Rivercrest: Why the Urban Network is Essential

Yesterday the Chronicle posted an interesting article titled: Did street closing bypass fairness? Neighbors inherit wealthy Rivercrest’s traffic problem.

The article considers the plight of the Briargrove Park subdivision, which has seen a significant increase in traffic since the adjacent Rivercrest subdivision succeeded in having their streets made into one-way (exit only) at Westhiemer. The drama of life in Briagrove is illustrated by the story of Brenda Oliviera.

“It’s frightening,” she said. “People pull in and cut through all the time, and now they are coming right in front of my house. We’ve got so many little ones.”

What went wrong

So why is traffic such a problem? Because people are trying to head north from Westhiemer onto Beltway 8, and they’re experiencing major conjestion at the intersection. Let’s take a look at the problem on a map:

rivercrest-1

You can see in the map above the old cut-through traffic (purple) and the new cut-through traffic (orange). What was Rivercrest’s problem is now Briargrove’s.

The reason I brought this up is that this is a perfect illustration of why the Urban Network matters. This area, along with the vast majority of Houston, is suffering from a significant lack of connectivity. The road network here was designed to force all traffic into as few through streets as possible, so that as many people as possible could live on ‘ideal’ streets with as few cars traveling on them as possible.

Wherever this is done there is signficiant traffic congestion, by design. If it’s done ‘perfectly’ (ie there are no through-streets aside from major thoroughfares) traffic is the worst. Where it is done imperfectly (ie there are a small number of ‘cut-throughs’ that exist), traffic is still bad and some of it diverts through areas that weren’t designed for it.

Let’s look at what’s missing in the Rivercrest area:

rivercrest-2

For this entire area, the north side of Westchase (one of Houston’s stronger employment centers), there are only three existing access points onto Beltway 8: Briar Forest, Westhiemer, and Richmond. Those are also the only streets that pass through the entire area. This isn’t nearly enough connectivity.

For starters, Westhiemer is too significant of a route, and carries too much traffic to function properly as a generic two-way street. If it were upgraded to a multiway boulevard with direct connectors to the freeways it could work better than it does today.

Secondly, there is no reasonable explanation for why Meadowglen Lane doesn’t cross Beltway 8. This is the city failing to take action on an easy fix that would help improve connectivity in the area siginificantly.

Beyond this, it gets more difficult to say what could be done to improve the situation. I’ve highlighted in green two general areas north of Westhimer where there should be a through street. These missing connectors are a significant contributor to the traffic problems in the area. However, the areas around are well established with valuable property, and any effort to put in a connector now would require significant property takings and would have a major impact on the adjacent neighborhoods. It’s probably too late for anything like that to happen.

How we can avoid this in the future

This situation: significant traffic congestion and neighborhoods bothered by cut-through traffic, is one of the most common problems facing American cities today. It’s hard to say how the situation could really be made better for Rivercrest and Briargrove, but we can be sure that we don’t create any more of these messes in the future. What Houston (and everyone else) needs is an Urban Network Plan.

In Houston, this would mean replacing the current Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan with a more complete document that defines the entire spectrum of city streets, from freeways to back alleys. The plan should do the following:

  • Establish multi-modal street design standards across the entire city, so that pedestrians and cyclists could safely use the public infrastructure they’re paying for.
  • Establish connectivity standards and not allow the closing of existing streets except in truly extraordinary circumstances.
  • Look at emerging urban centers (like Westchase) and find ways to agressively support them with significant connectivity improvements, as well as to support transit service to these areas.
  • Look at the local street network city-wide and identify and pursue opportunities to create improved connectivity.
  • Annually review traffic trouble-areas and invest in whatever realistic redesign and improvement of the surrounding network can be found.

How can this benefit Houston moving forward? I mentioned that perhaps Westheimer should be upgraded to a multiway. However, a much cheaper, more effective solution would have been for Westhiemer to have been built as a pair of one-way streets. This would enable the street to handle much more traffic with less total paving, and it would also create twice as many ‘prime’ corner locations for commercial development. This could have been easily done if we’d had appropriate Urban Network standards in place when the area was developed.

Want a historic precedent?

neartown

Here’s a quiet residential neighborhood close to major throughfares that lead in and out of a major urban center. This neighborhood has little to no problem with cut-through traffic. The cars that use the neighborhood streets tend to drive slowly and carefully, and the neighborhood is easy to get around and free from the kind of bottlenecks that are plaguing travelers around Westchase, even at the peak of rush hour. I know, because this is where I live.

This is a traditional street network. It’s the organic output of the cumulative city-building experience of Western Civilization prior to the modern movement. If you’re a conservative, this, not the suburban cul-de-sac, is your street pattern. It’s simple, it’s efficient, it doesn’t require ornerous regulation to build, and it doesn’t have to be perfect to work properly.

Most importantly, this pattern distributes traffic evenly by providing an endless number of alternate routes to and from every destination. Major commercial thoroughfares succeed because they are designed to attract (and accomodate) a greater share of through travel. The area is transit-supportive, walkable, and bikeable. And, of course, it’s easy to drive around.

When we build things right in the first place, using simple standards to connect independent private endeavors, everybody wins. That’s what the Virginia Department of Transportation recently realized. Can Houston make a similar move?


