David Fields is the City of Houston’s first chief transportation planner. Leaving the Bay Area for this newly created position, he arrived in Houston at a time, though, when transportation was changing.
He started in January 2020, when the city was working to develop a new vision for an improved I-45 rebuild to send to the Texas Department of Transportation — and right about when many of the region’s other transportation plans and patterns were altered by orders to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Soon, images of clear skies, restaurant patios and families on bicycles led to giddy speculation about the future of cities. But that speculation tended to underestimate the challenges and overlook entrenched disparities. You can’t build protected bike lanes without concrete, after all, and concrete batch plants tend to be intentionally sited in communities of color and low wealth, where they contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory problems. In Houston, despite a 40 percent drop in local traffic, air pollution remained elevated, primarily impacting those who live on the east side of the city near the industry that was churning out PPE and alcohol for hand sanitizer. “If the coronavirus has made anything clear,” the Los Angeles-based writer Alissa Walker noted in Curbed, “it’s that cities cannot be fixed if we do not insist on dismantling the racial, economic and environmental inequities that have made the pandemic deadlier” for some communities.
Reprioritizing equity in regional transportation systems, says Dr. Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, would be a good start. Transportation, she says, “is not just about freeways, but providing a built environment with infrastructure that provides walkable access to greenspaces, good nutrition, pharmacies and other amenities that meet the needs of communities.”
Right now, with Houston’s freeways, busy port and sheer size, the regional transportation system remains a large source of pollution, even making up about 48 percent of the emissions contributing locally to the climate crisis. And researchers at Texas A&M University have developed a way to show how this transportation system can be detrimental to public health in other ways, creating everything from urban heat islands to loneliness and isolation to noise to traffic violence.
A recent Episcopal Health Foundation survey found that two-thirds of Texans believe the state must rethink how it spends money, so public health comes first. It’s a shift to funding wider sidewalks and trees now instead of paying for expensive medication or procedures later. Helping communities redevelop so that active transportation becomes a real option can be part of that, as Fields explains below.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Allyn West: Health goes beyond our lungs, right? Houston is described as having an obesogenic built environment, in part because of its size, which can seem to require a lot of solo trips in a car. What are some of the health consequences of the way we get around predominantly now?
David Fields: Yes, your lungs, and your muscles are meant to stretch. Your legs are meant to walk. Your whole physical form is meant to move.
And there is a mental health component of walking that is not achievable when you drive. When you can look people in the eye from a close distance, you make social connections, as well. That helps generate a healthy community. “Eyes on the street” has long been an idea for safe places. And that's a very hard thing to do when you're separated by the car around you. Moving at a much faster speed, you don't get those connections.
There’s also the economic health of the community. We know that people who walk by stores get the chance to look in the windows. And whether they go in at that point or not, whatever that store or restaurant is selling stays in their heads, and they tend to go back to those places when they can look in the window.
Land use within a community needs to be talked about in the same breath as transportation. Because a great walk literally takes you only so far. If there's nothing to walk to, then you don't have an incentive to do it as part of your daily life. You may want to do it for health, or other reasons. But if a community has the stores, jobs, schools and parks all within a 20-minute walk, the neighborhood inherently encourages people to do that walk.
AW: What are some of the easy fixes you've seen so far in Houston that would begin to chip away at these larger issues?
DF: Moving to Houston has been without a doubt a learning experience. I think people from outside of Houston don't recognize that it's the size of something like nine Washington, D.C.s. Somebody is not going to walk end to end in a day in Houston. I don't think it's physically possible.
It takes a very different mindset even to think on that scale, but that’s good. I bring my planning experience, but it helps me remember that Houston’s a unique place and deserves a unique focus, and that absolutely starts with learning from the people who live here.
Is there any one thing we could do? It's probably not what you're expecting. I don't want to talk about a physical project. I want to talk about more programmatic approaches that haven’t had a whole lot of play here.
One is called transportation demand management. That is an approach of policies and programs that encourage people to use the entire transportation system to balance the playing field. If you want to drive and need to drive, that’s a choice you can make, and we can accommodate that.
But we have a lot of different systems. Certain communities or businesses have provided free transit passes, for example. But there are many different components with transportation demand management that you can make specific to a community that can allow and encourage people to choose the different systems.
The other one, something I'm hoping we can get into in the long run, is safe routes to school projects. This is a nationwide program with funding.
My experience is that anytime you go into a school, parents are supportive of improving the walk. That's not to say that you can never drive your child to school, or they can't choose something else. But when the option to walk isn't even there, it’s a very different conversation. The program is an opportunity to recognize the health benefits of students walking or biking to school. The research shows that they study better, because they've already started activating their brains and bodies on the way.
