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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10 Responses to “Cattle and Cars”

  1. Des Says:

    Don’t know about Houston, but I’d heard that Salt Lake (and presumably other Mormon-founded cities) had their street dimensions determined by the need to turn around a wagon team in one fell swoop (eg, not a three-point turn).

    My hunch is that in many western ‘frontier’ towns, laying out big streets was a way of showing confidence in the future and sending a message to potential investors that a given city/town was going to make it big. In Alberta, many cities have their grid’s origin point start at 100th St and 100th Avenue. It must’ve sounded very impressive to land speculators (who may never have visited, and certainly couldn’t google the place) that lots at the corner of 104th and 102nd were already on the market; and look at the width of those streets! Must be a big town…

  2. Peter Smith Says:

    i stopped in Houston a few years ago, long before i paid attention to livable streets, and i thought the place was disgusting. i’ve since talked to countless individuals who, when they hear ‘Houston’, say something to the effect, “I _hate_ that place.” Some people hate LA, but people _really_ hate Houston.

    the interesting part to me, now, is that i don’t know if people could ever really articulate why they hated it so much — they just knew they did. to me, that’s exactly what Kunstler was talking about in The Geography of Nowhere:

    “I had a hunch that many other people find their surroundings as distressing as I do my own, yet I sensed too that they lack the vocabulary to understand what is wrong with the palces they outght to know best. That is why I wrote this book.”

    That was me — I knew something was seriously wrong, but I didn’t really know how to talk about it. I get the feeling lots of other folks feel the same way about Houston, LA, etc.

  3. Cycler Says:

    I’d heard that about Salt Lake as well. Supposedly Brigham Young declared that, and most of the big downtown streets are really really wide. But having lived in both places, I’ll say that Salt Lake is a much more pleasant place to walk in, because sidewalks are better, and they’ve started to do more neckdowns, esplanades etc.
    The scary thing about this post is that if you were at Brazos bookstore- that’s the livable, walkable “dense” core of Houston. It gets scarier and scarier as you move out into the burbs.
    When I was going to school there, I didn’t have a car for most of my time there, and it’s an “interesting” place to bike. They’ve made some big improvements with the light rail, but there was a huge stigma attached to riding the bus, and ample and underpriced parking means that there’s little incentive not to drive.

  4. Stewart Clamen Says:

    Houston was the focus of a story on NPR this morning

    Houston: Texas-Sized Sprawl, No End In Sight

  5. Matthew Roberts Says:

    Pretty sure that yarn about cattle drives is just that, a myth. For one, cattle drives never ended in Houston. Fort Worth or even Dallas, yes, but not Houston, it was too far from the markets of the Midwest and Northeast.

    Secondly, Dallas and Fort Worth don’t have streets that wide.

  6. aaron Says:

    What’s their fuel consumption per capita?

    Per VMT?

    Adjusted for vehicle type?

    Per regional GDP?

  7. Will Says:

    Houston’s philosophy behind streets can be laid at the feet of the Allen Brothers (probably the original real estate con-men) who founded Houston and the Borden brothers who were commissioned to survey the site for the future city. John & Augustus Allen were from New York and hated alleys. Taking this into consideration Thomas & Gale Borden laid out what is now downtown Houston with standard, square blocks of 250 feet. Each block was subdivided where the typical block essentially had 10, 50×125 foot lots. The lack of alleys were one of the reasons all streets in Houston were originally 80-100 feet wide going back to 1836.

    Taking a transportation-centric view of things, the 250 foot block with no alleys is a real problem today. The frequent need to cross a 80-100 foot wide street discourages pedestrian traffic. Restaurants and bars in downtown Houston that aren’t lucky enough to have an off-street loading dock, as the big skyscrapers, pile up their trash at the edge of the side-walk every evening, further suppressing pedestrian traffic. Then there is the impact on cars and busses. Driving through downtown, where the city can’t ever seem to get the timing down on the traffic signals, is a mess when you have to stop every 250 feet no matter what direction you’re going.

    We would have been much better off had the Allen Brothers approved of the then newly standardized 250×900 block that is characteristic of Manhattan.

  8. Jack Says:

    I moved to Houston over 30 years ago without a car as I was use to living in a city where cars were not a necessity. Walking along streets in my expensive tropical weight wool suits still meant that people would yell “hey loser” from their cars. Yes I eventually had to conform to get around and bought my first car at the age of 27. The average professional in Houston rarely walks unless it’s in the air-conditioned underground.

    Auto-dependencies insure that any programs designed to improve air quality and other pollutants means major political battles. Sprawl also guarantees that change will be difficult and very expensive. I left the city after a few years and have no desire to go back – – traffic was a nightmare 30 years ago even with wide roads.

  9. Shannon Says:

    Regarding the schoolchildren portion of your post: I was a kindergarten teacher for five years in the ’90s, in a suburb of Dallas. Our school district’s stance was that the school (read: the teachers) were responsible for our students’ welfare “portal to portal,” meaning that if we sent our kids off on their own after school and they got hurt, etc., we could be held legally responsible. This meant that we would look an (approved) adult in the eye and greet them before we’d hand over any of our kids. It made us feel better about their welfare, especially as our kids in particular were so young, but we also had to sometimes go to extreme lengths to figure out where a student’s approved pickup people were if there was a mix-up. As a person in charge of small children, I approved of the measure, but sometimes I’d think back to my own latch-key childhood and wonder if the world had become so much more dangerous in the last 10-15 years.

  10. Botswana Meat Commission FC Says:

    I moved here to Atlanta two years ago and one day I needed to get new tires on my car, so I dropped off at the shop about a quarter mile from my suburban office, then walked to work. When I told my co-workers that I was walking over to the tire shop to pick up the car again, they were genuinely bewildered.

    And as for Houston’s highways being empty… i notice the same thing around here in ATL too. Overbuilt roadways are a MAJOR problem here, since we’re now left with completely unwalkable/unbikeable communities.

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