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Peter Brown’s traffic plan

Today I want to take a closer look at Peter Brown’s traffic plan, the highlights of which you can see here, with the longer and more detail-filled form here (PDF). My thoughts:

– As with Annise Parker’s crimefighting plan, I am in general agreement with Brown’s priorities, and believe there is or would be general consensus for many – but not all – of his items. Among them are a number of things that originated with or were expanded by Mayor White, such as construction incentives to speed up infrastructure work, traffic light synchronization, SafeClear, and better coordination of road projects. I for one especially like this bit:

EMPOWER HOUSTON TO HELP

Peter Brown will use the latest technologies to allow residents to instantly alert the City of poorly maintained infrastructure – including potholes and signage problems – to help make roadwork more responsive. Smart-phone applications can enable streamlined reporting to city departments, allowing residents to quickly collect and share photographic evidence of disrepair or neglect. We can also connect with residents via their existing social networks to enhance communication between residents and the City.

Note that the city of Boston has already implemented an iPhone app that will allow residents to snap photos of neighborhood nuisances, such as potholes, graffiti, and blown street lights, and e-mail them to City Hall to be fixed. If they can do it, we can do it.

– That said, there are numerous items here that clearly bear the “Peter Brown” stamp, and not just because almost all of them contain the phrase “Peter Brown will”. Mostly these can be summed up as urban planning in some form. That’s Brown’s passion and I daresay his motivation for running, and it’s clear he’s put a lot of thought into these items. It’s also clear that not everyone will agree with some of them, and to a large extent Brown’s chances of winning this race will hinge on how successful he is at getting people to agree with his vision. I personally find a lot to like in his vision, but I also have serious doubts about how much of it could ever actually get implemented.

– A key component to Brown’s vision is the idea that you can help to decongest the streets by making it possible for people to do less driving in their daily lives.

GROW CLOSER TOGETHER

We should encourage denser mixed-use growth and development near public transit to help reduce car trips and save time. With shops, amenities, and employers all located close to housing, growing livable, mixed-use centers will help minimize the amount of time residents spend on the road. Similarly, encouraging growth near public transportation will give residents more transportation choices.

AFFORABLE CHOICES NEAR EMPLOYMENT CENTERS

Oftentimes, workers are forced to take long commutes because they can’t afford to live near work. Peter Brown will coordinate our housing policy with our transportation plan and enable workers to live closer to their places of employment. We need to ensure a variety of housing choices so that new development is accessible to the entire community.

ENCOURAGE HIGH-QUALITY URBANIZATION

With nearly a hundred square miles of undeveloped land in Houston, we have a tremendous opportunity to shape our future that few other large cities have. Peter Brown will encourage smart, high-quality development of urban density that improves the quality of life and strengthens neighborhoods. A denser Houston would put workers closer to their jobs, allowing them more choices about the routes they take, including better access to the city’s street grid as an alternative to commutes along primary arterials and highways. Aside from the transportation benefits, it will also reduce response times for emergency services and first responders by keeping population centers closer to public safety facilities.

This is classic Brown. He’s talked about this sort of thing for a long time, and again, I think the reason he’s running for Mayor and not another term in Council is because he believes being Mayor is the only way he can really do this stuff.

I think there’s a lot to be said for Brown’s ideas, which include making Houston more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly and expanding transit options. There’s really no reason why Houston can’t have a more walkable, transit-oriented urban core. I realize we’re in a time of the year when the notion of walking anywhere isn’t too appealing to most folks, though as Andrew Burleson has shown, the quality of the pedestrian experience can make a huge difference in that. Most of the year here is just fine for being outside, and as someone who actually has gone to school in two feet of snow, I’d say that on the average our climate is more conducive to that kind of lifestyle than many cities where it is the norm.

Obviously, not everyone wants to live in an urban area, and even if Peter Brown were to achieve everything on his wish list, there’d still be plenty of people living in the burbs. The point is that more people would choose to live in this kind of setting if it were more readily available and affordable, and that there are a lot of things a Mayor can do to make that happen. The irony is that a lot of these things are deregulatory in nature, such as loosening requirements for providing parking, which tends to get lost in the “free market” dogma that arises whenever stuff like revisions to the form-based codes are brought up.

