Ep. 34 Oni Blair - Transportation Equity in Houston
Oni Blair 0:04
***radio effect on voice*** So I encourage people to think about how transportation impacts everything that they do, or the other members who may be older and can't drive or too young to drive, because they don't want to stick their necks out to do something unless they know that it's something that the community really wants. And so let the community, let your leaders know that transportation options are something that you want, affordable ones and safe ones.
Rob Icsezen 0:34
What's up Houston! Welcome to H-Town Progressive, Houston's impenetrable fortress of progressive thought! I'm your host, Rob Icsezen!
Today our topic is transportation equity. And if you're thinking oh, cool, he's going to talk about our shitty traffic problem for an hour! Think again!
But don't get me wrong, traffic is definitely a legitimate issue. And it's prominent in many of our lives. But transportation, as a matter of policy, is a much broader issue. And it's really fundamental to modern life. Think of it this way:
Are you able to get to work or to school safely and within a reasonable amount of time?
How about your kid's school?
What about your doctor?
And the grocery store? Is there food nearby?
In Houston in 2019, the answer to all of this should be, Yeah, sure, Rob. That stuff's easy. Why do you ask? Sadly, it's not. And these are just a few basic examples. The problem is expansive, and affects us all in at least some way as we work, as we play, as we live.
Many, many people struggle with moving about our city to do the things that people need to do in modern society. It's too hard for too many people to find a way to get there, wherever "there" may be, without taking all day. And even if you can get there, you may be risking your life to do so. Our roads are dangerous places, particularly for those not in cars.
Transportation is about connecting people to places in a safe and accessible way. And equity - we hear this word a lot in different contexts, and for good reason - equity, is about ensuring that the thing we're talking about, the policy and question, whatever it may be, here, transportation, can be enjoyed by all people in a fair and reasonable way. Like many things, equity in policy is an expression of our values. And as progressives, we should constantly be checking ourselves, ensuring that our policies match our values.
And our guest today has spent her career doing just that. Oni Blair is the founding Executive Director of LINK Houston (https://linkhouston.org/) where she leads the organization's advocacy for a robust and equitable transportation network so that all people can reach opportunity. Oni serves on the City of Houston's Bicycle Advisory Committee (http://houstonbikeplan.org/bac/), and on the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Technical Advisory Committee (http://www.h-gac.com/technical-advisory-committee/). A graduate of Texas A&M and Harvard University, prior to this work, she spent 13 years as a Foreign Service Officer diplomat with the United States Department of State. She also taught undergraduate and graduate courses at Georgetown University and, served as a senior advisor from the US State Department to the Mayor of Houston.
It's my honor to welcome to the show today, Oni Blair!
Oni, welcome to H-Town Progressive.
Oni Blair 3:34
Thank you, Rob, it's great to be here.
Rob Icsezen 3:35
It's really awesome to have you on the show. I'm really looking forward to talking about transportation with you, which I think a lot of people don't understand, the scope of transportation. So how, let's get off with that idea. What's the scope of transportation as a problem for our society, and how should we be thinking about it?
Oni Blair 3:53
So transportation in Houston is an issue that most people think of in terms of congestion, or how long it takes them in their car - traffic. But it's, and that's what you often hear on, in conversations or with meetings with politicians. But it's, it's a little bit more than that. So first of all, the most important thing when we think about transportation, transportation options, is thinking about where we're coming from, and where we're trying to get to. So transportation is really about connecting communities to the places where they want to be, whether that's your work, or your school, or your children's school, health care and health options, or even just places for entertainment, the restaurant you want to go to or where you may work out, the game that you may want to go see or the game that somebody else is working at to sell concessions. But it's about connecting us as people to the places where you want to be.
Rob Icsezen 4:46
Yeah. And and when we think about it in terms of congestion, that is, it's a very limited way of thinking about it because it assumes, one, that you have a car.
Oni Blair 4:57
Rob Icsezen 4:57
And and that cuts out a huge portion of society, doesn't it?
Oni Blair 5:00
Yes. So we move in all sorts of different ways. And many people do move in cars, but not exclusively. So you may also travel by the public transportation, which could be anything from a bus to a train to a particular type of bus that comes and picks you up when you call it. You may travel by walking, you may travel by biking, you may travel in a wheelchair, you may travel on a scooter. There are all sorts of different ways! This weekend, I actually traveled by Amtrak. And yes, I traveled to Houston, many people don't know that you can still use that sort of long distance rail to get to and from Houston. But we travel in all different ways. At the core of it, though, at some point in our day, most of us do walk, if that's walking to the parking garage, or walking home or walking to the place on the corner to go see your neighbor, or even walking to a bus or to someplace where we park our bike or to something else. At some point in the day we usually walk. And that's the piece that we often overlook, because it's so ingrained in how we move around. So all of us, at some point have some element of this basic thing of transportation that we call walking.
