April 2017

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Breaking Tradition to Make Connections, Remove Bottlenecks to Mobility

04/12/2016

Want to improve mobility and access? We need to rethink our current roadway standards. And that rethinking begins with encouraging traditional finer street grid design and ending the pursuit of wider and wider boulevards, according to The Energy Corridor District’s forward-looking vision master plan.

The street designs and grids that define many American suburban centers may have worked for smaller populations. But we’re finding as population grows, building wider and faster streets, maintaining 10-acre superblocks that favor low-density development, and ignoring pedestrian/bicyclist access actually creates more traffic, longer trip times and far less interesting places.

When a street grid is lacking, bottlenecks are created. Conventional suburban super blocks also impede walking and biking to nearby places, which adds more vehicular traffic. The District hopes to eliminate bottlenecks by creating new, multimodal streets that improve access to more places – a design proven to enhance livability, while making land more attractive to denser, more lively development.

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With conventional suburban development (illustrated on the left), according to The District’s master plan, “conventional values prevail, streets get wider and faster, and the area becomes less vibrant as people and value are exported to farther away suburbs. This phenomenon has been experienced in cities throughout the United States since the middle of the 20th century, with vibrant and traditional downtowns embracing conventional highway building, arterial widening, and superblock development. Many of these same cities are now embarking on significant initiatives to revitalize their downtowns with traditional, slower, multimodal street networks. Where traditional urban values prevail, places come back to life.”

Traffic research demonstrates that denser neighborhoods full of mixed land uses end up with decreased traffic volumes and shorter average trip lengths. But, as density decreases and land uses becomes less mixed – in essence, becoming more suburban – the roads become faster, average trips get longer, and traffic goes up.

A street grid that rewards the short trip over long commutes has intrinsically less impact on Houston’s infrastructure and its air quality.

Years from now, as The Energy Corridor population and workforce continues to grow, The District hopes a better mobility network can be created – one that connects streets, sidewalks, transit and trails. A prime candidate is the area straddling IH-10 near the Addicks Park and Ride Lot. A finer grid pattern would reward the short trip via walking, biking or shuttle by improving connections and making it easier to travel between business campuses, the Park and Ride, multi-family housing, and the extensive trail network nearby.

Bucking conventional thinking

The magic bullet for car commuters has been building more lanes on major thoroughfares. But if you build it, they will come. In droves.

Is it possible, instead, that streets with fewer lanes and built for multimodal travel actually improve traffic flow – and create more economic value for their neighborhoods?image005

Bucking conventional thinking, The District’s master plan calls for a transformative idea to realign Eldridge Parkway and Enclave Parkway as a pair of parallel streets.

Adding intersections distributes traffic better and reduces the time motorists spend waiting at red lights. Shorter blocks make walking more direct too. Research data actually shows that parallel streets will move more traffic than the same number of lanes on a single street. Thus, rather than widening Eldridge, it would be more valuable to fund a new street, add intersections and create a finer grid. The District proposes to link the northern portion of Eldridge with Enclave to create the eastern street. The southern portion of Eldridge continues north along the edge of Terry Hershey Park to the I-10 frontage road. This approach distributes traffic between both streets.

The idea would tremendously share traffic loads, shorten trip lengths and allow the road diet on Eldridge Parkway, north of Memorial Drive – which would allow it to become a “complete street” serving all users. This paradigm change adds economic value to the retail businesses and multifamily complexes along Eldridge, rather than widening roads, which only encourages people to speed past.

Creating a finer street grid by adding intersections and creating new streets is a significant challenge though. It is a long-term vision that requires discussions with developers and landowners, coordination with the City of Houston, land swaps and re-plotted new parcels. But it is doable. And the reward would be grand.

High-volume streets were once a hallmark of great places. America’s cities used to have wonderful downtown arterials – home to theatres, department stores, dense housing and civic buildings. They were the best addresses in town, full of pedestrian activity, and fruitful social and economic exchange.

But incremental changes that sped up travel just for motorists marred these majestic thoroughfares and their ability to enhance downtown commerce, reducing vibrancy in urbanized areas and exporting value to outer suburbs.

The Energy Corridor District’s master plan vision is to be internationally recognized as a high-quality place to work, live and invest. We hope landowners, developers, residents and employees here will work together so that we can help create a more livable place by transforming a conventional suburban area into a new suburban model, where smart planning and development meet to facilitate both mobility and commerce.