One of the reasons we moved to this neighborhood is that we would be able to walk and bike more than we could in our old neighborhood.
At the time, we were expecting a new light rail line a block over with a series of improvements for pedestrian access though the neighborhood. Six years later, however, the rail project isn’t even funded.
Train or no, our neighborhood has grown. The tree-filled lot across the street is now occupied by six very tall townhouses. (People always ask, “Each building is ONE HOUSE?”) In fact, there are new townhouses all over. And new apartment complexes. And more restaurants and stores than ever. In the fall I will have *five* grocery stores within 3/4 of a mile. Houston’s booming, baby, and my house is the center of the city’s universe.
My neighborhood’s Walkscore is 85, and getting higher by the day. We were recognized as one of “America’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods”. In addition to all the shopping and restaurants, I am under a mile from a great university and art museum; I am under two miles away from a library, C&D’s dance class, our church, three farmers’ markets, a vegetable co-op, and my alma mater. The city’s flagship urban park, the museum district, the zoo, and the gargantuan Texas Medical Center are all less than three miles away. I have parks—parks! with shade! at least part of the day. In this older neighborhood the urban street grid is largely intact, so I don’t have to walk or cycle along busy roads.
But sometimes Houston is walk/bike/transit heaven hell, people.
Well, no, not hell, even though it does get awfully hot here. The thing is, with the density and all that our part of the city has to offer, our infrastructure could be better. Our graceful oaks offer shade but damage the sidewalks, lifting the concrete into awkward angles that send unsuspecting pedestrians on their knees, books, dog leash, or groceries flying. (We try not to complain too much about that, though, because on some streets—and in entire neighborhoods throughout the city–there are no sidewalks at all.) Sometimes cars and trucks go too fast and drive too carelessly, intimidating those on foot and bike. Crosswalks and street signs are often ignored. Mothers worry for their children: they see too many close calls on the street, and hear too many sad reports on the nighttime news. Even in one of the most walkable neighborhoods of the United States, many people perceive walking as dangerous or unpleasant. Away from the city center, Houston spreads thinly outward, vascularized by a web of massive superhighways that are connected by highway-like streets and hot parking lot deserts.
So, as a rule, and if they can, most people in this city drive. And drive, and drive.
Now, C&D are only seven, but even they know this isn’t a good thing.
So they complain. They tell me they want to run for city cancel, so they can install speed bumps, bike lanes, and save the neighborhood Fiesta grocery store. (The Fiesta has good bananas, they say). They sit through meetings and listen to me talk but the change is so slow in coming, and not everybody agrees about the speed bumps or bike lanes or even the Fiesta.
But sometimes that’s difficult to do when you’re seven. People treat you like you’re, well, a child, and you actually are, and the meetings get kind of boring, anyway, especially if there’s not a playground close by, and it’s hard to understand why anybody would disagree with you and your mom, besides.
One day, C&D watched an online video of Pedestrian Pete. He seemed friendly, spoke in rhyme sometimes (a favorite thing to do in this house), and made good sense. His videos were all short, so we watched them all. The videos illustrate concepts in walkable urban planning and inspire Houston as a city to do better. If we build it–pleasant public spaces, the functional sidewalks–they will come, and the city will thrive. Carmen even started reciting parts of Pedestrian Pete’s poems. Pete was our kind of guy.
Soon Pedestrian Pete invited us for a walk. C&D wanted to take him to the playground to swing, or maybe to visit their friend Monroe, but settled for a trip to the grocery store (one of our four, almost five) to get sorbet. A couple of nights before, while C&D were having a bedtime snack and dawdling, they started brainstorming. What would they ask Pedestrian Pete about? The ideas started coming fast and furious; I ran to the chalkboard and started scribbling.
Carmen wanted big, 100’ long bike racks, long enough for storing 50 bikes if each bike was allowed about 2’ of space on the racks. She thought parking lots, on the other hand, should only be about 16’ wide. Is that big enough for a Tahoe? Not sure. She wanted water fountains because she hates being thirsty, and thought our standard-issue, 4’ wide sidewalks were way too narrow—she wants to be able to walk with her brother and mother side by side. She also thought some sidewalks were too close to the street, and others made her trip and skin her knee because they are uneven. She also thought we should tidy the city up, and put some trash bins out.
David offered that he did not like sidewalks that were blocked due to trees or utility poles growing in the middle of them, or hanging over into the pedestrian’s space. At the same time he wanted more grass and trees overall—he thought streets were ugly, and thought they should be “skinnier” (this is a traffic-calming measure, in fact). While the streets should be narrowed, he thought the sidewalks should be made “thicker”—wider—with benches and picnic tables here and there so we could take a rest. It does get hot here, after all. He wanted soft, low lights to light his way at night, and thought the city should plant trees in the treelawn that wouldn’t “puff up”—pick up and break—the sidewalk as they grew larger. He wanted every park to be a green oasis, with “100” trees for shade and climbing, and he wanted bike rental stations scattered around the city. He hates the smell of car exhaust so wanted sidewalks far from the road, and had an idea for a street deodorizer at every intersection to absorb the car stink.
A street deodorizer? I like the way these people think.
That Friday, we took a walk with Pedestrian Pete. C&D got excited and told him everything, like who left trash in the street and who didn’t pick up after their dog, and proposed new ideas like parade-sized sidewalks and under-driveway tunnels to eliminate the problem of cars blocking the sidewalk. Offbeat ideas or no, C&D knew that the grownups in their lives could be doing much better at creating a safe, clean, comfortable place for them to live, and they figured Pedestrian Pete could do something about it. Three videos came out of our walk; they can be watched on the blog or here:
Later, Carmen recorded herself reading a couple of Pedestrian Pete poems:
We are grateful for the opportunity to have walked with Pedestrian Pete, also known as former Houston City Council member Peter Brown. We learned so much, and hope we can continue to work to make a BetterHouston.