Rob Icsezen 6:04
Yeah. And so your organization LINK Houston is dedicated to transportation equity. What does that mean?
Oni Blair 6:11
So our mission is to advocate for a robust and equitable transportation network so that all people can reach opportunity. And the equity piece in that is understanding that, it, some places there are barriers that we need to overcome in order to reach that destination. So if you, the example that I like to use in Houston is on health care in particular. So if you live near the Medical Center, you are next to world class medical care. And that is great access to that medical care. If you live in the Woodlands, there is now a medical center that is right next to you. So you don't have to go anywhere, you have what would be an equal access as someone who may be lives near the Medical Center. But if you live in Sunnyside, and you have to overcome the barrier of distance in order to reach that medical care, because there is no equivalent in your community, well, that that extra distance is the barrier. And so equity doesn't remove that barrier necessarily - it would be great to have a medical center in Sunnyside, where people can get that same world class medical care, that would be the ultimate goal - but in the interim, we have the reality that there's this distance of barrier, and overcoming that barrier, and giving the tools to over, or working to find the tools to overcome that barrier, is really about equity. So being able to overcome the transportation. And the time in order to reach where that medical center exists, be it the Medical Center or someplace else around town, is the equitable part. So the transportation piece is, there are great schools and jobs and opportunities all over the city. But for many communities being able to reach it is quite difficult. And owning a car on average by, the, by AAA cost about $8,000 a year to own your average sedan just to pay on the car, to pay for your insurance, to pay for gas. That's a lot to add to a burden economically for many families. And so the equity piece is finding something that it's affordable, whether it's an option that you can use every day or on Sundays, to be able to reach those things that you want to reach in life.
Rob Icsezen 8:15
And you know, I think this was maybe on your website, but we talk a lot about the cost of living in Houston being lower, and that's a great thing. But but that is often, those words are uttered without reference to how you then get around. Transportation is not mentioned, and what you just said about car ownership and the cost of car ownership, if that's not factored into the cost of living in a city, then it's not a full story.
Oni Blair 8:39
That's a great point. So when we go to buy a house or find rent for an apartment or a home for our families, we often talk about what that payment is monthly. And if you're a homeowner, when you're buying for your first time you learn things like PMI, and all of these other nuanced things about taxes that you must learn to pay. But we never have a conversation about what it costs to reach that particular house and then get from that house to everything else you need to do during the day. So on average, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology (https://www.cnt.org/), it's a think tank based in Chicago, it's very well known for looking at cost of living. They, they estimate that the average Houstonian spends at least 25% on housing, which isn't bad out of your monthly income. But we also spend at least another 20% on transportation. That's 45% that's gone before you have food, before you have childcare, before you pay on your student loan, before you do anything else that's that you have to do, let alone that you want to do. So if the minimum on average is 20%, you can imagine that if you still don't even make a living wage, you're hoping to make your $15 an hour. 20% just one transportation, that's on an asset that doesn't gain any wealth for you, is a lot. And so an option where, you know, you don't have to not own a car, you can own a car. But if you don't have to use it every day - so that you can save on gas, so they can save on wear and tear, just to go to some basic trips that are needed - is really, really useful. In some communities in Houston, the car ownership, may be 20, or lack of car ownership, may be 20% or higher. What that means is that, you know, one in five houses doesn't have a car. Or after you get past that point, and maybe that they have a car, but there are multiple wage earners in the house. So one person takes the car all day, and everybody else is stuck without a car. You can either spend a lot of money to get a second car, or you can try to look for some options, if the environment is built in a way that allows you to save on that and have an affordable transportation option, to get to the grocery store, to get to the post office, to and as we mentioned before, to get to all the other basics that you need.
Rob Icsezen 10:45
Sure. And you mentioned health care, but you're also talking, it's not just health care, it's it's...
Oni Blair 10:51
Rob Icsezen 10:51
It's health! Yes!
Oni Blair 10:51
It's health. It is health and healthcare. So the healthcare piece is getting to your clinic or your doctor. The health pieces that if I am incorporating that extra element of walking a couple of minutes, or biking a couple of minutes every day to go run my errands or even to just get to and from work, that's helping me have regular body movement that can help with all sorts of things, from obesity to diabetes. But just having that built in piece of health and movement, we call it "active transportation." So instead of driving three miles to go to the gym, I can walk half a mile to get to my bus. And that active part is actually helping me and my mental health and my physical health.