Posted: Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 9:43 am
Categories: featured, move
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8 Comments

  1. Good post, Andrew.

    I would like to add that we have an even better example how well an Urban Network adapts to a major change a little further south than your neighborhood.

    I live in Audubon Place (roughly Westheimer t o Alabama, Montrose to Audubon Place) and when the Spur 527 construction was planned (several years ago, now) there was great fear in the area regarding cut through traffic on our streets.

    The thing is: It never happened. The city made Alabama into three lanes (reversible) and rerouted some of the bus traffic down to Richmond, but the network took care of the traffic with little congestion.

    I will be interested to see how it handles the traffic once the Richmond Rail (The University Line) starts (and ends!) construction.

    d

  2. Interesting and well researched. Do you think it will happen?

    While you’re at it, can you have the Texas Medical Center Inc. build their 2006 proposed east-west thruway connecting VA Hosp. and newly widened Bertner Ave? I and my neighbors currently (and for the last 2 years) have > 500 autos passing our homes on Wyndale, M-F…and that is only the morning commute. TMC and Baylor College of Medicine also have proposed a four lane road to “T” intersect at my driveway so Baylor College of Medicine officials can travel more easily between their main campus and mid-campus, (which they began, but don’t have the money to complete).
    I and my neighbors have proposed a WIN-WIN situation to protect our neighborhood, create a transition between old neighborhoods and modern medical facilities, but TMC Inc. doesn’t budge. They would lose some parking places and that is one of their main sources of income.

  3. Dan and Doug: thanks for the feedback!

    @Doug: I’m not very familiar with the issues in TMC, but I can see why Wyndale would attract a lot of traffic. I am aware they’re making connectivity improvements in the area, if I hear anything exciting I’ll be sure to post it.

    Good luck with your effort to work with TMC!

  4. A related issue popped in my mind given today’s storm and street flooding. I had absolutely no problem with flooding or getting to work this morning. But, watching the news, many of the more suburban areas of Houston are suffering extensive flooding, trapping people and limiting their mobility. Schools, businesses, etc. are being shut for the day because of rain essentially (a new phenomenon for me I must admit).

    Now, apart from the obvious problems with this area’s drainage system (that is another topic entirely), I think it also highlights another issue with forcing all traffic on just a few major thoroughfares. When these thoroughfares are blocked (because of say, flooding), people are essentially trapped and unable to get from place to place. If there were more connector roads, this would help not only relieve traffic congestion on “normal” days but limit the immobilizing effect of such a large rainstorm.

  5. Your post was spot-on. I just relocated to Houston from Los Angeles and decided to live in midtown. As an urban planner I have to say this neighborhood got it right by keeping it simple with a grid network. For centuries this has been the tried-and-true method for creating accessible, active, and walkable places. Just got back from Buenos Aires where such urban networks were ubiquitous and it was such a joy. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  6. Enjoyed the post up until the supposed dig at “conservatives”. Implying that conservatives are the only ones who live in the suburbs is funny, but wrong. I’m generally a conservative guy and will always live in the urban areas.

    Other than that, great post.

    • Stephan,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry if I wasn’t very clear in what I was stating… it wasn’t meant to be a dig at conservatives at all. I too am a fairly conservative person.

      My point was this:

      In my experience, the people who most strongly identify themselves as “conservatives” or “Republicans” tend to place a moral value on living in the suburbs that it doesn’t deserve.

      I often feel significant pressure from the more conservative of my family members to ‘move out to the burbs and get a house like a responsible adult’. That, and the fact that my wife and I share a car really baffles most of my conservative friends and family.

      On the other hand, my more liberal friends and extended family tend to look favorably on living close to the city and using only one car since it works for us.

      The irony here is that conservatives, who are supposed to be the champions of time-tested American values and morals, tend to also be the chief proponents of the auto-centric suburban development – which is a radical social experiment of recent invention that has been heavily promoted by the government starting with FDR.

      Meanwhile, liberals, who are supposedly trying to advance the avant-gard also tend to advocate ‘new urbanism,’ which is really just a return to traditional town building practices.

      I believe that our nation is at a tipping point, the recently conventional suburban development patterns are still dominant, but there are cracks in the armor. If and when conservatives shift to strongly support traditional urbanism, the US will experience substantial change – change I think would yield tremendous positive returns to society.

      Thus, my comment was meant to call out to conservatives, and try to connect them to the idea that the CONSERVATIVE way of building cities is highly connected, walkable, urbanism. This pattern of building prevents the issue Rivercrest faces from emerging in the first place.

      Again, thanks for your comment, I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to respond to your reaction!

  7. Andrew,

    Thanks for the reply! I do think you are correct in your belief that conservatives are more car-centric, but overall, I lean towards the idea that our way of doing things is cultural and not political.

    As we both know, living here is hot, hot, hot (as evidenced by today). Public transportation is great and this is a perfect time to use it, but for so long our city has not had the transportation in place, leading people to become accustomed to their car’s air conditioning.

    We do need to make significant changes to our methods of getting around, not just for the environment, but for the city itself.

    Again, great blog, and keep up the fantastic writing!

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