It only took a pandemic for the city of Houston to realize that providing safe ways for people not in cars to get around is perhaps a good idea. Something cycling enthusiasts and proponents of neighborhood walkability have been clamoring for in a city ruled by the car seems to finally be taking hold at least temporarily.
The city announced last week that it would close off stretches of McKinney and Dumble on the east end to through traffic allowing only home and business owners or emergency vehicles. The streets are blocked off with barricades set up by the city. From their press release:
With more Houstonians staying at home, walking and biking have increased substantially. To support this, the City of Houston is launching Slow Streets, a pilot project to provide more space for these key activities by limiting certain streets to local traffic only.
While we applaud the efforts, we cannot help but wonder why it took a viral outbreak to recognize the needs and safety of pedestrians and cyclists. Virtually every hike and bike trail in the city is packed with Houstonians on weekends and widely used on weekdays. Wider sidewalks in certain areas have been praised by residents for not only making getting from place to place more pleasant but also safer.
We have long advocated the city close Main Street between University of Houston's downtown campus and the Pierce Elevated. Several blocks are already closed in the center of downtown and the rest are relegated to a single lane of traffic in either direction with the METROrail down the middle. Frankly, having traffic on Main in downtown in such close proximity to rail has only served to increase accidents and dangerous conditions for both drivers and pedestrians.
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But setting aside downtown for the moment, there are undoubtedly numerous streets which could easily be closed to through traffic while still maintaining the flow of cars in a given area. Or perhaps the city might consider times when streets are closed — in the evenings, for example, in areas with bars and restaurants.
At this point, any movement away from the idea that cars are king and must be protected at all costs is a good thing. No one is suggesting an end to all driving. We live in a city that is 600 square miles. Driving will always be part of our transportation needs, but given the increase in size, should it still be THE priority?
When the city has closed streets for events in the past, it has been met with almost universal success. Same with sidewalks and expanded bike lanes and hike and bike trails. We would hope that after years of seeing the results of these minor expansions, the entire region might be finally ready to embrace more permanent solutions.
If they have been useful during the pandemic, imagine how beneficial they will be when that is no longer a concern.