Transportation

Houston inching away from car-centric reputation with slate of multimodal infrastructure projects

Meeting the needs of cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users, while increasing safety and reducing pollution, are among the priorities for the city’s transportation planners.

Downtown Houston Bike Lane
Houston is expanding its network of bicycle lanes both downtown and in other parts of the city.

When he arrived in Houston two years ago, what David Fields saw belied what he had heard.

The nation's fourth-largest city has long been known as car-centric and geared toward commuting, with a web of wide freeways that stretch from the heart of town to the far-flung suburbs. Driving, and fighting rush-hour traffic, could be considered part of Houston's culture.

But Fields, a native New Yorker who also worked in the San Francisco area before taking a job as Houston's chief transportation planner, saw a city in flux in terms of how its residents get around. Public transit options have expanded in recent years, and so has Houston's network of sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails.

Fields, who has lived in the Heights and Montrose areas and works downtown, said last week he has yet to drive to his office, instead relying on buses and occasionally his bicycle.

"I think Houston has a reputation because it grew up around the car for many years, but the reality on the ground is not the historic reputation," he said. "I did not realize how much was going on here until I got to spend some time."

Although highway expansion continues in the region and driving remains the primary mode of transportation for most Houston-area residents, the city continues to inch away from its reliance on personal cars and trucks while expanding its infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users. The idea, according to Fields, is to make the city safer, to more adequately accommodate more residents and their preferred transportation options and also to combat climate change.

The city recently was awarded a $21 million federal grant for a transformative project on a 3-mile stretch of Telephone Road in the southeast part of town, where vehicle lanes will be reduced while bike lanes, wider sidewalks and improved connections with METRO – the region's public transit provider – will be added. Similar projects have been completed in recent years on Austin Street in the Midtown area and Kelley Street on the north side, and many more are underway or in the pipeline.

A federal grant also is buoying an infrastructure project along Shepherd and Durham drives in the Heights area that calls for fewer vehicle lanes and an expanded pedestrian realm, and the city is doing much the same on a stretch of West 11th Street. Among the projects in the works at METRO, for which voters approved a $3.5 billion bond in 2019, is a 25-mile University Line that will stretch across the southern and eastern parts of town while connecting four higher-learning institutions and utilizing dedicated bus lanes.

Many of those projects have come to light under the administration of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was elected in 2015. Fields said the city has added 400 miles of bike lanes under the Houston Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2017, and meeting the needs of non-drivers is now part of the planning for every infrastructure initiative.

"The mayor has said over and over again we are in a transportation paradigm shift, which means moving people by all the different modes, making it safer for all the different modes and really rethinking our right-of-way space," Fields said. "I can't imagine any project the city is leading that is not looked at through a multimodal lens."

Harris County government also has gotten on board, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, an avid cyclist, have committed resources to Houston's expanding trail network, particularly the Bayou Greenways initiative led by the Houston Parks Board. The Houston-Galveston Area Council, which helps allocate transportation dollars and serves as the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the region, is increasingly supporting multimodality as well. So are local management districts and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, which both get a portion of property tax revenues to use for localized infrastructure projects.

The shift is in the interest of increased safety – there were more than 300 traffic-related fatalities and 1,600 serious injuries in 2021, according to Fields – and reducing the region's carbon footprint. The American Lung Association ranks Houston as the eighth-most polluted city in the U.S., which can be attributed largely to industry and the use of gasoline-powered automobiles, according to Harrison Humphreys, the climate programs manager at nonprofit Air Alliance Houston.

There also are economic incentives for making the city more navigable by foot, by bike and by bus, according to Greater Houston Partnership spokesperson Clint Pasche, whose organization represents about 950 businesses in the region. He said Houston needs more multimodal transportation options to remain competitive with other cities, since young professionals from the east and west coasts tend to seek out such amenities.

Those projects also help spark new development. Pasche and Fields both said Houston's push toward multimodal infrastructure started in 2004, when light rail transformed Main Street and prompted a revitalization of the downtown thoroughfare.

"The Houston region is one of the fastest-growing metros in the country," Pasche said. "We have been for the last 15 years, so we would say it's modernizing at a rapid pace. That means this new Houston and how we navigate it must adapt as well."

