by Tamara Nicholl-Smith
Every morning, Monday thru Friday, I walk out my front door, descend the stairs to the parking garage beneath my Houston condo complex, and use my automatic clicker to unlock my black Hyundai Elantra with black leather interior and blue-lit dials. After an old fashioned turn of the key in the ignition, I emerge from below onto the street as if emerging out of the bat cave. From there it is a short drive to one of Houston’s many major highways.
When I maneuver my modest little car from the on-ramp onto nearby Highway 288, I am no longer merely a commuter; rather, I am transformed instantly into a competitor with thousands of others in a massive video game being played with very serious stakes. The aim of the game, in my case, is to make it the 20.8 miles from my home to my office in the Houston Ship Channel Region alive, and if all goes well, relatively undamaged, except for some seriously frayed nerves.
The obstacles and dangers are many. Cars wiz by like enemy missiles.. Erratic vehicles weave in and out of lanes; drivers repeatedly insist on traveling in my blind spot; trucks kick up rocks and other projectile objects and aims them at my windshield; and a on a regular basis vehicles of all sizes attempt to merge into my exact place on the road. My controls in this great video game are my steering wheel, accelerator pedal, break, and horn.
Along the way, I am reminded by a series of Texas Department of Transportation LED billboards, of how many have lost this game this year and given their lives over to the Texas freeways. It seems as though I am late at least one day every week because of a major wreck blocking one or more lanes of traffic. My first instinct is to be grumpy; my second is to realize that the wreck involved someone’s wife, husband, grandfather, grandmother, child, or best friend, a person that may now be gone to us forever.
And I then think, is it worth it? The daily freeway commute is a game of odds. It is not a matter of if someone will be hurt, but when, and what are the odds it will be me? I make the trek for now because I believe I am well placed in my current position. But I question whether I am not a bit touched in the head. I live within five miles of hundreds of jobs for which I am qualified, but I choose to join so many of my fellow Houstonians in the great, dangerous “freeway commuter game” each day.
Libertarians of a certain stripe extol the virtues of an auto-centric transportation infrastructure, declaring: “We Texans love our cars. We want to travel where we want to travel when we want to travel. We do not want to be beholden to a schedule.” I am not one to argue that we do away with freeways, roads, or even cars. But I will argue for options: options which can only come to us through changes both in individual behavior and in the way we build our cities and plan our infrastructure.
The freedom being extolled is a bit of an illusion anyway, given that there are certain times of the day when you can’t really get anywhere very quickly — not even ten yards in ten minutes. And as 5,000 people a month move to the greater Houston area, the reality behind the illusion is becoming clearer to anyone paying attention. How free is one’s movement when a trip that used to only take 10 minutes now takes 30? How many people, when given the option, would choose to spend one to two hours of their day in their car traveling to and from work (even bolstered by the very best of audio books) instead of spending that time relating to their family and friends, or volunteering in their communities for causes they deeply believe in? Very few, I would imagine.
And how truly unbound by schedule are commuters anyway? There is a reason for rush hour. Our schedules may not be set by a train or bus time table, but it often is set by our respective employers who command a schedule that drags us from our beds and out into the video game at a particular time each day. We each make a rational decision to go to and from work each day, but the sum total of all those “rational” decisions is an utterly irrational result: gridlock. None of us can get home for hours.
I am not one to rant without solutions, but I am also not so naïve as to imagine that at any time in the near future my city, famous for and proud of its spaghetti-like tangle of freeways and miles of low-density housing, is likely to transform itself into one noted for its high-quality, ever-present public transit system.
But what of those who would not choose the status quo? What of those who cannot drive at due to physical or financial inability? Should those citizens not be presented with another option? Do they not “rate” as people who also should have freedom, the same sort of freedom libertarians in their cars claim for themselves, all the while expecting everyone else to pay public money for wider highways to support that “right”?
Philip Bess, a professor of urban design a the Notre Dame School of Architecture argues in one of the essays I link to on this blog that we should consider it an obligation to provide as an option walkable, mixed-use, socio-economically diverse neighborhoods within which the majority of daily activities can be reached within a ten minute walk. Combine building patterns of this sort with the sort of well-placed transit options espoused by supporters of transit-oriented development, and we will have gone a long way to relieving pressure on our auto and truck-centric infrastructure and have moved to a more socially just distribution of options.
What of the behavior side? Those who study these matters say that a substantial portion of the congestion on the roads during rush hour consists of people running errands that have nothing to do with commuting to work or school. Perhaps a simple shift of the timing of errand-running might help, but the structural solution of providing for those needs in close proximity to residences would also be beneficial.
Technology should also have made possible many more options than we currently seem to be taking advantage of. With laptops, the internet, an easy access to video chat programs such as Skype, Face Time, and Google hangouts, it seems as though there should be less demand for people to be physically present every day of the working week at their offices. Granted, not all jobs can be done remotely. A cashier cannot “dial-in” to his or her job, nor can a stocker in a grocery store, a security guard, or a chef in a restaurant. Working remotely is mainly possible for office workers like me. Perhaps allowing just a day or two a week working from home would relieve stress on the roads (and in workers) without costing any productivity.
How many corporations with multiple locations have employees that live near one location, but whose job requires them to report to a much further location? How much of this movement is strictly necessary? How many companies could provide drop-in spots for employees to work a day or two a week from a location closer to their homes?
If Houston, and places like it, are to avoid the fate of Los Angeles, or even worse, Mexico City, it will be necessary to:
- Change the way we build our cities;
- Incorporate alternative modes of travel into our infrastructure (transit, cycling, walking);
- Come up with ways to motivate changes to our behavior and the way our work week is structured.
Essays and articles on this blog are meant to suggest ways in which we might begin to implement ideas to meet these goals. Future posts will link to or discuss solutions from the perspective of policy, design, behavior change, and high and low-tech innovation. While this project is a work in progress, already on this site you will find a wealth of resources:
- The Fellow Travelers page provides a listing of groups that have done serious hiking, research and projects related to creating quality places.
- The Reading Room links to articles and books that provide solid theoretical foundation, as well as examples and inspiration.
- If you need a practitioner, check out the Really Good Architects
We will be building out the content on all these pages, so check back often.
The inspiration for this blog is two-fold:
- To solve problems that arise from the way we currently build and get around in our cities;
- To create places that delight, nourish, and provide the context for us to be happy
Thus: The Quarter Mile (five minute walk) Smile!