.

When viewed from that perspective, I'd love to see more people like Bob Eury get involved in the transportation debate and less people like Metro Board Member and committed new urbanist Christof Spieler.  Certainly I'm not suggesting that Spieler be muted, his voice is an important one that should be heard, but increasingly the argument is becoming more one-handed than the Texans running game.  If you listen to activists like Spieler and Crossley the recent Metro voter referendum was a death-blow to mass transit in Houston handed down by a majority of low-information mouth breathers too dense to understand the ballot language. I think this view is wrong-headed and damaging to the debate as a whole.  What I think the vote signified was a collective call by the voting public for Houston Metro to stop and reassess. I think the Houston region is tired of being fed "boarding statistics" that are inflated due to forced boardings driven by extra connections added to bus routes. They're tired of being told that Metro Solutions is working when it's clearly not.  That bus service is increasing when the bus routes are decreasing, especially to areas where the people need them most.

Houston Metro has a great chance to look at things as they currently stand and come back to voters with a plan that will actually work. A plan designed to get workers into the city to a variety of job centers and not just to downtown.  The key is going to be bringing in the champions of these job centers and convincing them that a commuter-rail based network with circulator bus routes is going to be a boon for all.  That not asking someone on the far Northwest side to go to downtown and then back out to the Galleria makes sense, that transit to/from the Greenway Plaza area to a host of destinations is practical, and that not requiring people to drive downtown, park their cars and riding a train for 7 miles is the path to true growth.  One thing that was said in the article by Crossley with which I agree is that (paraphrasing) what is around the central core matters.  This extends to the suburbs as well.  The great cities understand that suburban access to job centers is key to reducing congestion and shortening the commute times for those who don't want to ride.  It's a tide that raises all boats, just not the ones favored by a select few.

It's time Houston started gleaning ideas from it's practical thinkers, not just those who make a lot of noise and generate warm and fuzzy thoughts of a Downtown Houston from the 50's and 60's.


  1. I agree with you that grade-separated, inter-urban heavy rail is a must. However, I wonder if underground rail is more difficult in Houston, given the type of soil and drainage in the area. If that's the case, the only viable grade separation is via elevated lines like in Chicago. Alternatively, we could use or lay track next to existing freight rail lines.

    I wouldn't write off light rail's contribution to reducing automobile traffic, though. It will definitely help in reducing cross-town trips, especially if it's seen as a faster alternative to the buses. I know you think crosstown traffic is dominated by hipsters grabbing craft beers at Mongoose vs Cobra, but just look at where the red line extension, green line, and purple lines are going - lower income neighborhoods within the loop, not the trendy west side of the inner loop. These lines are opening up access to the people most sensitive to gas prices and long commutes.

  2. Again, I never made the case you're saying I'm making. Your comments tend to be you telling me what I think, and then you continuing on to say that what you're saying I'm saying is wrong.

    Neat trick.


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