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Where the Sidewalk Ends

This is a guest post by our Communications Specialist, Emilie Bahr. 

I’m in Houston this week for a bit of a summer hiatus. Houston isn’t exactly first on my list of destinations for a mid-July vacation. The climate, for one thing, has an awful lot in common with that of my steamy, subtropical hometown. But because one of my favorite aunts is here and because my husband started a new job back home this week and because there was the offer of free, unlimited babysitting for my toddler son, allowing me the chance to focus on some work and to finish reading the book that I’ve been trying to get through for months, I find myself in a place that might not otherwise rise to the top of my list of places for a getaway.

As someone long fascinated by cities, probably the single most important indicator of a great place for me is one in which you can move around comfortably outside of a car – a simple metric that speaks volumes about a city’s priorities, values, and culture well beyond the transportation network.

Now, it’s not my intent to pile on Houston in this space, so I’ll start with listing some of the things Houston has going for it to this end.

Thanks to its infamous lack of traditional zoning, there are lots of neighborhoods (my aunt’s included) in which residences are mixed in with cafes, grocery stores and bars in a style cities elsewhere in the country are now trying to emulate, having recognized the folly – and sprawl – associated with keeping houses and commercial entities far away from one another.

On a visit to the city a few years back, I was impressed that this place built on oil and long synonymous with the automobile had adopted a bike share program well before many others in the country (mine included) had gotten on that bandwagon. It’s also working hard to improve its transit system to combat congestion and connect its sprawling landscape.

However, despite progress on a number of related fronts and at a time of growing awareness of the importance of making our public sphere more accessible by non-motorized means, Houston remains a place whose landscape is dominated by fast-moving cars and highways. And this time around, the city somehow felt even more hostile to people on foot than the last time I visited.

Admittedly, my conclusions are based on my experience moving around a very limited swath of this very large city over just a few days. It’s also my first time here since having a child, and I have no doubt that parenthood has caused me to be imminently more aware of and cautious of dangers that may not have registered in my baby-free days.

A sidewalk on an otherwise lovely, tree-lined street, ends abruptly at a property line.

Perhaps it’s the slight high I’ve achieved from the fumes of the cars speeding past me, but just about everywhere I’ve looked in Houston, I’ve found unintentional metaphors in my surroundings: from the strips of overgrown grass I’ve trudged through after sidewalks have abruptly ended to the many loops driven around an otherwise appealing outdoor café looking for a parking space. (Although the restaurant was just a few blocks from where I’m staying, walking there wasn’t presented as an option.)

The most potent symbol of all I found along the crushed limestone walking and running path around Rice University, one of the perks I most looked forward to about my Houston trip. The 3-mile, live oak-lined route is for me one of those rare places in the steamy South where I actually look forward to going for a run in the middle of July. Its appeal was confirmed when I was arrived there this week to find it, per usual, in heavy use by a broad constituency that included exercising parents with strollers, retirees, backpack-toting students on their way to class, people headed to the bus stop on their way to work, and scrubs-clad medical workers headed a job in the city’s world-renowned medical complex that lies immediately adjacent.

I was less than a minute into my run, however, when I had to stop and snap a picture of one of the signs scattered at intervals along the path, ostensibly intended as safety measures in light of the driveways that cut across it, connecting mostly to university parking lots.

Signs placed intermittently along a popular walking and running trail around Rice University in Houston conflict with Texas law and, the author argues, serve as an unfortunate reminder of the status of pedestrians in this car-centric city.

“This is a sidewalk,” the sign read, followed by a cartoon image of a car, followed by the instruction: “Pedestrians Yield to Traffic.”

It was almost a haiku.

Never mind the outdated conception of “traffic” on display here in the notion that motor vehicles are the only form of mobility falling into that rather broad category. More troubling, to my view, is the underlying assumption embedded within this simple phrasing that the burden for achieving safe conditions falls squarely on the shoulders of the most vulnerable users in the equation.

There were no similar directives (that I saw anyway) directed at drivers pulling into or out of the driveways. There is also the minor matter that the instructions would appear in direct conflict with Texas law, which, like most places, grants pedestrians right of way in such situations. And then there’s the fact that this tremendous pedestrian amenity is located in one of the most-walked sections of a modern American city, on the campus of one of the nation’s foremost academic institutions, in the heart of Houston’s renowned medical district. If any place should grant pedestrians priority, it would seem this would be it.

The attitude quite prominently reflected here stands as an inconvenience for someone like myself who simply prefers to explore my surroundings on foot. But it’s truly problematic when taking into account the large and growing constituency of people in Houston (by some measures now the most diverse city in the country) and beyond who have no choice but to get around that way.

Driveways along the path are mostly marked with crosswalks, clearly denoting pedestrian right-of-way
despite signage to the contrary.

I contacted Rice University about the signs, wondering if officials were aware of the conflict between the markers and state law and inquiring as to whether there was any concern on the part of the university about the message they send about the status of pedestrians on a college campus of all places. A very helpful spokesman responded this way:

“The problem you noted about these signs has already been called to Rice’s attention. The university agrees that the wording is unclear and is in the process of getting the signs changed. The signs were meant to convey that the perimeter sidewalk crosses several entrances where large numbers of vehicles access the campus and that pedestrians should exercise caution where those two intersect. Until the signs can be changed, Rice feels that they should be left in place because they can help save lives in the interim.”