Houston a result of its own design

Why is Houston traffic so bad? What is the nature of this beast that we are all veterans of, and how did it come to be? Lost in the drone of vehicles and haze of smog are the groans of Houstonians when the price of gas goes up – a pain most poignant in comparison to other major cities of our country.

Urban sprawl is the cancer that grows inside of Houston. Unrestricted geographically, the city is not limited by an ocean, mountain or any other natural barrier that man cannot easily overcome. Playing upon that, Houston real-estate developers have a long history of building isolated communities away from the center of the city such as Katy, Sugar Land and Kingwood, only to have the land between them cheaply developed within a generation or two. The result of this kind of development is a problem that characterizes Houston and urban sprawl in general – low-density and automobile dependency.

Twenty-five percent of the land within Loop 610 is underdeveloped; this is unheard of in other major cities. Our tendency to build away from the city, to build "outwards rather than upwards," has created a city of such relatively low density it can be compared to urban slums in Third World countries.

New York City and Tokyo are both small cities in comparison to Houston and have booming populaces that dwarf ours, yet they somehow manage transportation extraordinarily better than we do, considering their populations.

Why is it important to note density? Because density determines a city’s ability to effectively use mass transit. In terms of density, most major cities develop like a cone erupting from the ground – population density is the highest in the center and grows, albeit more slowly in low-density areas, provided no natural barrier exists on the outskirts. Houston, however, is different. Our density and development is more like a giant puddle of water – expanding everywhere but thinly stretched out.

We cannot effectively use mass transit, because our city’s density won’t allow us to. The irony is that transportation solutions of other cities escape us because of an error in urban development, one that is rapidly growing. Our bus system and light rail are but mere toys and hardly quantifiable as effective mass transit. They are hardly used and rarely full. It is a far cry from the subways of New York or Chicago which service many thousands every five minutes, rather than the hundreds every 15 to 40 minutes of the Houston Metro.

You cannot implement mass transit in areas where the population density is so low that the system’s cost would bring about its ruin because of a lack of riders. Evidence of this can be seen already in the fare increase in Metro buses, an extremely minor form of mass transit. So we are left with a dependency on the personal vehicle.

Our only solution to the problem is to build highways, a job that is never finished. Highways, the most expensive transit projects, almost $100 million per mile and rising, are just temporary solutions. They alleviate the problem a little, but ultimately just create more traffic. In the long run they contribute to the low-density expansion of Houston.

Most Houstonians, in their desperation, would still contend that mass transit would work. Such pleas are merely that – desperations in the face of a monster whose growth has already spiraled out of control. Our lifestyles have uniquely adapted and contributed unwittingly to the low-density problem of urban sprawl in much the same manner as the highways.

For example, the myriad fast food restaurants that define the corners of our city blocks are, according to urbanization theories, contributing to the development of low-density housing in surrounding areas. In their enterprising bid to make traffic more bearable, the fast-food restaurants contribute to the kind of low-density urban development that is the root of the problem.

Our culture, too, is one of automobiles. Houston only started to truly expand around the same time the automobile was being mass-produced. One could argue we were the quickest to adapt the automobile and one of the first to embrace the cultural values that define the vehicle and are so prevalent today.

As a consumer society, our identity resides in our material worth, and at the forefront of these things are the two components of the American Dream – a house and car. We are addicted to the automobile because it is a reflection of who we are. In our love and passion for the vehicle, how fitting it is that all the egos get trapped together on a hot, thin strip of pavement on a typical, humid Houston day.

In our bid to drive, no one truly can, and we fight each other to our ultimate detriment. We are a lot like crabs; when put in a crate they climb over one another, but as soon as one is getting out another grabs him and pulls him back down.

Houston is at the whim of a cancerous, obese monster whose arteries are the highways; fat is the fast-food restaurants; growth is the land developers and heart and soul is the American addiction and emotional attachment to the automobile.

This creature will forever plague the city, blanketing it in fumes and causing more damage than Godzilla ever could. Our monster is low density, and the many "solutions" posited and proven wrong because of the multiplicity of factors that contribute to it. It seems the cure will forever evade us.

The only hope for Houston rests in a city where the buildings climb toward the sky, reaching for their own salvation. The restricting factor, however, has always been and always will be ourselves.

Hayes, a philosophy freshman, can be reached via [email protected]

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