The main critique I have of Brown’s vision is that we’ve already got a lot of density happening in the core, mostly but not exclusively inside the Loop, and it’s already had a significant effect on traffic and mobility in the area. A lot of main roads, at least ones I drive on like Kirby, Shepherd, Richmond, and Westheimer, are already at the point of being nearly unusable, and this has a spillover effect onto residential streets. It’s not clear to me that Brown has prioritized mitigating the effects of some of this unplanned density. Infill development, especially in places that are already reasonably serviceable by transit, makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think we can really tackle this problem without dealing with the places that are plenty dense now.

Part of the reason why I have my doubts about Brown’s ability to get his vision implemented is that the problems we’re seeing now, and will see more of as we continue to densify (whether in a planned fashion or not) are caused by our unwillingness to require developers to pay for the costs they impose on our infrastructure. We’ve crammed a bunch of townhomes into old neighborhoods, but we haven’t addressed the strain this has put on sewers and drainage in most of them. A lot of inner core streets are in disrepair, and the sidewalks, where they exist, are often in even worse shape. How do we deal with this, and how do we pay for it? It makes sense to me to pass at least some of these costs to the developers, but good luck with getting them to accept that. I find this to be a real stumbling block to buying into the vision he advocates.

It’s also the case that some forms of mitigation are necessarily long-term in nature. For instance, Metro could announce tomorrow that it’s designating a Kirby Drive Corridor for its next phase of light rail expansion, and I’d have no faith that they’d even break ground before Mayor Peter Brown finished his third and final term in office. How do you ensure your vision outlasts you? Is that even possible for something like this?

– Moving on, Brown is also talking about encouraging telecommuting, which also has the effect of decluttering the roads, as well as saving gas and reducing our carbon footprint.

INCENTIVES FOR FLEXIBLE EMPLOYERS

Employers who help reduce traffic during peak periods and keep us moving should be rewarded for the time and money they are saving all of us. Peter Brown will find ways to provide incentives for companies that offer flexible schedules and stagger shift times to avoid rush hour commutes, based on the amount of traffic that they are able to off-set.

Brown says the city will lead by example on this, and that’s fine and good. As Houston Politics notes that this approach has been tried, which makes me wonder what Brown can or would do differently. As with Parker’s crimefighting plan, this is more about the what than the how, so that remains to be seen.

There’s more to Brown’s plan, but I think this post is long enough. Since he includes a bit on what Houston’s busiest streets will be in the year 2035, I’ll point you to this David Crossley post which takes a look at some of the other projections for the farthest-out forecast we have of the Houston region. Check it out.

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8 Comments

  1. Baby Snooks says:

    I thought “traffic impact” was the big thing with everyone. Or was that just with regard to 1717 Bissonnet?

    As for Peter Brown’s plan, he needs to drive around a little. A little here, a little there. We are turning Inner Loop into another Galleria. Complete with unbearable traffic. Urban planning at its worst. What Houston is famous for. The only real planning on the part of developers is “maintaining” the “in” at City Hall in the planning department to ensure the foundation is laid before anyone can say a word. The developers of 1717 Bissonnet found out what happens when you don’t “maintain” the “in” at City Hall.

    As for a Kirby Corridor you must be joking. Imagine the traffic after they take two to four lanes for light rail. Maybe they can widen it again. Of course they would have to take out most of the development along Kirby to do so given the variance on setbacks all the developers have gotten through the years.

    There’s nothing wrong by the way with “traffic impact” as a part of city planning. They’ve been doing it for years in Los Angeles. The difference is that in Los Angeles they apply it across the board. Not just when someone doesn’t want a hirise peering into their back yard.

    That right there is reason enough to vote for Gene Locke. Brown and Parker were front and center with the mayor when he decided to play big bad wolf and blow the big hirise down. They will probably be front and center if there’s a lawsuit. Which most expect there will be. Unless we have a mayor next year with some common sense who issues the permits to avoid the lawsuit.

    Most suspect we will. Gene Locke.

  2. Mike says:

    >>As for a Kirby Corridor you must be joking. Imagine the traffic after they take two to four lanes for light rail.

    Kirby and Westheimer from downtown all the way out to Beltway 8 would be great candidates for elevated rail IMHO. But I’m guessing that won’t happen for another 30 years at least. In the meantime, they will get the Quickline buses.

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