Rob Icsezen 11:35
And we have, what do, we have standing desks, we have ways to like, work out while you're at an office all day! [laughing] You know, ways to to move your body while you're sitting in front of a computer. But we kind of overlook this very obvious way to overcome some of these issues.
Oni Blair 11:50
[laughing] Right! And those have all been developed over time with the increasing reliance on cars because people do move less. And so if you look at our society prior to the reliance on cars, or even other countries, whether it be in Europe - or even places across, you know other continents, Africa, Japan, wherever you may be - places where people do use transportation that may be public transportation, or even relying on walking and biking, they have that activity built into their everyday lives. And they don't need to go to the gym! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 12:24
Yeah, yeah, exactly! I mean, like New York City.
Oni Blair 12:26
Rob Icsezen 12:26
I visited there a few, I don't go there very often, but I've been there a few times. I always feel like I'm in great shape after I get back from New York City because I'm walking everywhere!
Oni Blair 12:34
Before I moved back home to Houston, I lived in DC for a little while, in Washington DC, and it's a pain to move your car. It is actually, every incentive is made for you not to do that. And so you may have one, but you try to do everything else without having to move it, because you may not have a parking spot, it's too expensive to park in some places, there's no time to actually be able to make it from parking to where you're going. And so you you rely on walking and using public transit a lot. And then you supplement that with different forms of bike shares, or, or just your bike. And then also the use of shared car rides is a supplement to that. So you may not be able to afford that every day. And I think that that's reasonable. But if the bus is super late, and you have to get back to your kid, that's the time when, while you haven't been using parking at $30 a day, so you have some extra money for that emergency to be able to rely on one of the shared rides to do that, in that moment.
Rob Icsezen 13:33
You know, and we talk a lot about how many wonderful world class things this city has to offer, from our museums, to our healthcare system, to all kinds of features. But if you don't have a way to get there, that's affordable, you're not going to enjoy that. So everyone is not able to enjoy the greatness of this city. And and that should be a goal of ours, I think: the accessibility of all of the things that are offered in this town. But going to hel- the health care aspect of this, or the healthfulness, let's say, aspect of this: safety is an issue. One of the things that struck me that y'all do is some really, really great scientific analysis. You look at metrics really carefully about where car accidents happen. And that involves pedestrians, it involves cyclists, it involves in in that way. That's, how long have y'all been working on those metrics, and have you seen any movement, have you seen any movement over time in this town? (https://linkhouston.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/LINKHouston_EquityinTransit2018_Report.pdf)
Oni Blair 14:34
So in 2018, and to a lesser extent, in 2017, but really in 2018, we started to look at crashes involving people walking and biking. And then in April of 2018, four people were killed on bicycles. (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Another-cyclist-dead-and-Houston-keeps-building-13692886.php) And we went with a number of other advocates around the city - Bike Houston (https://bikehouston.org/) and several other groups, individuals as well - to City Council to press the City Council Members and the Mayor to do more to improve safety on our streets, particularly for people walking and biking, and, and people with disabilities who use the streets as well (https://linkhouston.org/reports-briefings/link-houston-executive-director-oni-k-blair-before-houston-city-council-public-session-on-may-30-2018/). And out of that, we realized very quickly just how unaware the different council members were of the pervasiveness of the problem around the city. So some city council members met us with, Well, this is obviously a problem around Rice University, and that kind of university area, on the on the east side. But it's not a problem all over the city. And some city council members, being very concerned about other issues regarding transportation, and not realizing that students in their community also walk and bike to school because the bus system in Houston is very limited, particularly with Houston Independent School District. So fast forward, we wanted to not just say this, but have some data behind it. So initially, we developed an interactive map that showed where all the crashes over a two year period. So 2016 and 2017, at that point, because those were complete datasets had occurred across Houston, and looked at those also by by city council district to just really raise awareness about where this problem was happening. Very quickly it's easy to see that it happens all over the city.
