On August 5, Houston’s City Council took significant steps to transform Houston into a more walkable city, unanimously passing ordinances to shift Houston away from its notorious car-centric culture. The ordinances created two programs, areas with a “Walkable Places” designation and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program. In areas designated as Walkable Places, the city aims to create pedestrian-friendly development, and, in areas within the Transit-Oriented Development program, the city seeks to improve walkability on streets that fall within half a mile from a train or bus station.
These new ordinances allow buildings to be built closer to streets designated by the Walkable Places and Transit-Oriented Development initiatives, as well as enable parking lots to be located on the side of or behind buildings and sidewalks to be widened. Up until now, the city’s planning codes, established in the 1990s, were heavily centered around cars, but these new ordinances are changing the relationship between cars and pedestrians in Houston.
Across the country, COVID-19 has drastically shifted our way of living: we’re spending more time at home and in our communities and less time travelling and commuting. Consequently, the pandemic has allowed cities, like Houston, to re-evaluate and restructure developments to ensure that they are environmentally and public health conscious development. Compact development can deliver tangible benefits for the environment, reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, while curbing the flow of polluted runoff into streams and lakes and protecting natural areas.
In 2018, Houston experienced 110 days — over three months worth — of unsafe air due to ozone, or smog, and particulate matter, or soot, pollution. Particulate matter and ozone are some of the primary pollutants in our air and can increase morbidity, shorten life spans, and cause lung and respiratory diseases. In the first few months of COVID-19 lockdown, car traffic across the country reduced by almost 40%, and the Houston area experienced 11.9% less ozone pollution. However, traffic levels are already ticking up again as restrictions are lifted. Without sustained effort to revamp our transportation systems, the clear skies that accompanied city lockdowns will become a distant memory. Houston’s new ordinances are the city’s first step in making lasting change happen.
Restructuring urban planning and transportation systems to focus on moving people, not cars, can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in a place like Houston. Houston emits over 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita, in large part due to emissions from transportation, which contribute 47% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
As a coastal city that’s already weathered severe weather and storms, Houston is at the forefront of climate change. Shifting the Houston, car-centric culture to a more pedestrian-friendly city creates both public health and environmental benefits for the city. With the passage of these ordinances, and the MetroNEXT ballot measure this past fall, there’s significant momentum to transform transportation in Houston.
Environment Texas continues to advocate for a zero-carbon transportation system, by working to expand public transit, increase the number of electric vehicles on the road, and multiply the number of people travelling on foot, by bike, or by public transit.
Post written by Eana Bacchiocchi, a senior Environmental Policy and English double major at Colby College and a clean air intern with Environment Texas