Back in 1921, when the world was still putt-putting its way into the horseless carriage age, it’s understandable that paving streets was seen as a primary answer to improving traffic congestion, speed of travel, and the cost and inconvenience of early autos becoming bogged down and/or torn up by lumpy dirt and gravel roads. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite understand back then that re-paving the same streets was something we would have to keep doing as more car drivers of better cars hastened the end of street car and urban train travel in Houston by sometime in the lates 1920s or early 1930s and left mass transit in the hands (or on tha larger wheels) of busses that would be using the same roads as the ever increasing number of new cars on our streets.
By the late 1940s, Houston publicly embraced the public idea, with the help of highway building and developer interests, in building “super highways” or “freeways” to make rapid travel to far flung suburbs like Pecan Park (7 miles from downtown) and Park Place (10 miles from downtown) an easy (yes, super) drive to and from work for thousands. The first such highway, the Gulf Freeway, would also connect Houston and Galveston by continuation, ostensibly fulfilling the noble goal of the Texas Highway Department of doing a better job of connecting two of Texas’ major market cities – and leaving Houston open for similar highway improvements east to Beaumont and beyond, west to San Antonio and beyond, and north to Dallas and beyond.
The developers, the Jesse Jones Friends Club that met regularly at the Lamar Hotel also benefited. As a big part of the political machine that made it all possible, these “men” had the advance opportunity for buying up real estate in advance along the planned freeway routes and then turning a few million dollar major profits in commercial and further distant residential real estate developments in the previously agricultural hinterlands.
Thus, Houston grew, as did other western cities like LA, in its dependence upon private auto travel on freeways as the only practical way to go from work to job site or in work coverage of far-flung customer service site work. Public transportation by bus was, and still is, a joke. And the freeways are not free – and they are a time and money expense to the work traveler. The only people who may either partially to mostly avoid Houston traffic congestion are those who few from the same wealthy trough that benefited most from the opportunities that derived from the consequential sprawl that became our physical city. Those who can afford it are still able to avoid the freeways at comfortable close-to-downtown places of residence that are within relatively easy reach of Houston’s cultural and sports entertainment venues. The rest of us get to take the bumper-to-bumper, rip-off parking lot routes to these same downtown destinations.
Fortunately for Houston, the real core of this community, and that does very much include include many of our most wealthy residents, is much more spiritual and passionate in their caring about the deeper history and cultural future of our town, but that’s a much deeper, more complex, and longer subject for another day. In the meanwhile, those of us on the west side, if not everywhere else in town, will have to content ourselves waiting for the first Chronicle article on how all the new high density residential buildings out here are creating greater auto congestion.
What’s that, you say, Houston Chronicle? Do you mean you didn’t know that all this new construction wasn’t going to make the major frontage streets grow wider by default? – Looks like we will have to find the money to tear streets like Eldridge up and make it wider. For starters, you can tear out that nicely gardened esplanade with all the trees. Tear them all out and make two more lanes. The people who move into these places are going to need them.
As for public rail service, I think we really lost our best shot at that option when the Texas Highway Department bought out the old Katy Line, a few years ago and, instead of promoting any serious public consideration of converting the rail track infrastructure that already existed into a serious option for all the downtown workers from the far west suburbs and small towns, they quickly tore it down to add lanes to the I-10 Katy Freeway, making it now possible for Houston west siders to enjoy an even wider traffic jam than ever before during the all day rush hour.
Have a nice Sunday prior to Memorial Day, everybody!
And, just in case you need a little creative fun and fresh air at this point, try this little link that my friend Miriam Edelman just sent me. It’s a lot more enjoyable than thinking too much about, at least, one hundred years of special interest thinking and the consequences that befell our city as a result.
It’s called: “Draw a Stickman”, but you don’t have to be an artist to benefit from the amusing fun that unfolds: Catch your second childhood early and give it a try. :-)