AW: I’m hoping you could talk through some of the issues in Houston with transportation disparities, whether that’s not being able to walk to school, or living next to a busy freeway and the air pollution that that brings, or lacking access to a program like BCycle, which hasn’t been able to serve communities of color or low wealth in the way I know they want to. How can transportation be part of the solutions to a healthier region for everyone?
DF: Yes, but I'm going to just twist it a little bit. This goes back to that conversation about land use. Because the best way to solve a lot of these issues is to help a community grow the complete land use package that helps them be near enough to use the other components of transportation, especially when those land uses are locally owned.
I want to give a shout-out to Mayor [Sylvester] Turner's Complete Communities program, which started with five and is now expanded to 10, to focus on those types of issues, to help the community with services and transportation options the community has decided they need to be healthier, to be more sustainable, to be more resilient, both environmentally and economically. It's a forward-thinking approach with transportation as a component.
This overlaps with so many of the city's priorities — the environment and equity and economic development and sustainability. If you can cross the street in your community safely, it opens up another 15 minutes of walking distance and other land uses. If you can't, because the signal doesn't give you enough time, or drivers inherently don't stop, or you're blocked by a freeway, or it’s uncomfortable to cross at an overpass or an underpass, these are stopping communities from doing what they could be doing.
AW: As you’ve come to Texas, what are some of the blind spots you’ve seen that we need to see more clearly when it comes to how we plan, design and fund our streets?
DF: The first blind spot is a binary mindset. Either all people drive, or all people don't drive. That's not true anywhere in the country, and certainly not Houston. Most people do some combination of different things all throughout the day, all throughout the week. While they may drive for a commute, they may walk to the playground with their child when they come home. A student may take the bus on one trip, and they may drive with their parents on another trip.
Breaking down this idea that people only do one thing, so that everything we build actually accommodates trips made by everybody, is a different way to start to think about investing in the other things people do.
The other is that there are a lot of people in our community who are not familiar with how they can get involved in our community planning process. It’s for many different reasons. Many people don’t have time. Maybe they moved here from somewhere else and don’t know it’s OK to voice their needs and preferences. My grandparents were immigrants, and they never once would have considered complaining about something in this country.
That doesn’t make that the right way to plan. We’re working hard to open it up, communicating with people however it’s easy for them, and most especially listening first. The traditional public meeting has been so popular, because it’s a good way to gather a lot of people at once. But now with COVID and social distancing, meetings like that are being replaced with online events, but not everyone has internet access or has the time to be online at a specific time, so it’s critical for us to find other options.
One example is that our recent Vision Zero online open house lasted four hours, so anyone could join at any time and have a chance to speak. As people commute again, we’re looking at going out to transit centers where people are transferring and trying to get them for 30 seconds while they wait for the next bus to ask them three questions.
The community is not one thing, and we have to provide opportunities for communities to teach us, and guide us, so plans reflect their needs. That's incumbent on us, and we're trying real hard to get better at it every time.
AW: Are you seeing the beginnings of any long-term shifts in transportation that might be happening, as we live through the pandemic and look forward to coming out the other side with healthier communities?
DF: It's funny. For years, the transportation planning profession has said, We should let people work from home more. It's good transportation planning.
Everybody outside the planning world said, That makes sense. And then they ignored it. Because coming to an office every day was the default setting. But we’ve been working from home, and a lot of companies have invested a lot of money to make that happen. I am hoping that the companies that have made these investments want to keep them, moving forward, and get their full value out of them and not go back to the way it was.
I think we're going to start to see that, as more companies realize the benefit to their employees, the ones that allow more working from home sooner will see higher employee retention. We’re still a collegial society, and people need a certain amount of interaction. And not everyone can work from home. But I think there’s a sweet spot in there. Could you imagine if 15 percent of commute trips stayed home, how that could reduce congestion, while increasing roadway safety and air quality? Those would be benefits for everyone, whether they were commuting every day or not.
A lot of people think of transportation as the end in itself: to get to the office, to make the trip. And in [the city’s planning] department we think of transportation as a means to a bigger end. And one of those key ends is the health of the community. If our transportation system is doing its job, we get everybody where they need to go in a way that increases their individual and the community’s health at the same time. So, it’s necessary for the transportation system to let you travel in healthy ways.
Houston is a very, very big place, 670 square miles. So, people will end up driving a lot. But the issue is not driving or never driving. It’s about making other options just as likely of a travel choice, so that people intuitively incorporate health into our daily lives. Can people work from home and go for a walk during that hour when they used to be commuting? Can people walk for certain trips? Can people bike for certain trips? Can people walk to transit? It's when these other modes become a possibility, and they’re safe and comfortable, then they just become part of our lives.
West is a senior communications specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @allynwest.
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