Rob Icsezen 16:16
Oni Blair 16:16
Then we needed to take it a step further, the Mayor with some of this pressure coming from advocates said, Okay, well, I need advocates to show me where the 10 most dangerous intersections are in Houston. So then our team took crash records from the Texas Department of Transportation, so a credible source, weighted those crashes using a statistical value of life that's used by the Federal government. So saying, it's more severe if somebody died at that location, if there's a fatality, or it's less severe, but an actual statistical value assigned, if there was an injury that was incapacitating, so you couldn't walk away from it. And use that Federal level and assigned it to the crashes around the city of Houston and Harris County. And through that, we're able to identify where the most dangerous crashes were occurring. And they are literally all across the city. You do see some common trends. So when we were asked to - we presented them privately to the city first and then were asked to present them at a public meeting hosted by the city and then again at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which is an entity that covers eight counties, and controls all of the money really or most of the money for major transportation projects in our region - and at both of those presentations, we put in context where these crashes were occurring and what you see in those communities. So not wholly, but most of them were in, lower income neighborhoods with higher percentages of underrepresented minority groups, and often, where you would expect people to be walking or biking. So we would see them next to grocery stores. In particular, five of them were next to a Fiesta grocery store, which wasn't by design, it just happened that way. We kept noticing as we were going out to take pictures at each location like, Gosh didn't we see a Fiesta?
Rob Icsezen 18:04
Oni Blair 18:06
Many of them were very close, within less than a quarter of a mile to schools, and lots of them, also all of them actually, had multiple bus stops at the location. And so when we, when we go to these locations, we're seeing immediately people trying to race from one bus line to another, and that the street signals sometimes just simply aren't long enough. So they're racing across the street, people are turning or going straight and not seeing them. And even when we're just out taking pictures, several people dodging. And so we took this a step further and after the, and and after we presented it to the city and the region, the the mayor asked the public works team to go out and investigate it. And together we got some federal administration - Federal Highway Administration assistance to go investigate each of the 10 intersections for what was actually happening. We were very clear that we are identifying them. And our partner organization Bike Houston did a survey of all of its members to identify particularly where the most dangerous intersections were for their members, for biking, and our group covering all transportation issues and using this resource, the transportation - the Texas Department of Transportation system did it for walking and biking, but using that data set. But But long story short, a year later, in April four more people died in bicycles. And the Mayor built on all of the work that's been done over the last year and made a significant number of announcements that are intended to improve streets. So first of all, he is addressing all of the things at every one of those most dangerous intersections. He's also assigns now a coordinator for safe streets to help oversee and interact with multiple agencies and advocates.
Rob Icsezen 19:51
Let me stop you real quick, though. I want to just pause and make sure I understand, because it sounds like the implication of all the data that y'all studied, that you looked at very carefully is that - which is pretty intuitive I think - when people are walking more in Houston, you're seeing more accidents in those places. That these 10 particularly dangerous intersections are places where people are going to be using the bus more, where people are going to be biking more, where people are going to be having to go between bus stops more. And so the people who do that, that's implication number one, implication number two as well, okay, the people who do that are historically underprivileged folks who don't have a car or whatever it might be, that that they're they're taking public transportation in this city. And so they're flying under the radar, let's say, to a certain extent?
Oni Blair 20:43
So I think its multiple things. So one, not every location is a low income is in a low income neighborhood. But I think the more important thing, and as, we see it across the city, so the 10 most dangerous, there may not be as great of a difference between the 10 most dangerous and the 10 to 20 most dangerous.
Rob Icsezen 20:59
Oni Blair 21:00
But I think the most important thing is, to take away, is that people do walk. So in, in that five year period, where we were looking at these issues, we looked at also just the number of people impacted in crashes all together who were walking or biking. And what we found, in in that pedestrian aspect also includes people with a disability who may have been outside of the vehicle, right. So there were over 12,000 people who were impacted by a crash who were walking or biking in that five year period from 2012 to 2017 inclusive. So what it tells me is that a lot more people are walking and biking than we think. In a city where we perceive it to be a car culture, the reality is people are outside of their cars all the time for all different reasons. And as I mentioned earlier, you could be just outside of your car, getting from, you know, the parking lot to the to Minute Maid Stadium, and you don't think of yourself as a pedestrian, but you are definitely a pedestrian! Or to your parking garage, and and from the Medical Center, you know, in the medical center to your parking garage, like you are still a pedestrian for those moments. Those are really dangerous places to be. And so what we don't understand is just how many people walk and bike. And how many people are walking and biking for really regular things every day: to get to schools and grocery stores are not things that we think of. We often think in Houston that people biking must be biking in their spandex for recreation. And that's not totally true. We have lots of people who aren't included in the numbers. I am convinced that these numbers are under counted for people who bike in particular, because when we go to different communities where people are not wearing spandex, and they're just trying to get from point A to point B, they're not, they don't think of themselves as cyclists. They think of themselves as using a bike to get to the next place! [laughing] And so we undercount this and then when we undercount it, we undervalue that people are using these different strategies to move around the city. And as such, we design it for what we think, we designed the streets for what we think people are only using, which is we designed them for cars. So at every one of these intersections, the common thread is that those intersections are designed so that cars can move quickly, not for people to move. And the reality is, is if we keep people at the focus, people are in cars and driving cars, people are on the streets, people are the ones that we're trying to move, we have a different way of approaching things. So if you're trying to move people, you may think of moving a lot of people is not just a single person traveling in a single car, but instead, a lot of people move in a bus! [laughing] You know, a lot of people can move in very tactical ways, very quickly, and oh, and walking, you may walk to the corner to go get something without ever getting in your car. But I think the bigger point to your point is, it's not necessarily that it's all low income people, or all people that are walking or more vulnerable, necessarily, but that people are walking in much greater numbers than we think. And because of that, we need to rethink how we design our streets.
