Houston 101

The City is Closing Main Street to Cars: 5 Reasons to Keep It That Way

A WindowWorks art installation on Main Street is yet another attraction promoting pedestrian traffic that would be helped by closing Main Street.
A WindowWorks art installation on Main Street is yet another attraction promoting pedestrian traffic that would be helped by closing Main Street. Photo by Morris Malakoff
Last week, City Council approved the More Space Main Street project, which would close sections of Main Street in downtown, allowing bars and restaurants to spread outdoors and into the street. It is an idea that was floated earlier in the year to help struggling businesses in downtown. But, it is also an idea a long time coming, which we have advocated for repeatedly in this space for years: Close Main Street in downtown for good.

There is already a small stretch that is closed off to vehicular traffic and has been since the METRORail broke ground. And there are some great reasons for this new closure to make way for an even more ambitious plan to shut the brick-lined street down to cars permanently.

Give workers an alternative to the tunnels.

This is not to suggest the city's massive and intricate tunnel system is anything other than fantastic. If you've never explored the underground maze, you should. But, how about some alternatives for people who have to work in downtown every day? Already, there are some spaces popping up on the ground floor of buildings, but opening Main to foot traffic would not only provide a nice alternative to the poor mole people forced underground, but give businesses an opportunity to serve them outside of traditional business hours when the tunnel is closed.

Prevent more accidents with METRORail.

Cars and trains on the same street are an iffy proposition in a city that loves to drive as much as we do. Any time you can keep them separate, it's a good thing. Given how many accidents have occurred between the rail and non-attentive drivers (studies have found nearly all traffic accidents with METRORail have been caused by the vehicle driver), we should do everything we can to keep them as far away from one another as possible. And, for that matter, since Houston's behavior behind the wheel often borders on terrifying, particularly when pedestrians are around, why not protect people too?


It is simply not necessary for traffic.

The very fact that Main was the option for the initial light rail line in Houston should provide some evidence that planners were not worried about restricting traffic down to a single lane in both directions. Closing an entire stretch of it right in the middle is even further proof that cars don't need Main to get around downtown. Sure, they need to be able to cross it going east and west, but no one is suggesting we shut down the intersections, just the driving on the street itself. It will have negligible impact on traffic, so it is a practical no brainer.

Main Street could support more retail and events.

Imagine a street festival in downtown that wasn't in a park. Close maybe two intersections and you could have three or four blocks of event activities right in the center of the skyscrapers. And it goes without saying the benefit it would have to retail and restaurants. The Downtown District has been looking for ways to pump up business in the downtown area that isn't just inside an office on the thirtieth floor of a building for decades. This could be the final push downtown needs to promote on-street business.

Visitors to downtown would love it.

In the early '90s, the average Houstonian scoffed at the ridiculous idea of a ballpark in downtown Houston. Why would anyone want to spend any time in downtown other than to work and then drive back to their homes in the suburbs? Well, a lot has changed in the intervening three decades. In addition to three stadiums, there is a thriving nightlife scene on the east end, tons of new restaurants cropping up, parks, dedicated bike lanes, new places to live, and, yes, even retail shopping options. Visitors already enjoy it when they are in town. Imagine what the transformation to Main Street would do for the city's urban core.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke