Houston’s transportation planner: COVID shows streets cannot be just for commuting

Since David Fields arrived on the job in Houston in February he has been a man in motion, even as the city nearly ground to halt to stop COVID-19. As the city’s first chief transportation planner — a position aimed at coordinating Houston’s ever-changing streets into a coherent system for […]

Since David Fields arrived on the job in Houston in February he has been a man in motion, even as the city nearly ground to halt to stop COVID-19.

As the city’s first chief transportation planner — a position aimed at coordinating Houston’s ever-changing streets into a coherent system for drivers, transit users, cyclists and anyone who uses the roads — Fields finds himself watching along with the rest of us what the virus and lockdown are doing to commute patterns and recreational trips through neighborhoods. Traffic may have dropped dramatically on local freeways but bayou trails are teeming with runners and bike riders.

Fields came from a private sector job in San Francisco, where much of his work was for local governments and transit agencies redesigning streets, plazas and bus and train depots, and establishing policies for parking and vehicle use.

In an email discussion, Fields says in the future residents could find streets that consider more than just cars, where safety for everyone trumps speed, depending on what the city is trying to achieve for particular streets so sprawling Houston can get full use of the funds it dedicates to roads.

As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?

Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.

COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.

Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.

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From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?

COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute five days every week, somewhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. People are working from home more than ever, which means fewer people traveling to work each day. Businesses are learning to be flexible and technology is helping.

The takeaway is that traffic is not set in stone. If 10 percent of our workforce can work from home in the future, traffic becomes a very different conversation. The key for Houston and for our work is to find ways to encourage this behavior we’re learning now, so it’s a choice by our residents and businesses that ends up helping everyone. It’s also resulting in more people walking around close to home more on those days that they stay home to work.

The silver lining is the chance to remember that we control our transportation choices and nothing is set in stone.

How closely are you looking at the increase, at least anecdotally, in bicycling around a lot of neighborhoods during the stay-home orders? Is this something you see sticking around regardless of the virus? It’s easy to hop on a bike in Houston in March or April when it’s 78 degrees, but much harder when it is 94 outside.

The key to that question is the word neighborhoods. For years, Houston has had lots of people bicycling, often within their own neighborhoods, especially during evenings and weekends. All times of year, even mid-summer, you’ll find people bicycling where it’s safe and where there is shade.

What we’re seeing now is a growth in bicycling between neighborhoods and from neighborhoods to parks across the city, because it’s a great way to get outside and exercise while still social distancing. Plus, it is something you can do by yourself, with friends, or with family members of all ages.

Providing safe and comfortable places to bike will be the encouragement people are looking for to ride for the first time, and for experienced short-trip riders to be comfortable riding longer.

A bicyclist rides along the Brays Bayou Greenway Trail on May 6, 2020, in Houston.

We are all readjusting our sense of personal space in public. I have gotten pretty good at knowing what six feet separation looks like thanks to those markers on grocery floors. Now that we are all attuned to it, are we going to need wider sidewalks?

To say all of Houston needs the same thing would miss how different some of our neighborhoods are. In historic cores with small streets and buildings to the sidewalk, I don’t think we would want to knock down homes for another foot of sidewalk. At the same time, we want to provide everyone with the chance to walk and walk safely — so sidewalks, crosswalks, and paths are important.

The point with our work is to be context-sensitive, while providing everyone with safe streets. This isn’t new to the city’s planning efforts. The planning commission’s Walkable Places Committee has been working for two years to make it easy for redeveloping areas to include environments that facilitate walking, especially areas that are attracting higher density commercial, office, and multifamily residential developments.

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You’ve been in place for a few months now. What’s been the most surprising thing to you about Houston streets or the users of them, now that you’ve settled in?

My biggest adjustment has been to Houston’s scale. The city proper is almost 700 square miles. 700 square miles! That’s five Atlantas. I’ve been trying to see as many neighborhoods as I can. The first few days of May was around 90 degrees each day, and there were so many people walking around the three places I visited: Rice Military, Midtown, and EaDo. Next up will be Chinatown. What I need now are recommendations for more neighborhoods to visit.

Each place I visit, I’m amazed how many people are outside, either walking or sitting on porches. Even with social distancing, these folks have been incredibly friendly. Not every city interacts in public that way, and it says a lot about how Houstonians value their streets.

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How much do you think Houston suffers, not from a lack of amenities but a lack of maintained amenities? Often, people say they do not bike because of the conditions of streets or dread walking because of the condition of sidewalks.

Houston takes a beating every year, especially with heat and rain, which makes it hard to keep our roads in shape. Houston Public Works recognized this and with the mayor’s support developed a citywide street rehabilitation program, which will define a schedule for every city street to be rehabilitated.

At the same time, we know the transportation system isn’t providing equal opportunity to all modes. Currently, less than 1 percent of our city’s roadway lanes miles are dedicated to biking. So, we are focused on providing access for everyone. Last year alone, Houston and its partners cumulatively added nearly 50 miles of high-comfort bike lanes. This keeps us on pace for the 1,500 miles of high comfort bike lanes in our bike plan.

We also built $9.7 million dollars of sidewalks, eliminating the backlog of accessibility requests. Continuing to take steps like this will provide networks for all modes, maintained for use by everyone today and in the future.

What project that you are working on right now are you most excited about, and why?

Our small six-person Transportation Planning Division is working on so much, it’s almost unfair to pick one. But our work always starts with the basics and that means making sure every one of Houston’s 2.3 million residents can cross the street safely. That’s the whole point of the city’s Vision Zero program: To end traffic-related deaths and serious injuries among all road users in the city by 2030.

We are working on the Vision Zero Action Plan right now and the most exciting part is the broad-based support we’ve already heard. Everyone we speak to about Vision Zero, residents, businesses, city staff, our regional partners, they all recognize that safety isn’t optional. For Houston to continue to be a great place to live and work, it has to be safe.

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Dannielle Weintraub

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