Rob Icsezen 23:57
And so what, you were about to mention the city, some of the things that the city's undertaking to do to address this issue. What what are some of those things that we should be thinking about?
Oni Blair 24:05
So in general, some of the things that we need to think about are, education is always one: educating everybody that different people use the streets just like we're talking about now, so that you're not in in your car, thinking of only a car mode, but what, how people interact so that you're aware. Because if you're more aware, you're going to look for the person on the corner and not just look left to see if there's another car coming. And the same thing as a walker or biker, you're going to be thinking about the other people who are around you and how they may be acting whether or not they see you, so everybody's aware. We think of law enforcement. So if people if we want there to be- if an intersection, for instance, the problem is that people returning right without ever stopping, then we have a law enforcement issue. But ultimately, the, one of the most important things is also just thinking about how the street is designed. And if the street is designed for people, then all of those things kind of happen a little bit more naturally. So if the crosswalk is actually painted and the signal for people to cross the street is not only audible, but you can see it and it gives you enough time to actually make it, and not just an able bodied person, but someone like me who's often crossing with a toddler, or somebody who may have a disability be able to do it, that the curb comes out far enough that you can actually see a person and you're not hidden behind a control box, which is, also happens.
Rob Icsezen 25:28
Yeah, I mean, there's so many neighborhoods around town where it's like, there just aren't sidewalks even, or the sidewalks are impassble!
Oni Blair 25:33
Right. So sidewalks or there's no ramp to get on the sidewalk.
Rob Icsezen 25:36
Yes! Right. They're not accessible at all. Now, a lot of people are just so tied to their car. And maybe the car culture isn't as as such as we as we might think it is. I think that it's absolutely compelling that there are more people walking or cycling than we really understand. But I do think a lot of car people like roll their eyes at this stuff. And how do you address those folks?
Oni Blair 25:59
So a couple of ways. One is I'm not trying to force anybody to get rid of their car. I think that that's unrealistic. And it's not necessarily a useful argument. But as I mentioned before, I think a lot of people who do believe that they rely solely on their car, don't understand that they become pedestrians at some point in the day. And often in the places where it is, there's a lot of stuff going on. And so this danger is just as real for them as for anybody else. And recognizing that is part of the equity piece. We put a lot of work into making sure that the crosswalks are painted and that the sidewalk, and the pedestrian signals are long enough Downtown or in the Medical Center. But the equity part is making sure that that happens all over the city and especially in cities, or in parts of the city where we know people are outside of their vehicles. The second part is that contrary to what some people say, putting everybody in buses or trying to force people to be in buses or to walk or bike to work is not going to change all ultimately, the congestion. We are headed no matter what we do on a road to congestion. And no matter how much we widen highways, be it I-10 or in the future I-45, there will always be induced, you know, usage of it and so people will see that it's wider and more people will want to drive and we will have congestion again, just like we do on I-10. So this is not an answer to fight congestion, it's an alternative for you to seek, in case you don't want to live in that congestion. I would rather be sitting there and read my book, or as I do right now I ride the bus with my child like I did this morning, to her school, and we spend that time to just spend together. So instead of me driving her, it with her in the back seat, we can read on the bus and she's practicing her reading.
Rob Icsezen 27:41
Or! You can listen to a podcast! [laughing]
Oni Blair 27:42
Or you could listen to a podcast! [lauging] You can do something else! And I choose to do that because, you know the five minutes extra that I would save for driving, the reality is I've made more social use of my time in a way that I want to and I choose to. And it's an alternative that I seek that I think that other people can have. If you don't want to get rid of your car, that's absolutely fine. And even if you do, you don't want to get rid of it all the time. But there may be times when you want that option. And that's really what our work is about is finding options that help people move and that are equitable throughout the city. So it's not just on the Buffalo Bayou where we have a great intersection of some really nice buses and a beautiful bikeway and sidewalks. That it's all over the city and especially where people need it in order to make it from their communities to places where there are jobs.
