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Archive for September 16th, 2009

Cattle and Cars

A few facts Houstonian, courtesy of reading Michael Lewyn’s paper, “How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning),” which I was reading, appropriately, in Houston, a city of which I admittedly have only a fleeting grasp.

Houston has a reputation as an unusually sprawling, automobile-dependent city. For example, one newspaper article describes Houston as “a city of 581 square miles of unruly urban sprawl… (where) no one walks.” Similarly, an article in Houston’s own newspaper asserts that “Houston’s sprawl is as ugly and pervasive as any city’s in the nation.” And Houston’s reputation has ample basis in reality.

For example:

*Houston is far less densely populated than most other cities of comparable size. The city of Houston has only 3372 people per square mile, less than half the density of any of the three cities larger than Houston, and fewer than six of the eight American cities with over 1 million people.

*Houston is as automobile-dependent as any American city. Only 5.9% of the city of Houston’s employed adults commute via public transit — fewer than in any of the cities larger than Houston.

*Houstonians drive more than other Americans: The average Houstonian travels 37.6 miles per day by automobile, more than residents of any other large American region.

*As a result of all that driving, the average Houston household spends $9566 per year (or 20.1% of its income) on transportation-related expenses, more than its counterparts in all but one of America’s large metropolitan areas.

Thus, Houston’s reputation as a poster child for sprawl is richly deserved.

The interesting blog Keep Houston Houston has some further thoughts on how regulations keep this system flourishing.

And a few very random, scattershot impressions of inherent import:

1.) The highways are huge, and, in the late morning to early afternoon time I was out, they looked, by my New York eyes, virtually empty.

2.) I was out driving for 10 minutes when I happened upon a pedestrian injury; an older woman trying to cross a large, multi-lane road, with huge sweeping turn lanes, and barely visible crosswalks. Another comment from Lewyn:

The Houston city code provides, subject to certain exceptions, that major thoroughfares must have a 100 feet right-of-way, and all other streets must generally have 50-60 feet rights-of-way. Because Houston sidewalks are typically either 4 feet wide or are nonexistent, the practical result of this ordinance is that some of Houston’s major streets are 90 or 100 feet wide, while other streets can be up to 60 feet wide. By contrast, most American streets are 32 to 36 feet wide, and some municipalities allow commercial streets as narrow as 30 feet wide and residential streets as narrow as 18 or 20 feet wide.

At my reading at Brazos Bookstore, someone told me that Houston’s streets were laid out in order to run cattle drives down them a long time ago, and that longhorn cattle required a certain distance (owing to the, er, long horns). Is this a tantalizing urban legend, or is there any truth? Anyone seen any reputable chatter on this?

3.) At 2:30 at one school there was already a queue of SUVs to pick up children. The person I was with told me there was a special parking lot for the “walkers” — i.e., those parents who pick up their children on foot — to wait. I got the sense a child actually couldn’t be released into the world if a guardian was not there.

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Posted on Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 at 11:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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