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Category: Infrastructure

Tesla on autopilot along the Southwest Freeway. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Tesla on autopilot along the Southwest Freeway. Photo: Raj Mankad.

The Future Now: Self-Driving Cars in Houston

“I find I speed less when autopilot is on,” says Steve Tennison — hands at his side, feet off the pedals — as his 2015 Tesla Model S 85D smoothly makes its way down the Westpark Tollway.

You are already sharing the road with self-driving cars. This technology may have a profound impact faster than expected, especially on cities like Houston that have multiple centers spread across a huge area. Early adopters like Steve open a window into the near future.

The trip in the Tesla begins in Montrose on a Saturday afternoon. A storm has just cleared and the January sun on my face feels good. Steve operates the vehicle himself and zips onto the I-69 Southwest Freeway. While fiddling with the audio recorder on my phone, I don’t notice that Steve has turned on the autopilot feature. With trucks and cars all around us, the Tesla deftly passes through the grand columns of the 610 interchange.

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The author bikes through Montrose. Photo by Adam Socki.

The author bikes through Montrose. Photo by Adam Socki.

The Future Now: Living Carless in Houston

The new issue of Cite explores “speculative ideas for the near future,” as guest editor Nicola Springer writes in her introduction to the issue. Here, urban planner Carson Lucarelli discusses his choice to sell his car — in one of the most car-friendly cities in the U.S. To see all the content from “The Future Now,” click here.

I live in Houston, and I got rid of my car. I’ve been living carless for a few months, in fact. It’s not that I hate cars; I grew up a “gear head.” Sundays meant helping my dad wash the family vehicles in the driveway. My mom used to say that they looked like they came off the showroom floor. In high school, my buddies and I used to tinker on cars. We were known as the Greasers. We even converted a Jeep to four-wheel drive — no easy task for a couple of 17-year-olds, but it still runs today.

But as I matured and transitioned through my education and training as an urban planner, I began to see automobiles for what they really are — tools of convenience that have facilitated one of the largest shifts in urban development that the world has even seen. Some would argue that that shift is much to the detriment of humanity, community health, and the environment. But this story is not about why auto-centric development has marred progress. Instead, it’s a retrospective, autobiographical approach at how going carless has impacted a sole Houstonian.

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Parking Day Houston 2015, rdAGENTS What if Houston Wall. Photos: Rice Design Alliance.

Parking Day Houston 2015, rdAGENTS What if Houston Wall. Photos: Rice Design Alliance.

Paradise at the Parking Lot

Parking Day, in Houston and all over the world, just happened last Friday. Organized in San Francisco in 2005 by design firm Rebar and embraced by landscape architects, designers, architects, and others worldwide, the event draws attention to the overwhelming amount of concrete dedicated to parking, and what might otherwise go there. On Parking Day 2011, there were 975 parks built in 162 cities across 35 countries and on 6 continents, and the event keeps growing.

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A packed 246 Bay Area commuter bus. All photos: Raj Mankad.

A packed 246 Bay Area commuter bus. All photos: Raj Mankad.

Houston to Galveston by Bus: An Adventure Across Transit Systems that Overlap Without Touching

I reached the sea without getting in a car. Over the course of my journey, which began at Rice University and ended at Stewart Beach, I took one light rail train, four buses, and walked about three miles. Every three or four minutes, I took a photograph with my phone and I compiled a video embedded below.

If the various local and federal pots of money that paid for the two major legs of the trip had been used in a coordinated manner, as part of a regional system, the $7.50 trip would have taken about an hours and a half instead of four.

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Looking at Cite 95. Photo: Carrie Schneider.

Looking at Cite 95. Photo: Carrie Schneider.

Participatory Drawing: Fuel Drips on Concrete

Artist Carrie Schneider reflects on “Horizon Lines” with a new artwork in which she erases cars from an aerial photograph by Alex MacLean of a Houston highway interchange. An animation showing the original photo fading into the artwork and the artwork itself are below.

Since being struck by the first section of Cite 95, I’ve been driving around with the satellite view on my Google maps. Instead of pastel road lines, I’m navigating between driver’s-seat-eye level and aerial perspective, through brown, gray, and green sandcastles punctuated with the titles of sponsored destinations and locations tracked from my previous search history.

More than 30 years after Alex MacLean began the practice featured in “Horizon Lines,” now common in an age of drones, satellite imagery, and Google Earth, he has a lot of company up there. Much of it perhaps less interested in an enlarged collective or artistic perspective than increased height in the vertical distribution of resources, collecting have-alls-and-see-alls in superior, higher resolution space. So it’s mesmerizing, getting to see this landscape that’s so carefully withdrawn, hard to apprehend in more than just peeks.

