Just Don't Breathe It

What Houstonians can -- and probably won't -- do to clean up the air they drive through

Marcia Lowe, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, thinks the costs of sprawl are catching up to Houston.

"Planners need to look at it as something they have to get realistic about," Lowe said in a telephone interview. "You can't just endlessly expand, you can't just give in to this trend of one person per car and doing every trip by car and driving long distances ,because we just don't have the room to lay down more highways. We don't have the funds to do it and we're going to run into Clean Air Act violations."

Changing ingrained behavior won't be easy, particularly when the cost of road construction, parking and auto-generated pollution are seldom directly or consciously paid by the driver.

"Basically, it's really cheap to drive alone," Lowe said. "If gas is cheap and parking is free, why not drive by yourself? There's no penalty for doing so.

"One of the most powerful ways of changing people's behavior in a way that's still fair is to charge for parking. People tend to think more about the economics of it when they realize they're paying to leave their car somewhere."

One way to get people to leave their vehicles at home is to provide responsive and convenient mass transit. For many cities, that includes a modest light-rail option. Immodest monorail options, such as the one Houston tried and dropped, are pretty much limited to Disney World.

The new light-rail system in Portland, Oregon is working well, Lowe said -- partly because it was accompanied by downtown parking restrictions. The city's population density of 2,450 people per square mile is more compact than Houston's, but it's nowhere near New York City's (5,270 per square mile) or Chicago's (3,775 per square mile).

"It depends on the accompanying policy," Lowe said. "Unless Houston is serious about working on its land use and making drivers pay more of the cost of parking and maybe even use of the roads, unless it's willing to do those things, light rail wouldn't work. You can't just plunk down tracks and put spiffy new rail cars on it and think that's going to be the answer. You have to have good supportive policies."

One idea being billed as a way to decrease traffic congestion and therefore ease the commuting crunch is the "smart highway." To the extent that it could ease jams and gridlock, it could also ameliorate air pollution.

The "smart highway" concept would rely on street and highway electric sensors to feed data to a traffic management center that would in turn moderate traffic lights and issue radio alerts to control traffic. There are several problems with this program -- the main one being that easing traffic congestion usually encourages more driving.

In a study by Texas A&M's Texas Transportation Institute, Houston actually dropped from the second most-congested city in 1982 to the tenth most-congested in 1990. That doesn't mean there's less traffic -- just that it's not as congested. More traffic can still mean more pollution.

Another problem is that smart highways would do little to encourage mass transit and in fact could deal it another blow. If you want to figure out who will profit from this, look at the groups lobbying for it in Washington, D.C. The Big Three automakers, IBM and AT&T all stand to profit from smart highways and are bankrolling their D.C. promotion, according to Worldwatch's Marcia Lowe.

Lowe believes that the same computer-assisted technology should be used to boost mass transit, not solo drivers. One way to do that would be to have not smart cars, but smart buses. If you lived in an outlying area and you weren't on an obvious bus route, then you could actually dial up a shuttle bus, much like a jitney cab, that would come when you needed it.

"That's a technology that's been used for ten years in Europe," Lowe said. "At a bus stop there's an interactive computer terminal and you just input the information, where you want to go and it computes other passengers along a way that would work out."

Germany has had smaller buses using this method for years, and the Netherlands has upgraded the idea. "These technologies were on the verge in the '70s, but funding got cut off because the energy scare was over, as far as the policy-makers thought," Lowe said.

"They're known technologies. It's an application of the same kind of stuff that in Houston is being proposed to be used on cars. They want to make smart cars, a little computer on your dashboard so you can input where you're going [and it will] tell you the best route to take," she said.

This expensive tactic is currently being proposed for the benefit of the individual driver. The same technology could be used to even out the balance between mass transit and cars, making mass transit more effective than it is -- and certainly more appealing, compared with driving your car alone.

"They've really got their hands on deep pockets of money from Washington to do this, and as far as I can tell, it's just going to make Houston even more dependent on the one person per car," Lowe said.

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