Rob Icsezen 28:36
And a piece of that I think, as Houston evolves, and one sort of structural problem we have is that, we're what the third or fourth largest city in the United States, but if you take our area, we're way bigger than like Chicago or New York, for example, or DC in particular. And so just getting around that area is tough. And so we've, we've we're sprawled out, that's what they say. But as we, as Houston evolves, centers are developing. Like you mentioned the Woodlands, like places, like like Sugar Land's a lot more developed than when I was a kid growing up.
Oni Blair 29:08
Rob Icsezen 29:08
I remember there was nothing out there! [laughing]
Oni Blair 29:09
Rob Icsezen 29:10
Now people work Sugar Land! So that kind of development for centers around where people live, you know, there are MUDs, and you know, suburbs all over this this town, it, not everybody has to drive inside the loop or get, take the bus or whatever inside the loop to work, that can address the issue as well. So development is a big part of this. Right?
Oni Blair 29:33
Right. So this is one of the pieces that it's really important to look at the public transit system, because no matter how great of a biker, you may be or great of a walker - I love walking - but I can't walk from here to the airport. It's just not happening! [laughing] Wherever here may be!
Rob Icsezen 29:48
Right! What are you talking about?!? [laughing] Yeah.
Oni Blair 29:49
Nobody's walking to the airport! But your transportation, your public transportation system becomes the backbone for people to be able to move quickly. And so our, we have several activity centers around just Houston itself, the airports, and you think of- and first of all, I should say this, an activity center is not just a place where there are jobs, but also where people are doing things. So the airports, you're flying, you're, you have a job, whether you're the pilot, or you are working at one of the restaurants that's there to serve people, the Medical Center, the Galleria, the convention center, and all of the game centers there, like these are all places where you can go as, in multiple types of experiences, be it working there, maybe you own something there, or you are just experiencing a restaurant, or it's another entertainment piece there. And those are the places where it's really important not just to have transit going to, but being able to connect people from actual communities. So we can't just connect the Medical Center to the airport, because I don't get off a plane and immediatley go to the Medical Center! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 30:56
Oni Blair 30:56
I hope not! But, you need to be able to connect communities to those places. And so this is one of the reasons why a lot of our work also has to do with the public transportation system here in our city, and we work very closely with Metro, which is the public transit authority on some of the plans that they're doing. And right now we're very focused on the upcoming plan that they will release called Metro Next (https://www.metronext.org/), which is their long term vision that will affect the transportation investments for the next 20 plus years. And so Metro is finalizing this this June, and will roll out its final version of what you know, all of the investments look like from train, that will extend to either or both airports really, what they call bus rapid transit, which is essentially a fast bus on a dedicated lane that runs just as efficiently as a train. But it's - or light rail rather - but it's much much, much cheaper and can come into play in just a few years. If you've been to the Galleria, and you've seen all of the construction there that seems to be winding down down, that's what they're building there is a bus rapid transit, but also looking at the services on the bus system. And so we often overlook the bus because many people have negative conceptions about the bus. I ride the bus all the time, I think the bus is great. The bus is just going to go places where a train can't or where the light rail can't. But being able to make the bus, in particular, come faster so that especially in places like Gulfton, that is the highest ridership in the city, it's the most densely populated neighborhood in our city, But it doesn't have the fastest bus which runs down Westheimer and is the 82 and comes every six to eight minutes. That doesn't come anywhere near Gulfton even though Gulfton meets all of those markers, that's to me inequitable. The fastest bus should if you're basing things on density, and ridership, should go to that neighborhood, but it doesn't. So how do we make sure that places like Gulfton where people - and it's one of the lowest car ownerships - have buses that actually work for them. That the buses stay open late and stay- in or stay open late and open early. And that they're reliable, so that if it says it's coming, 90% of the time it should actually come at that time! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 33:07
Well, and one of the great things about buses is that, you don't have to build the tracks, you don't have to do all this infrastructural stuff that that comes with trains and, and you can move them - you can change where your buses go, you can change your timing on the buses, there's a lot of flexibility around neighborhoods.
