In Houston, Optimism Abounds for Better Mobility - TransitCenter

Clarence Eckerson/Streetfilms

Governance Policy
February 29, 2016
In Houston, Optimism Abounds for Better Mobility

Now that TransitCenter has begun accepting applications for the 2017 grant cycle, we are proud to showcase on the blog some of last year’s grantees and their great work. Following our recent interviews with TransForm and the MARTA Army, our feature today is from Clarence Eckerson, the founder of Streetfilms. Clarence received a TransitCenter grant to produce a set of films about the most pressing challenges facing transit agencies across the country. He recently visited Houston to document the city’s bus network redesign, and recounts the highlights of his trip in the article below. The piece originally appeared on the Streetfilms website, and Clarence generously agreed to let TransitCenter republish it here. It has been edited lightly for clarity.

Last week found me in Houston. And for a few hours (see above) I got to go explore its expansive bayou greenway system—which by 2020 will be the largest network of trails and parks in the nation. That may shock you about Houston; it’s great trivia to pull out in a room with transportation friends.

But the primary reason I was there was to look at the ambitious realignment of Houston METRO’s bus system, a complex multi-year project to make buses run more efficiently, faster, more frequently, and with routes that make more sense for the city. It’s already reaping great rewards and sweeping the nation with ample positive press, so we thought it would make a great Streetfilm. Thus, thanks to our funding partners TransitCenter, in a few weeks we’ll be posting a film to tell the story.

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This photo is me with Janis “Bus Lady” Scott who is just one of the great folks I got to spend time with on the streets of Houston riding transit. I think Janis just might be Jane Jacobs reincarnated. She was so charming I might post a bonus Streetfilm segment just on her after finishing our primary feature on METRO. (Editor’s note: here is a link to the segment.)

I also got to do one of the more amazing things I have ever been allowed: I rode in an empty bus around downtown Houston just to get some driving shots after interviewing Cara (below), an energetic bus driver at METRO who helped out planning some of the new routes. You’ll meet her, the “Bus Lady,” and many others in our film.

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While I was there, I was a guest speaker at Houston Tomorrow‘s Streetfilms screening at the Rice University Media Center. It’s always nice to see our films playing up on a handsome big screen with lots of folks. Furthermore, I was very excited since Jay Blazek Crossley, Houston Tomorrow’s executive director, chose a great slate of Streetfilms mostly pulled from this blog post, which I’ve been cajoling communities to play. You should—after all, they are free to screen.

Of course even with the great bayou greenways project and the new bus system alignment, Houston still has an enormous challenge rejecting its asphalt culture (see above a short montage of traffic on Interstate 69). In Houston I saw ample examples of how car culture can destroy cities and eat up space to make places inhospitable to live. I took this crazy photo of a Chase drive-through ATM which sports 14 lanes (only seven are shown in this photo). Yes, fourteen!  Although many of the lanes now appear closed off, I ask: When was this ever OK in any place, in any era? When I first saw this structure I thought it was a downtown toll booth with a secret entrance to an underground Houston road!

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And of course, Houston has a huge number of parking craters and it’s easy to see why the city was a strong contender in Streetsblog’s parking craters competition. There are lots of lanes of highways, everywhere.

However, optimism abounds as new Mayor Sylvester Turner has been capturing the attention of the transportation world saying Houston needs to fund transportation options that don’t involve building more space for cars. In his recent comments he suggested that Houston needs “a paradigm shift” when it comes to transportation.

Finally, I’ll end on this note: When you’re in a new city, sometimes you see things that are cool that local residents may shrug at. Here’s another first for me: the photo below shows what Houston has done at intersections where streets cross light rail lines. Yes, they put red boxes around the stoplights. I guess this is a red light on steroids?

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Of course that makes me fond of my first trip to Houston a few years ago, where on a hot summer night I spent some time admiring the fountains and art that surround the Main Street Square transit stop and turned it into the shortie below. Yeah, I am a transportation geek at heart.

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