Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.
Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.
“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.
Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.
Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.
“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.
State freeways exempt
The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.
The designation and executive order are signals of a gradual shift in Houston, one of the nation’s most car-centric cities, to policies that consider alternatives to the automobile.
“This is the start of a process making sure our communities are more connected and more walkable,” Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.
The challenge will be in tailoring the effort to Houston’s diverse neighborhoods.
More than nine out of 10 commuters in Houston rely on vehicles, including buses, that travel city streets. Nearly as many people work from home, about 3 percent, as walk or ride a bicycle to their job.
The executive order will help officials avoid planning and design mistakes that confound some residents. Parker pointed to a photo of a sidewalk built to the city’s 3-foot design standard but marred with obstructions.
“We have seen fit to take that barely adequate sidewalk and put ‘no parking’ signs down the middle,” she said.
The signs and poles render the sidewalk useless for many pedestrians, especially those using wheelchairs.
Along Bagby, developers installed wider sidewalks and small gardens to make the area more appealing. Parking lots were offset and business entrances moved to the sidewalk, giving pedestrians easier access. Bicycle racks were incorporated into the area.
Developers built the assorted apartments and shops without a complete streets plan but did so because the city granted variances. Now, some of those components of a project, like a wider sidewalk, would become an acceptable standard.
As a result of its pedestrian-friendly features, the Bagby area snagged the highest score to date as a certified Greenroads project. The certification, from the national Greenroads Project, which celebrates energy-efficient, healthy and effective street planning, is the first one bestowed in Texas. Houston beat New York and Chicago in securing a Greenroads-certified project, said Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents the area.