After 16 months of deliberation, Houston City Council recently approved new rules that legalize the operation of taxi-like car-sharing services, like Lyft and Uber. Last night, in his talk for the Rice Design Alliance’s Walk Houston civic forum, Kinder Baumgardner, President of SWA Group, discussed the impact these services could have on the future of Houston. An edited excerpt of the talk is presented below.
I like to think of Houston as a multiverse of little walkable places. In between is all this dark matter, which [could be called] the suburbs. So we go from bubble to bubble, multiverse to multiverse. On a typical day, you might start off in the suburbs and go Downtown, then walk around, and get some breakfast. Then you go to the Medical Center, get some tests done, and walk around there. You could take some transit. Maybe you go to [the future] Regent Square and buy some stuff or meet some friends. Then you go to Uptown and go back home. That’s how Houston operates. Where are the [other] places people go [to walk]? Well, they go to The Woodlands Town Center. People walk there. They don’t walk to there but they walk around when they get there. CityCentre — I love the name, especially given where it is — people love to walk there. It is extremely appealing. [What are walkable places with] other demographics? Airline Drive — people drive there and then they walk — is a pretty amazing place if you haven’t been.
And we fabricate places to go. We talked about Sunday Streets. Lights in the Heights — that’s my neighborhood, man, we love that. One night for a few hours we walk. Sometimes we put on white linen, and we walk around. There’s music. And soon, if you read the Chronicle this morning, we’ll be able to drive and go to an indoor park [in the Astrodome]. I think it’s an interesting idea.
This is not an antique city that was built around horses and buggies. This is the city of the future. It is a growing and large city that was built around [innovations]. Uber is going to change how people walk in a city like Houston. I’ve been to Downtown Houston twice in the last two months, and I never go Downtown. I don’t live that far from there. I go [now] because I can call an Uber, and I know when it’s going to arrive. I can go [Downtown], and I can have one extra cocktail now. I don’t have to drive home and worry about it. I can Uber back home. It is different than taking the bus, because in my neighborhood I don’t know if it is ever going to get there. This is a different kind of thing. Sure, it’s a car. But remember [in] Houston, I’m [normally] driving from bubble to bubble, to walk to walk to walk. It has changed at least my lifestyle, this simple thing.
Everybody thinks “I’ll be dead and gone” by the time [the Google self-driving car] happens. But I think you are wrong. In Nevada, they have already passed a law that says these are legal to drive. Texas is exploring the same law. So you don’t have to have a driver in your car anymore in the United States. The car can drive itself. I don’t know what this does for us yet. It might actually make the suburbs more appealing and walking less appealing, because it is easy to get to work and I can read the newspaper the whole way. Or it might do other things. These [cars] can drive close together. Maybe that’s a way to put streets on a diet, because if you’re driving close together, capacity increases; you don’t need as much street space. But you can also suggest that I could take this Downtown, and tell the car to drive around for an hour and come back to get me when I’m done walking, in which case maybe it adds more traffic. I don’t know the answers. I think it’s intriguing to think about what these types of technologies mean to the city of the future.
Of course Google and Uber are going to get together in the future, so really you will be hailing a driverless car. So I don’t need a car anymore. I’m sharing it. You need less parking lot spaces. This is going to make huge changes and I think it will be a lot sooner than you think.