Traffic jams

Houston's transportation infrastructure might be transforming more rapidly if not for some notable roadblocks, such as a comparative lack of resources for multimodal means. For example, Houston has a budget of more than $5.7 billion for this fiscal year and the Houston Bike Plan allocates a little more than $1 million annually for bike-related projects.

Humphreys and Joe Cutrufo, the executive director for cycling advocacy nonprofit BikeHouston, both said the makeup of the Transportation Policy Council at the Houston-Galveston Area Council tends to skew infrastructure projects more toward rural and suburban interests and less toward those in Houston's urban core. Houston and Harris County have two representatives apiece on the council, which includes one representative each from many smaller outlying counties and municipalities.

METRO Light Rail-TMC
Gail Delaughter
Light rail is among the transportation options in the Texas Medical Center.

And while leaders in Houston have focused on increased connectivity and mobility for those not behind the wheel of a car or truck, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) continues to expand the region's highways and vehicle lane capacity. The Katy Freeway west of the city was expanded to six general lanes and two high-occupancy lanes in each direction as part of a $2.8 billion project during the first decade of the 2000s, and TxDOT also has proposed to widen and reroute Interstate 45 north of and through downtown.

Media relations representatives at TxDOT's Houston office did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story.

"It's a deep, deep hole that we are struggling to dig out of," Humphreys said of Houston's historical reliance on highways and personal automobiles. "We're digging out of it with a spoon, and TxDOT's got an excavator digging the hole deeper."

Houston also is grappling with long-held perceptions and attitudes about how to get around the city and how its transportation resources should be invested. Fields said residents have expressed reservations about projects that will increase drive times and require prolonged construction – even if the tradeoff is improved safety – while Cutrufo said opponents of expanded cycling infrastructure often point to the city's low number of bike riders compared to car drivers.

But Cutrufo, whose BikeHouston organization has about 12,000 members, said Houston is "overbuilt for car traffic" and doesn't require the lane capacity that exists on its roads. So there is plenty of space, he said, to accommodate those who prefer alternative modes of transportation.

"Nobody's taking away your option to drive," Cutrufo said of lane-reduction projects such as the ones in the Heights and on Telephone Road. "We're gaining so much more than we're losing. We're not just gaining some space on a specific corridor that had to be quote-unquote taken away from drivers. We're gaining a significant transportation option that we didn't have before without losing the option to drive."

Pasche said Houston figures to remain reliant on cars and trucks well into its future, although more could be powered with electricity as opposed to gasoline. So it's important to keep traditional streets and highways up to date, he said, along with expanding other modes of transportation.

Humphreys said the Houston-Galveston Area Council seems to be striking more of a balance in recent years, with its Transportation Policy Council approving $40 million for part of the Shepherd-Durham reconstruction project, which will expand the pedestrian realm while reducing vehicle lanes on the parallel Heights thoroughfares.

Fields said TxDOT has been working with the city to incorporate hike-and-bike trails as part of its highway infrastructure in Houston, such as adding those amenities to its ongoing work along Interstate 10 west of downtown. Pasche of the Greater Houston Partnership, which supports the controversial expansion project on I-45, said that plan includes multimodal components as well.

Planning for all types of transportation modes is necessary for a city projected to double in population within the next few decades, according to Sanjay Ramabhadran, the board chair for METRO.

“If you want to meet the mobility needs of double the population, all avenues of mobility need to be on the table, including highways, including public transit, including bikeways and pedestrian access,” Ramabhadran said.

Like Fields, Cutrufo is a native of New England who spent time working in New York before moving to Houston about two years ago. And he said he's heard longer-tenured residents refer to the city's recent transportation shift as "remarkable."

Momentum continues to build, too. Earlier this month, after the city announced the federal grant for the Telephone Road project, Turner expressed support for an idea to construct two pedestrian bridges across White Oak Bayou to help further connect the Heights area to the Washington Avenue corridor and Rice Military area to the south.

Perhaps there will come a time when Houston is known for all the different ways its residents and visitors can navigate the city – and not for its expanse of freeways crowded with cars.

"It's something the public may not realize is happening. It's not a big, splashy thing," Fields said. "But when we get this right, that means all the signs and plans in the future are supporting our mission."

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