Like his mentor Jane Jacobs, Scott Henson, the award-winning blogger at Austin-based Grits for Breakfast, believes that some crimes can be curtailed through better urban planning.
Specifically, Henson believes that our society's approach to drunk driving ("Tail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em," as he puts it) is too simplistic, needlessly expensive and a prime reason why so many of our county jails and justice systems -- Harris County's certainly not least among them -- are bursting at the seams. (Not to mention the Texas prison system. At last count, over 5,000 inmates were locked up for having committed three or more DWIs.)
Harris County authorities issue some 10,000 DWI citations yearly, and Houston is at the center of a region in which fatal DWI accidents are twice the national average. Harris County has the highest rate of drunk-driving fatalities of any populous county in America. Small wonder that DA Pat Lykos has called DWI a "pandemic plague." (Some local DWI lawyers dispute these figures, saying they are exaggerated to make a serious problem appear worse than it really is. None disputes, however, that the problem is serious.)
Henson thinks that we are neglecting two major areas in fighting drunk driving: zoning and public transport. In most cities, bars are zoned by law into certain areas, and even in famously un-zoned Houston, other stipulations (like the one that states that each bar should have a certain amount of parking spaces) see to it that true neighborhood bars are almost as rare as National League pennants for the Astros.
Henson would like to see the return of the corner bar. "In cities like Philly and New York City, there are lots of neighborhood bars. You can walk down the street and go drinking without ever getting in a car," Henson tells Hair Balls.
And then there's transportation.
A Houston Chronicle report cited urban sprawl and limited transportation options as prime reasons for Houston's DWI problem.
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After some initial reluctance, Metro extended the hours on the light rail on weekends until after the bars closed. (We seem to recall that in one response to a rider's question as to why Metro shut down the trains before the bars closed, the rider was told it was to "keep the drunks off the train." Newsflash: there are drunks on the train all day and night, only the ones that can afford to drink in bars tend not to ask you for money too. Each is as likely as the other to puke on your shoes.) Today, Washington Avenue is host to a brand-new jitney cab service. While that does take some drunks off the road temporarily, most of the barflies don't live on or around either of those areas, and they still have to get back to wherever they came from.
Henson would like to see more buses running through the wee hours. He allows that costs of this expanded public transport would rise, but he believes that those would be offset by a reduction in money paid to a diminishment in the need for DWI task forces, expanded jail processing staffs, and a likely diminishment of jail crowding.
"We're dealing with a vice here," Henson says. "Alcoholism is messy, and there's no silver bullet to totally eradicate drunk driving. It is an issue to be managed, like cigarettes. With cigarettes, we've combatted them with a combination of zoning and public education -- not just criminal justice."
"The solution to every social problem cannot be cops, courts, jails and prisons," he wrote back in January. "Where non-punitive strategies can prevent crime and promote public safety, that should be the preferred approach."