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Category: Infrastructure

Excavators at work on Brays Bayou Hike and Bike Trail. Photos: Allyn West.

Excavators at work on Brays Bayou Hike and Bike Trail. Photos: Allyn West.

Touring the New Brays Bayou Greenway (So Far)

All the work gussying up Buffalo Bayou is what’s getting all the press, but there’s a lot happening along Brays Bayou, too. It began last summer, when a little link of the trail was framed and poured, connecting Mason Park from 75th Street to Forest Hill Boulevard. Since then, another 1.5 miles have been all but completed. Now, you can jog, walk, push a stroller, and ride — without having to negotiate intersections, fight F-150s, or leave the banks of the bayou — from Lawndale Avenue to Old Spanish Trail. Eventually, says Richard McNamara, Bayou Greenways Program Manager, it’ll run “between Broadway . . . all the way to Eldridge in Alief for approximately 26 miles of continuous trails.”

Of course, there are not as many things to stop and take pictures of on Brays Bayou — no dandelion fountains, no Jaume Plensas, no Lost Lakes, no pedestrian bridges — but this trail will be used differently. It provides easy connectivity for those who shop and live on opposite sides of I-45 between Griggs and South Wayside. And it’s a convenient corridor for students and other bike commuters trying to get from the East End to the Med Center, Rice, UH, or TSU.

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CenterPoint utility ROW at Memorial Park. Photo: Amanda Li Chang.

CenterPoint utility ROW at Memorial Park. Photo: Amanda Li Chang.

Kinetic Energy Corridors: CenterPoint and City Teaming Up on ROW Hike and Bike Trails

Last Friday, City of Houston and CenterPoint Energy officials gathered in Memorial Park to announce two separate significant agreements: one to convert city streetlights to LED and one to allow the city to develop hike and bike trails on right-of-ways (ROWs) on CenterPoint land. [The Rice Design Alliance, which publishes this blog, awarded a $4,200 grant in 2013 to Rice School of Architecture professor Gordon Wittenberg to study these ROWs.] The ROW agreement will give the city access to 400 miles of utility corridors that could be considered for hike and bikes. This follows the Bayou Greenways 2020 program, currently under way, which will put hike and bike trails along every major bayou in the city.

However, as Mayor Parker noted, the bayous run mostly east to west. This agreement will allow for a more complete network by adding key connections along CenterPoint ROWs, many of which happen to run north to south. Others might provide critical links across other gaps. The agreement is made possible by legislation passed in Austin in 2013, after years of negotiation, which would limit CenterPoint’s liability for personal injuries on their land.

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End of East End Line at Altic Street. Photo: Allyn West.

End of East End Line at Altic Street. Photo: Allyn West.

What Kind of Overpass Will Metro Build for the East End?

The East End Line is split in two. One section stretches along Harrisburg Boulevard from Downtown and stops at Altic Street; the other picks up at 66th Street and ends at the Magnolia Transit Center. Between them is a gap of six blocks — with two sets of freight railroad tracks cutting across the middle — that have frustrated residents and business owners since at least 2008 and have delayed the line’s completion.

Some have wanted Metro to build the line over the tracks, some under. Last week, board members voted to go over. The unanimous vote came after two hours of exhausting testimony from some of those East Enders and other disinterested (so they claimed) parties, along with four statements pleading for another month of debate from city council members Ed Gonzalez and Robert Gallegos, state representative Carol Alvarado, and Senator Sylvia Garcia — all of which Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia presided over as a kind of King Solomon with a stopwatch. During her three minutes, one Eastwood resident, a former Metro employee who’s in favor of the underpass, urged Garcia: “Do not desecrate our neighborhoods.” And then a business owner who runs a used car dealership on Harrisburg pleaded with him: “We want it to go over [just] to get it done with.” Another business owner added: “You’re killing us.”

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Dock and Share: B-cycles at Summer Fest and Sunday Streets HTX

Houston B-cycle has rapidly emerged as a viable and successful bicycle sharing program, and is poised to grow. The system includes 29 stations now and is averaging 1,850 checkouts per week according to Will Rub, Director of Houston Bike Share / Houston B-cycle.

B-cycle has planned a temporary station, or Virtual Kiosk, at the east entrance of the Free Press Summer Fest crowd on May 31 and June 1, as well as one at Liberty Station on Washington Avenue for the June 1 Sunday Streets. The bicycle-sharing program is an ideal way of getting to these events, and avoiding parking hassles, if potential users understand how the system works. And that can be a challenge.

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Pierce Elevated in Downtown Houston. Photo: Russell Hancock.

Will the Urban Highway Reclamation Movement Come to Houston?

It’s not just San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Providence anymore. Even Dallas is doing it. Dallas! Cities nationwide are demolishing, rerouting, moving underground, or capping urban highways — reversing the devastating effects of the golden age of the automobile.

The results have been outstanding: cleaner air, less noise, better traffic flow, more greenspace, increased walkability, greater property values, and significant economic development.

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Photographs by Tom Colbert and Raj Mankad. Illustration by Sarah Welch.

