Houston’s “Energy Corridor” gets a pedestrian makeover, but just one thing seems to be missing.

Bollards and better landscaping can’t offset the increased danger from wider, faster slip lanes.

Most “pedestrian” infrastructure projects are often remedial and performative; their real purpose is to serve faster car traffic.

Houston’s “Energy Corridor” is a commercial district west of Downtown Houston that’s home to a number of energy companies like BP and Conoco Phillips.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a heavily auto-dominated area.  We read with great interest last week a news report describing a new pedestrian infrastructure project at the intersection of two main arterials, Eldridge Parkway and Memorial Drive.

The Houston Chronicle hailed it in an article titled “The Energy Corridor District unveils west Houston’s first protected intersection.”  Here’s an aerial view of the project.

See all the pedestrian infrastructure? (This is actually the “after” picture.)

To be sure, there are wide sidewalks, clearly marked crosswalks, attractive plantings, and new signal lights.  But essentially the only “protection” for pedestrians and cyclists are a series of bollards.  If you step back and consider the setting of the project, its apparent that it remains an auto-dominated and pedestrian hostile environment.

For starters, the inescapable fact is that you have two busy multi-lane arterials–the kind of roadway that’s been consistently shown to be the most deadly to pedestrians. Nearly 60,000 cars a day go through this intersection.  Second, a key feature of the project is two right turn “slip lanes” that slice through the corners of the intersections.  Slip lanes like these allow (and encourage) cars to make faster turns, and also increase the crossing distance for pedestrians.  The slip lanes have marked crosswalks, but they appear to be governed only by “yield” signs, not traffic lights, and Houston drivers are notorious for not yielding even when the law requires it. (We’ve got more detail on these slip lanes, and their problems, below).

Let’s zoom in to street level.

Sidewalks, crosswalks, even bollards, but no actual pedestrians.

These pedestrian safety problems are apparent when you look at the promotional photographs provided by the project’s sponsors, the Energy Corridor District.  The illustrations show a nice new intersection, but you’ll notice one element conspicuous by its absence:  pedestrians.

Of course the project’s design aimed to be very pedestrian oriented.  You can tell that from the artist’s pre-construction concept.  Like so many such illustrations, it shows roughly as many pedestrians and cyclists as cars (we counted 38 cars and 41 pedestrians and bikes).  The reality of course is closer to all cars and zero bikes and pedestrians.

The big underlying problem though is that the Energy Corridor is a place laid out for cars and car travel. The reason no one walks in Houston, or in its Energy Corridor, as in so many such places in the US, is that there’s very little nearby to walk to.  (Pro-tip:  any area that describes itself as a “corridor” is almost always an auto-dominated, pedestrian-hostile space, a place people travel through, rather than being in).  The Energy Corridor is just a short distance from Houston’s mammoth Katy Freeway, the nation’s widest. A quick glance at Google maps that shows that within a block or two of the intersection you have a single bank, a convenience store, a CVS drug store and a lone Chinese restaurant—and almost no other retail or service businesses.

With 60,000 cars zooming by, with slip lanes that encourage drivers to take fast right turns, and with nothing nearby to walk to, it really doesn’t matter how wide are the sidewalks or how beautiful the plantings or how numerous the bollards.  While this has the veneer and some of the trappings of walkability, it’s just not a walkable area. There’s a lot of loose talk about “retrofitting suburbs” and “walkable suburbanism” but examples like this show just how hollow and meaningless those terms can be. And while we’re picking on Houston here, you can find similar examples of performative pedestrian infrastructure in almost every US city.

As we’ve said, much of what is labeled pedestrian infrastructure is in reality car infrastructure.  In a place populated entirely by pedestrians and bicycles, for example, there’s no need for wide rights of way, grade separations or traffic signals. In even the most crowded cities, people simply walk or ride around one another. If it’s just people walking, there aren’t even lane markings.  Humans have long had the ability to avoid collisions, using subtle visual cues. Pedestrian friendly places don’t need elaborate infrastructure.

When we build a sidewalk along a busy arterial, or put in a traffic signal or some bollards, we may call it “pedestrian” infrastructure, but the only reason it’s actually needed is because of the presence  and primacy of cars.  It is at best remedial, and its purpose is primarily to benefit cars, speeding car travel by freeing drivers from the need to pay attention to or yield to pedestrians (or to only have to do so under strictly limited conditions).

Last year, we highlighted this example from Orlando suburb, Lake Mary, where the  city has constructed two pedestrian bridges over the highway, with a 153-foot span.

Italian-inspired walkability: Passeggiata, anyone?  (DRMP Engineering)

These elaborate and expensive pedestrian bridges are at best a remedial effort to minimize the danger this environment poses to anyone who isn’t in a car. They don’t really make the area any more desirable for walking. The real problem is not the infrastructure, or lack thereof, but a built environment that’s inhospitable to walking and cycling.

Much of what purports to be “pedestrian” infrastructure, is really car infrastructure, and is only necessary in a world that’s dominated by car travel, in places that are laid out to privilege cars.

Real pedestrian infrastructure is a dense, mixed use area that shuns or at least slows private automobiles. A place with a mix of housing types (apartments, duplexes or triplexes and single family homes), local-serving businesses, and a grid of streets, rather than the rigid, hierarchical arterial/collector/cul-de-sac model of most post WWII US suburbs.  It’s about neighborhoods where people don’t have to cross multi-lane arterials to shop, attend school or visit a public park. Walkability and pedestrian safety are really about building great places, not piecemeal and largely decorative so-called infrastructure.

More on slip lanes

Transportation for America’s Stephen Davis explains that slip lanes are inherently dangerous because they encourage cars to speed through intersections:

Slip lanes are dangerous because they prioritize vehicle speed over the safety of everyone who needs to use the road.  Slip lanes increase the distance that people have to cover to cross a street, put people into spots that are often the hardest for drivers to see, and encourage drivers not to slow down when approaching an intersection and a crosswalk—the precise moment they should be the most careful.

While advertised as improving pedestrian safety, this project actually widens and lengthens the existing slip lanes.  It also increases the slip lane’s radius of curvature, enabling cars to make the turn even faster than would be possible in the narrower, sharper slip lane they replaced.  Both the wider distance of the new slip lane, and the faster speeds it tends to encourage actually make the intersection more dangerous for pedestrians than before.  Here are two Google Streetview images of the intersection of westbound Memorial Drive onto northbound Eldridge Parkway

Slip Lane– BEFORE (2018)

Slip Lane– AFTER (2020)