When I’m in a new city, I like to go for walks. I don’t think there’s any better way to get a feel for a city. So on my first morning in Houston for the Society of Environmental Journalists conference last week, I strolled out to get some exercise and take in the sights.
It wasn’t long before I began to question my decision. I walked out my hotel’s front entrance and…right onto a feeder road to a highway, which loomed over me on an overpass. But there was a sidewalk, so I walked on.
I didn’t end up on a highway, but it wasn’t much better. There were sidewalks, except for one spot where it abruptly ended and turned into a dirt path, and crosswalks. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was getting a clear signal from the city: Don’t walk. I didn’t pass anyone else walking. And the entire time I was walking along wide, multiple lane roads filled with fast moving cars. Everything was spread out, separated by those big roads or even bigger parking lots. It wasn’t exactly a scenic walk.
To be fair, Houston is a big city (the city’s metro area is apparently only slightly smaller than my home state of Massachusetts). There are many parts of Houston, and they don’t all look the same. There are plenty of places in Houston that are walkable, and I’m sure many of them are beautiful. But that’s not what I was experiencing.
Later, I got to experience a lot more of the city’s highways. In fact, later that day, after my walk, I joined journalists and other advocates on an organized tour of Houston’s highways.
I have been writing about highways for years, covering expansions from every part of the country. I’ve been on a lot of the highways I’ve written about, in California, in the Midwest and in the Northeast. But this was my first time in Texas, and I hate to do this, but the saying“everything’s bigger in Texas” is certainly true for the highways too.
While on the tour, I took the above picture of I-10, also known as the Katy Freeway. I took this picture from the electric school bus we rode for the tour (cool!). The Katy Freeway is one of the widest highways in the world, clocking in at a totally reasonable 26 lanes (less cool!).
The state of Texas spent $2.8 billion widening the highway to 26 lanes in order to speed up traffic. Instead, 85% of commute times actually increased. The Katy Freeway has become the poster child for a concept known as “induced demand,” which researchers have understood for years. Basically, adding new roadway capacity also creates new demand for those lanes or roads, maintaining a similar rate of congestion, if not worsening it. I’ve written about it plenty, and got a chance to speak to the tour attendees about it, but seeing all those lanes in person was something else entirely.
So Houston, of all places, should know that expanding a highway doesn’t relieve congestion.
And yet…the majority of the tour was along I-45, an already big highway which the state currently plans to expand. We’ve written about this highway before, including about the potential community impacts. The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees.
Those numbers are pretty shocking. But it’s even more shocking when you visit some of the churches and homes that are set to be demolished.
The 500-unit Kelly Village housing complex in Houston’s 5th Ward, was named for freed slave turned civic leader and philanthropist Alex Kelley. The corner in the picture above is only a few hundred yards away from the current I-45. Under Texas’ plan to widen the highway, all the buildings you can see in this picture (and several others) will be paved over. Those are homes for hundreds of people – people who will be displaced from the community where their families have lived for generations, and who likely won’t get much benefit from the wider highway.
The kids who live in Kelly Village go to Bruce Elementary School, just a few blocks away. In the photo above you can see two criss-crossing highways, with downtown Houston in the background. I took the above picture from a bus stop just outside of Bruce Elementary. Those criss-crossing highways are only a few hundred yards from the school. Houston’s 5th Ward has elevated asthma rates, and when you see these highways, and all the cars on them, you can understand why.
But it was the noise that was the most surprising. The loud traffic made it difficult to have a conversation there. Bruce Elementary isn’t slated to be paved over, but if I-45 is expanded as planned, the highway will move even closer. That means all that air and noise pollution will get even closer to where kids are supposed to learn.
Our last stop on the tour was at True Anomaly Brewing, pictured above. It’s a local company started by some NASA veterans that sells space-themed beers. The neighborhood sits near Houston’s convention center, and holds a lot of small businesses like True Anomaly Brewing. If the I-45 expansion goes forward as planned, True Anomaly’s current location, and several other local businesses, will need to be sacrificed to make way for more lanes of traffic.
The Federal Highway Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has put the I-45 expansion under a partial pause over civil rights and environmental concerns. So there is still hope that this can be avoided, but the state of Texas is fighting hard to move ahead.
If it does go forward, what will Houston get in exchange for paving over these homes, schools and businesses? As we’ve already seen at Houston’s Katy Freeway and time and time again across the country, expanding highways bring more cars to the road, meaning more traffic and pollution. The state talks a lot about economic development, because the extra capacity can bring more people into the city. But that seems to ignore the small businesses (and taxable property) they will be losing. It seems to ignore all the people that will have to move out when their homes are paved over.
These displacements often get brushed aside as inevitable consequences of progress. But this doesn’t have to be inevitable. We don’t need to dedicate so much of our city space to cars. Transportation “progress” doesn’t need to mean more highway capacity. We can make it easier for people to get around by foot, bike or public transit – often for a lot less money than a new highway costs and without needing to displace so many people. Doing that would not only lower transportation-related pollution but it would also be better for the climate.
Our dedication to the automobile is a choice. One that we don’t have to keep making.
Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.