- The Houston City Council unanimously voted Wednesday to clear the way for more pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented development, in a bid to make streets safer for people to walk along.
- The council's "Walkable Places" ordinance would bring buildings closer to the street, expand sidewalk widths, add buffer zones between the sidewalks and the street and situate parking lots either beside or behind buildings. That ordinance would be in effect for new building and redevelopment projects in certain areas of the city and has the overarching aim of improving conditions for pedestrians. Previous regulations required buildings along major corridors to be set back at least 25 feet, meaning less space to build and often meaning parking lots facing the street.
- The "Transit-Oriented Development" ordinance looks to do similar work on streets within a half-mile of the city's light rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) stations. The changes will take effect Oct. 1.
As pedestrian deaths continue to climb in the United States, ordinances such as these in Houston are trying to reverse that trend and make it safer for people to walk and leave their cars at home. Houston's ordinance also comes as the city has gained a reputation as being too focused on making it easier for drivers and not for other road users.
During elected officials' discussion on the two ordinances, City Councilmember Sallie Alcorn said making areas more pedestrian-friendly should mean greater access to jobs, public services, retail, transit and housing, especially for younger generations that prefer to go car-free. "It is a new generation coming that really puts a big emphasis on walking," Alcorn said.
The Walkable Places ordinance will be piloted in three projects initially, with other areas able to apply for a similar designation if a majority of property owners support it. Both ordinances have received letters of support from the Center for Civic & Public Policy Improvement, the Houston Real Estate Council and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), which operates transit in the city.
As the city looks to expand and evolve, City Councilmember Karla Cisneros said it is vital that local regulations take into account how things have changed, especially in how people get around. "Houston is evolving from a suburban city to a much more urban city, and we need ordinances that are keeping up with it, are appropriate and make sense for both now and in the future," Cisneros said during the council meeting.
Houston has a long-time reputation of being a car-centric, fossil fuel-dependent city, but leaders are working hard to alter that. In June, the city announced cleantech incubator Greentown Labs would expand to Houston from its Massachusetts headquarters. Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert said the move would transform Houston from the "energy capital of the world… [to] the energy transition capital of the world."
City Councilmember Michael Kubosh said the transition to less car dependence is somewhat unexpected given Houston’s past, but it is a necessary transition to make.
"If you had told me 20, 30 years ago that something like this would be in Houston, with all of us still attached to our cars, I would have been shocked," Kubosh said during the council meeting. "But we have a millennial and younger generations that want to walk from place to place. We certainly want to make this as walkable as possible."