Oni Blair 33:22
There's a lot of flexibility. And it's much it's much cheaper in comparison to rail to build and much easier and more flexible to adapt to the needs of the community. I would say the last piece of the areas where we're really trying to push Metro right now is on universal accessibility. So this means that a person regardless of their age, or size, or disability, should be able to navigate the system and be able to use and operate any portion of this public transit system. So what does that mean? That means that if I have any sort of disability, whether I walk slowly, or if I am blind, or if I use the wheelchair, I should be able to- or, I should be able to figure out how quickly the bus is coming, where to find it, and also to be able to get up onto the sidewalk and then onto the bus easily. Mmetro's buses are 100% ADA compliant, that, you know, they're they conform with the American Disabilities Act. But often I hear politicians say that, and that's great, but that's just one element. That doesn't mean that I can, if the buses ADA compliant that doesn't mean that I can get onto the sidewalk to get onto the bus. Or that I can understand when the bus is coming. If they speak another language we don't have a lot of pictographs or signage around our bus stops. So we can't figure out how to get to or what direction it's going if if you can't understand it. It doesn't need to be complicated, just making it super basic so that a tourist or somebody uses it everyday can understand what's happening and what changes are happening around you if something's not running.
Rob Icsezen 34:54
So so much of our policy is ableist and people don't quite understand that because they just assume that, Oh, able bodyness is something that, just, people who have disabilities don't come into their minds. And so they don't even think about all the things that you've just mentioned. So I'm glad to hear that that is in the works. And I think that we need to be active about advocating for these kinds of things. You know, one thing I want to hear your thoughts on before we leave is a piece of this we haven't talked about which is the environmental impact of our transportation infrastructure. And so when we have all these - obviously, we're not telling people to get rid of their cars - but emissions is a huge issue. I mean, climate change is an enormous issue. And the more cars, the worse we are. You know, if we can put people in buses or whatever it might be or get more people walking, then we help our climate change issue. So where, where, what is Houston doing for that right now? And what is your, what is your position on how we might address that here locally?
Oni Blair 35:55
So there's a narrative that industry produces the most emissions and pollution in our city. And industry does make a major contribution to that. But the reality is that cars make a huge contribution to- vehicle emissions make a huge contribution to our air quality, in our city. We work very closely with an organization called Air Alliance Houston (http://airalliancehouston.org/), also been on this podcast Bakeyah Nelson, Dr. Bakeyah Nelson (https://www.htownprogressive.com/post/ep-33-dr-bakeyah-nelson-environmental-resilience-in-houston). And they focus on this issue in its entirety. Our connection is that the the equity piece is really, really important. And so especially understanding what the impact of the air quality is, not just writ large, so thinking about, you know, how can people get on buses so that they reduce vehicle emissions, but also thinking about what are the other things that are in the transportation realm that impact communities and air quality. So one of the big things that we see coming up is the expansion of the I-45. Highway (http://www.ih45northandmore.com/). So again, once it's done, it will be as wide as I-10, which is already the widest highway in the country. And thinking about that expansion in an equitable way. So right now the benefits seem to be going mostly to the Downtown area. Downtown, gets, the Pierce Elevated will go away under the current plans, the highway will be redirected around Downtown, so it will be uninterrupted. And you'll have even more green space created in addition to what we have with Discovery Green. And then the result of that is that the highway will then be expanded going north from down- well, around Downtown so blocking off Second Ward and going as you get past Fifth Ward and go, reconnect back where 45 is because it also impacts a portion of I-10 and a small segment of 59. The highway expands. And when you expand the highway, you're not only creating an avenue for more vehicles to go through - so what is the impact of emissions on predominantly black and brown communities - but in addition to the pollution, adding more concrete, we know that, as we all learned after Harvey, the term impermeable structures, so creating more impermeable structures, again, creating more flooding in black and brown communities. And then the safety piece. So we think that people don't walk on the highways. And while they may not be on I-45 proper, they're underneath the highway at the interchange where it meets a regular street. And so as you go up, I-45 in places like Independent Heights, where there are near to no places to spend your money, save for the new Whole Foods 365 (https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/independenceheights365), that's on the very opposite end, when you're at I-45 you see people walking and biking literally under the highway to get to Walmart, and other grocery stores and places on the East side. And so people are interacting where the highway interfaces with an urban street, they're interacting there all the time. And so you're you're increasing the safety and danger for people as you expand the highway and make those distances greater that they have to cross, whether that's getting to a school that there are several schools, there are actually 26 schools that are within 500 feet of where the highway expansion will be - there already within 500 feet of the I-45 realm. But some of the schools like, Jefferson and Roosevelt Elementary in the Houston Independent School District have zones that actually go on both sides of the highway (https://www.houstonisd.org/cms/lib2/TX01001591/Centricity/Domain/32468/boundarymaps/Jefferson_ES.pdf AND https://www.houstonisd.org/cms/lib2/TX01001591/Centricity/Domain/32468/boundarymaps/Roosevelt_ES.pdf). So you're required to be able to do that Bruce Elementary, and the Fifth Ward also has a zone that extends across the highway (https://www.houstonisd.org/cms/lib2/TX01001591/Centricity/Domain/32468/boundarymaps/Bruce_ES.pdf). And then the displacement piece again, largely in black and brown communities, right at that interchange with 59, and then going north almost to the airport and Greenspoint. And I'm specifically thinking of places like Fifth Ward and Independent Heights and Near Northside and Northline, and Greenspoint. But in the Bruce Elementary area, for instance, several of the public housing centers or public housing complexes will be impacted if not completely torn down. That school in particular has at least two in five students who live in a public housing complex. So what do you do to the school in a community that is, that's put a lot of pride in that school. And it has a long history there. And there are plans for the school. But the reality is, we all know what happens to schools when you don't have enough students and we already don't have enough money to go around. And it's hard to get students to a location - HISD has gone to busing where you don't go, if you're not as, if you're in a magnet school, for instance, you go to a hub, and then get on a bus. There are all these challenges that have to do with everything from the jobs that are lost, to the housing that is lost, to the air quality and the impact of flooding, that are really complex, but very, very integral to this conversation of transportation. And the impact is really at the core of what we think about, of equity. So equity is about the distribution of benefits and burdens, or the benefits and the, and the negative impacts. And when we think of something like that, a project like that, where you get a lot of benefits Downtown, and I think those benefits are great, I really, really do. But we also don't want to put all the burdens on the black and brown communities that extend beyond Downtown. And that's what I see happening right now. To the city's credit, the Mayor has now developed as, a new stakeholder group, that includes the communities that are being impacted outside of downtown to start to talk about what the city collectively can do with the Texas Department of Transportation to mitigate some of these negative impacts. And I applaud the Mayor for developing that. And I think it'll be a really good point to facilitate that conversation more broadly with each of the communities. No single group of leadership should be, or stakeholders, should be burdened with having to make decisions that are this broad that impact communities this greatly. So the the Mayor and his team are planning to go out and do community engagement with some initial conversations with the stakeholder group. And I think that that will be key. And I hope that the city, both with public and private funds is able to really think about these issues holistically and develop a plan that really works for our community that doesn't result in unnecessary burdens to the traditionally under resourced and black and brown communities in our city.
Rob Icsezen 42:28
Yeah. And one of my takeaways as we kind of bring this to a close, is it just, transportation, equity in transportation touches everything.
Oni Blair 42:37
Rob Icsezen 42:38
You really, it has to be a piece of every discussion in policy, in public policy. And I think if there are any, if people come away with anything from this discussion, it's that, that they need to have transportation in their minds as they consider whatever policy issue that they are thinking about. And so one of the things though, when we when we end our shows, we'd like to talk about calls to action. What can people do. I mean, it's really important to talk about these issues. Not everyone runs an organization like yours that that focuses on this, but we're all citizens in this city. What can we do, what is the sort of thing that a regular person can just do to be a part of the solution to these problems?
Oni Blair 43:21
On the public transit piece, in particular, if you in any way, use a park and ride, a bus, a train, or whatever it may be, light rail, let Metro know. You can write to Metro, you can go to a Metro board meeting (https://www.ridemetro.org/Pages/BoardMeetingsAndNotices.aspx), which is the third Thursday, I believe, it's on a Thursday every month. But more importantly, in November, vote what you think is important, at that measure, the bond measure and I encourage people to go vote, whatever way you may vote. But get informed and get educated and then go to the polls and share that. On transportation more broadly, and I mean everything from I-45 or any other highway expansion to walking and biking, there are multiple entities, but I would say the most important that you contact is really the Mayor and your city council member. They hear often more about trash than they hear about transportation, and what the needs are of communities. And so I encourage people to think about how transportation impacts everything that they do, or the other members who may be older and can't drive are too young to drive and every other piece of your day to really think about all of those people in your life and talk to them about what you need. Because they don't want to stick their necks out to do something unless they know that it's something that the community really wants. And so let the community, let your leaders know that transportation options are something that you want, affordable ones and safe ones.
Rob Icsezen 44:43
Okay. You heard that people, go and get out and do it! Well, this has been really fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing all this information with us. And I think I think we have our marching orders, yeah.
Oni Blair 44:55
Thank you so much for having me on H-Town Progressive.
Rob Icsezen 44:58
It's been awesome to have you, thanks Oni.
Next week, we're going to switch gears to talk about what "Medicare for All" might look like for Houston, with Dr. Stephen Chao.
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