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Approxmiate location of additional right of way and park, Downtown and EaDo. Photo: Alex Maclean.

Approxmiate location of additional right of way and park, Downtown and EaDo. Photo: Alex Maclean.

Ten Major Changes in the Plans to Expand I-45 You Might Not Know About

Also known as I45NorthAndMore.com, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project has made headlines not only because of the potential removal of the Pierce Elevated, but also of the possibility of turning it instead into a Sky Park.

There’s nothing quite so fetching in urban design these days as a Sky Park, but if you look beyond that glittery, and unlikely, dangling object, there’s a whole lot more to the proposal. Namely:

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Küchenmonument or Kitchen Monument. Courtesy Raumlabor.

Küchenmonument or Kitchen Monument. Courtesy Raumlabor.

Under the Overpass: Lessons from Mexico and Germany

On Saturday, March 14, Metro broke ground on a light rail overpass at Harrisburg that upset many Houstonians in the East End, believing it couldn’t be anything but an eyesore. Can we imagine the Houston underpass as shelter for life instead of an unwanted and dangerous dead space?

Berlin architect Markus Bader recently discussed his “Kitchen Monument” project at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for the RSA/RDA “Plug-Ins” lecture series. The project began with the activation of an underpass with a giant bubble where dances and dinner parties were held. Watch an excerpt from the talk below or the full talk here.

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Trailwood Village greenbelt system, Kingwood, Charles Tapley and his associates. Photo: Courtesy of the architect.

Trailwood Village greenbelt system, Kingwood, Charles Tapley and his associates. Photo: Courtesy of the architect.

Kingwood: The Forest in a Bubble

In the latest edition of Cite, while discussing perceptions of suburbs, Susan Rogers writes, “Big changes have occurred in this landscape of strip centers, shopping malls, subdivisions, and apartment complexes—change big enough to completely eradicate labels, yet somehow they hold.” The enclaves that ring Houston have developed into multi-ethnic areas with their own industries and cultural attractions, both inside Beltway 8 and beyond. The Woodlands is dealing with the issues of a full-fledged city, as a recent article in the Houston Chronicle made clear. Yet Kingwood prevails as an exception, remaining true to its initial design as a secluded White middle-class sleeper community. The reasons are varied, but it would appear that Kingwood’s location, structure, and attachment to Houston keep it a master-planned microcosm.

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Illustration by R.L. Isern and R.E. Harris for Houston Traffic and some Short Cuts for Avoiding it, or the Confessions of a Short Cut Artist , 1983.

Illustration by R.L. Isern and R.E. Harris for Houston Traffic and some Short Cuts for Avoiding it, or the Confessions of a Short Cut Artist , 1983.

Traffic Panic: A Brief History of Farce, Frustration, and Practicality

In November 1980, Houston Post editorial writer Lynn Ashby asked readers if Houston traffic ever made them panic. Not a case of “mild terror,” mind you, but “a major case of panic to the point where you simply will not drive around Houston.” Ashby reassured those who answered yes that they were far from alone. He noted that in 1980 at least two overwhelmed drivers had “passed out on [city] freeways.”

The city’s success amid the national recession of the 1970s drew an influx of migrants to Houston during the decade. Area roads bore the evidence of this migration by the early 1980s. Traffic conditions deteriorated and congestion reached its highest-ever point in 1984. In 1970, stop-and-go conditions occurred for about 90 minutes per day. By 1982, the city faced more than seven hours of daily bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Houston Chamber of Commerce estimated that congestion cost the city roughly $1.9 billion ($5.4 billion in 2014) per year, more than double its cost in 1975.

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Intersection Plan. Courtesy Energy Corridor District.

Intersection Plan. Courtesy Energy Corridor District.

A Vision for a Walkable Energy Corridor

The Energy Corridor District is not an obvious candidate for becoming walkable. Office towers oriented to parking garages, single-family homes on cul-de-sacs, and the Katy Freeway define much of the landscape. Yet, at the Rice Design Alliance’s recent Walk Houston civic forum, Clark Martinson, General Manager of the Energy Corridor District, presented an ambitious vision for a walkable Energy Corridor. Ideas ranged from adding sidewalks, expanding the trail network through the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, and building an air-conditioned bridge across the freeway to a transit oriented development with multi-modal transportation functions at the METRO Park and Ride location. A video of the talk and an excerpt are presented below.

There is amazing growth happening on the west side of Houston right now. It is greater growth in office development than we have seen in 30 years; however, the Class A office tenants today and the millennials they are hiring don’t want the old campuses. They don’t want the old buildings. They want something that is not so dependent on the private automobile.

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