June 23, 2004, 9:05PM
Transportation: Which future is 2025 plan for?
By JOHN S. JACOB
The easiest way to plan for the future is to plan based on past experience, and to assume that trends will continue unchanged. The 2025 Regional Transportation Plan, developed by the Houston-Galveston Area Council and up for a vote this week, is such a plan. It is a very well-crafted plan that takes existing population trends, projects them into the future and then plans for transportation accordingly. There is not a lot to argue with if we assume that the past is prologue to our future. We are going to need a lot more roads if we continue to grow as we have!
But what if we could imagine a different future? More importantly, what if we should imagine a different future? If our sprawling growth patterns continue unchanged, we stand to lose more than 1,000 square miles of open space prairies, forests, wetlands and farmlands. It will be an irretrievable loss once paved over, we cannot restore these lands to their original function. We will have to replace all of the lost functions flood detention, water purification, habitat quality, etc., at a much greater cost than what the natural areas can do these functions for and with much less efficiency. And more cars and more VMT (vehicle miles traveled) surely add up to something very personal for me and many others: a worsening case of asthma.
But we can imagine another future, and it is already here in parts of Houston and in many cities across the country and throughout the world. Dense, compact cities have a higher quality of life and a lower cost of infrastructure than comparable diffuse, sprawling cities designed for automobiles rather than for pedestrians. Most importantly for our air quality, denser cities have much less VMT per capita, and consequently less air pollution from cars, than sprawling cities such as Houston. With a little imagination, we can grow and prosper, and actually have a smaller environmental footprint than we do now.
The new MetroRail is helping to jump start new residential projects from downtown to the Medical Center. The 2004 Houston Area Survey (“Houston has glow for those in ‘burbs / Survey says interest on rise for first time,” Page One, May 9) showed this year for the first time an increase in the number of suburban residents interested in living downtown. And a recent study by the Houston Downtown Management District showed an unmet demand for new housing in downtown or Midtown of about 80,000 units, translating to about 208,000 people that’ s right now not in 2025! Interestingly, the RTP is based on projections of only 190,000 new residents inside the loop by 2025. Clearly change is afoot, and we can expect much more as petroleum prices begin to rise as production inevitably drops creating even more demand for close-in living.
It is of course prudent to make plans for the current growth trends. The transportation planners at HGAC have done a good job of this. But isn’t part of planning to play “what if” games? What if we could encourage even more people to move inside Loop 610? What kind of transit system, for example, would be required to get us densities of, say, 25,000 people per square mile inside the Loop? That kind of density would accommodate 2 million additional people the lion’s share of our projected growth for the next 25 years! And the area inside the Loop would still only be about a quarter of the density of Manhattan. What would the total infrastructure cost, including environmental costs, be for that kind of arrangement? Now maybe that kind of density might be a little extreme for Houston. The point is to explore what different futures might look like let’s explore a range of density and growth patterns and the transportation and infrastructure costs of each, as well as the overall pluses and negatives of denser growth. A growing body of evidence suggests well-designed dense cities are often better engines of economic development than sprawling cities, where it is difficult to get around.
The critical difference in planning here is to see our transportation infrastructure as a determinant of growth patterns, rather than growth driving the transportation pattern. If we build more roads out in the hinterlands, then we will get more sprawl, with all its attendant costs. If we build a tight transit network inside our dense urban core, then we will encourage a much denser population structure and a much more pedestrian friendly environment.
The RTP plan, as good as it is, is based on one scenario only diffuse growth in the suburbs. We should always plan for more than one future. More importantly, we should at least try to plan for the future we want, rather only for what seems inevitable. No doubt we will continue to see suburban developments in Houston for the foreseeable future, but there may be any number of density mixes that could provide a brighter future for Houston. I call upon the transportation planners at HGAC to provide us with a comparable analysis of transportation grids for denser growth alternatives. Let’s put the RTP on hold until we can examine what some of them might look like.
John Jacob is an environmental quality specialist for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and Texas Sea Grant Program.