The Alps of Pasadena

In the process of developing Cite (93), a special issue on the environment, guest editor Tom Colbert and I drove all around the Houston region, from the bay to the piney woods, photographing landfills. We were inspired by Dr. Robert Bullard, a contributor to the issue. His 1979 study of solid-waste disposal in Houston revealed that five out of five city-owned landfills and six of the eight city-owned incinerators were sited in Black neighborhoods. That research helped spark an international environmental justice movement. In his article for Cite, Bullard describes the low-tech methodology behind the 1979 study: “If we noticed a hill in the usually flat landscape, we investigated it because a change in topography often indicated a dump.”

With that history in mind, Colbert and I wanted to create a comprehensive photographic guide to Houston’s “mountains,” but our region, it turns out, has far more manmade changes in topography than a team of two can document over a couple of weekends. In this post, I share a series of photos that show one of the most mind-boggling sites in the Houston area, the Alps of Pasadena.

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Video still of pedestrian collision in Downtown Houston. Image courtesy Houston Police Department.

The Uncertain Life of a Houston Pedestrian

Statistics tell a frightening story about how Houston drivers view pedestrians. This is according to the 2008 National Pedestrian Crash Report, which compiled ten years of pedestrian crash data: “California, Florida, and Texas have more pedestrian deaths than any other states. Based on the pedestrian death percentages as a proportion of total pedestrian fatalities, the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, and Houston are the top five.” A Houston Chronicle analysis in August 2011 showed that in a 3.5-year span of time, only 17 percent of drivers involved in 174 fatal pedestrian accidents were prosecuted.

But nowhere is there a clearer indication of the widespread lack of concern for pedestrians than the September 4 accident involving Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. The chief hit a pedestrian while driving to police headquarters in a city vehicle. At the time of the incident and over the following week, McClelland was not issued a traffic citation.

What message does the absence of a traffic citation say about the status of pedestrians in Houston? I ask this question out of more than idle curiosity. On November 3, 2010, I was hit by a car while walking to school.

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The sidewalks of Peterson Park, Chicago, Illinois.

Democratic Vistas: Thoughts about Cities and the Lowly Sidewalk

An excerpt from the following article by Rich Levy appears in Cite 92, a special issue on education available now at Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, Issues, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores.

Walt Whitman wrote, in his odd, garrulous essay “Democratic Vistas:”

I say the question of Nature, largely consider’d, involves the questions of the esthetic, the emotional, and the religious—and involves happiness. A fitly born and bred race, growing up in right condition of out-door as much as in-door harmony, activity and development, would probably, from and in those conditions, find it enough merely to live—and would, in their relations to the sky, air, water, trees, &c., and to the countless common shows, and in fact of life itself, discover and achieve happiness—with Being suffused night and day by wholesome extasy, surpassing all the pleasures that wealth, amusement, and even gratified intellect, erudition, or the sense of art, can give.

In other words, get out of the house! Go for a walk. God bless Walt Whitman.

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Rendering of proposal for utility easements. All images courtesy UH Community Design Resource Center.

Thick Infrastructure: Reconnecting by Way of What Divides Us

In Fall 2012, the University of Houston Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) put on an exhibition that has become increasingly relevant in the past months. Entitled “Thick Infrastructure,” the exhibit put forth bold visions for Houston’s transit centers, park-and-ride lots, drainage ditches, and utility easements.

Team members included Ruqiya Imtiaz-uddin, Alex Lara, Rose Lee, Xavier Vargas, and Susan Rogers. Rice Design Alliance provided $5,000 in funding through a 2011 Initiatives for Houston grant.

“We’re looking at how to make better use of existing spaces, how to give things more than one purpose, and how to use resources in an efficient way that adds value to our community,” says Rogers, who directs the CDRC and serves as chair of the Cite editorial committee.

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Overlook on Buffalo Bayou. All images by Peter Muessig.

An Infrastructure for Cruisers, Racers, Mountain Bikers, Commuters, and BMX Tricksters: Peter Muessig’s veloCity

Anyone who’s stalled in Houston’s early evening sea of brake lights might not be inclined to think we have room for an entirely new transportation infrastructure. But Peter Muessig has envisioned a provocative future between the lines of Houston’s urban grid. His graduate thesis for the Rice School of Architecture, “veloCity: Mapping Houston on the Diagonal,” reconceives the Space City and oil capital via the bicycle, which Muessig uses as a “versatile tool for local habitation” to subvert the city’s debilitating trend toward outward sprawl. The proposal won a 2012 Architecture Design Award from both the American Institute of Architects, Houston (AIA) and the Texas Society of Architects in the Conceptual category.

To tackle Houston’s “entwined problems of transit and dwelling, of movement and occupation,” as one of Muessig’s thesis jurists puts it, Muessig has designed the “Veloduct,” a canopy structure that opens uncharted territory to the bicycle, allowing it to cross over (or under) high-speed roadways that would otherwise be difficult to negotiate on two wheels. The Veloduct is, in effect, a versatile freeway for cyclists, with wood-paneled guardrails and a concrete-paved metal pan decking surface system that can accommodate commuters, cruisers, racers, mountain bikers and BMX tricksters. Like a cycle weaving among stalled cars, its network of corridors and pedestrian pathways threads through the spaces between existing structures. Where optimal, the Veloduct adapts these structures into its own form. In variations of concrete, joists, and steel, it can be grafted onto the pillars of freeways, hang suspended by girders, or stand on its own columns.

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