Why Houston fears density

Uptown Houston Traffic

If you want to know why Houston fears the inevitably increasing density that comes with a growing city, look no further than the Galleria area.

The Galleria area is massive, and its collection of tall buildings rivals the downtown skylines of many major cities, despite being miles from the central business district. So why is this an area that so many Houstonians avoid, despite its being a center of swanky high-rise residences, premium office space and some of the most posh shopping and dining Houston has to offer?

Because it’s a giant, never-relenting knot of traffic. You can go to the Galleria almost any time of day, and see nothing but an endless sea of (often high-end) cars, trucks and SUVs bumper to bumper. Five lanes of highway traffic in each direction are gridlocked at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon. Huge arterial roads four lanes wide each way are backed up for miles at 11pm on a Tuesday night.

“See?” they say, “Look what density does to a neighborhood. Nobody can get anywhere. Do you really want everywhere to be as gridlocked as this?”

And that’s where they miss the point. Because while nobody really wants that kind of traffic to deal with, they’ve assigned all the blame to density, and none of it to private cars.

With ample transportation options, this kind of district works fine. Without a robust transit system, density quickly become a disaster. There’s no way standard roads can support that many private vehicles in that small an area. Many rapidly developing countries today are finding that out the hard way.

But to people for whom transit is a four letter word, the only obvious solutions is to limit density to keep traffic manageable. If your only answer includes individuals driving private cars, then yes, limiting density is the only way to limit traffic.

But density is already here, and the market forces that so many of these transit opponents purportedly support are only going to further increase the city’s density. To ignore that simple fact is to ignore thousands of years of human settlement patterns.

So while many Houstonians (not all, I assure you) attempt to rectify the free-market ideals that created the very density that no longer jives with their personal desire to drive their private cars everywhere, they ignore the actual, proven, logical solution to their problem.

That solutions is to offer transportation options that go beyond the private automobile. I refuse
to call these options alternative modes of transportation, because to call them alternative implies that the privately-owned cars are the default, which is part of the problem with how many people think about transportation. But I digress.

The point is that the only pragmatic way to reduce traffic in these kinds of areas without emptying out valuable real estate is to help people get to and from them without needing to use their cars. Here too, is another point of contention for many car-lovers or car-dependent citizens.

When I say that we need to provide options, I don’t mean that we need to detonate all the roads and replace them with rails. I mean that we need to smartly integrate other modes of transportation into the existing fabric, which may include rail components, increased bus service, bike lanes and other options.

The point is not to strip the American people of their cars, but to give other options to those who would prefer them. And by giving those other options for coming and going, traffic congestion is reduced, creating a better driving experience for those who do still choose to drive. If opponents of diverse transit options realized that every person using transit is one less person to share the road with, they’d be big fans.

It’s about giving people options, and what’s more American than freedom of choice? As long as Houston opposes non-car transportation, it will continue to fear density. If it can come to widely embrace different modes of getting around, its density-phobia may be cured.

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