Strategies and funding allocations for transportation, urban planning, sustainability, and equity issues in Texas metropolitan regions are decided at our Texas metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Unfortunately, these decision making entities generally lack fair representation from the diverse people of their metro regions.
For example, the Houston region is the most diverse large metropolitan region in the United States, but the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) Transportation Policy Council (TPC) just decided on Friday to once again fill their five leadership positions with all non-Hispanic White males, a radical inequity and inefficient decision making methodology.
While the result is another year of wildly inequitable representation for the people of the Houston region, for perhaps the first time ever, a meaningful discussion occurred around the table at the TPC, which you can watch here:
According to Farm&City research, the Houston region’s inequitable representation on the TPC is the worst of Texas’ large MPOs and among the four worst on all three indices we developed: the male advantage index, white advantage index, and geographic advantage index. Higher numbers on all of these indices mean worse, more inequitable.
No member of the TPC is publicly known to be a person with a disability, another dramatic gap in the wisdom available to our most important transportation planning and funding allocation decisions.
Non-Hispanic White residents of the Houston region are dramatically over-represented on the TPC, while all people of color are under-represented.
This vote to once again seat an all white male leadership group for the TPC is beyond the pale, and should never be repeated again, as noted by members of the TPC during this discussion.
However, the people of Houston region should accept no less than a complete reassessment of the general structure of H-GAC and the TPC. The body itself is wildly inequitable. The inequity not only comes from votes of the members of the TPC, but also decisions of local governments to generally only send white males to serve on this entity.
Beyond that, however, the system for allocating voting seats across the region is wildly inequitable, giving dramatically more representation for the whiter, wealthier residents of rural and suburban areas of the region.
After the vote to seat an all white male leadership team, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo – who represents more people by far than any other person at this table – was denied the opportunity to make a motion to establish a process to fix this terrible situation.
The meeting ended with a general sense that staff might come back at the February or March meeting with an agenda item to address these issues.
Texas is a big state with big issues happening across the state. Here is our list of significant public policy stories that happened across the state that might not have received as much attention as they may have deserved.
My understanding is that they expressed opposition to the bill using rhetoric one might find in the conspiracy theories pushed by Alex Jones. They propped up a point of view that things like Vision Zero are a globalist trick to “take away your right to drive.”
Senator Huffines had also been a champion of the misguided effort to outlaw life-saving red light cameras. These two legislators served as a deadly wall, blocking reasonable transportation safety measures to save Texan lives.
Senators Huffines and Burton both lost and will not bring this deadly point of view back to the Texas Senate in 2019. On an average day, ten people die using the Texas transportation system. Hopefully the legislature will be able to act this session to reduce the danger on Texas streets and roads.
2. Maria Town harnessing the power of the City of Houston Mayor’s office to build an accessible Houston for all.
By many accounts, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has hired well. One of those stories that hasn’t been discussed too much is Maria Town, the Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Ms. Town came to the mayor’s office from the White House Office of Public Engagement, and seems to have brought a new optimistic energy to Houston’s intense need for progress in providing equal access to the city for people of all abilities.
Houston’s sidewalk network is extremely problematic and lacking, denying basic rights to many people with disabilities. “Houston’s sidewalks are notoriously dilapidated — where they exist at all” according to the Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle.
Although Houston’s immoral sidewalks policy is far from fixed, Ms. Town seems to be carving out the appropriate policy window to allow for the significant large scale solution that will be necessary.
“When I came to Houston, I was shocked that the city requires that the abutting property owner fix the sidewalks, because what it creates is this huge patchwork of sidewalks across our enormous city,” said Maria Town, the director of the Mayor’s Office For People With Disabilities. “Broken sidewalks create issues for everyone, whether they have a disability or not. Runners can trip and fall and receive major injuries.”
3. Austin’s Vision Zero intersection repair program seeing 100% reduction in intervention-specific traffic deaths
Austin voters have now twice dedicated bond funds to fix the most dangerous intersections in the city, with $15 million included for the Vision Zero program in 2016 dedicated to intersections and another $11 million added this past November. A handful of high-danger intersections have already been examined and retrofitted to reduce crashes.
The program has issued some remarkable preliminary results with some intersections seeing a 65% reduction in total crashes. Staff are not willing to publish the impact on fatalities until they have about three years of data. Yet, early analysis shows that they may be achieving a 100% reduction in the types of fatal crashes they were targeting at some of the intersections.
One example is the intersection of I-35 freeway and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, where a person was killed every year on average trying to walk across the slip lanes. The intervention was simply to raise the crosswalk, making the exact location where a driver needed to avoid hitting a pedestrian into a speed bump, as shown below.
The Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan includes recommendations for local governments to pursue these kinds of data-backed, targeted interventions to retrofit dangerous intersections. However, the SHSP is essentially an unfunded mandate for local jurisdictions because of the Texas legislature’s lack of focus on funding safety improvements.
4. People are actually going to build high speed rail in Texas.
Having made it through three sessions of the Texas legislature and various attempts to kill the project, a private company, Texas Central, is moving forward with building what could be the nation’s first high speed rail line. Groundbreaking is expected to occur in 2019 on a line that will take passengers from the edge of downtown Dallas to Houston’s Uptown, according to the Dallas Business Journal.
While much attention has been paid to the horserace coverage of the attempts to stop it, this story holds dramatic potential to transform Texas with serious policy issues to address. As the state and local governments have barely addressed equitable transit-oriented development policies, we may soon have the first three station areas in America to witness the profound shift high-speed-rail-oriented development may bring.
5. TXDOT changed the name of the “Traffic Operations” division to the “Traffic Safety” division
Back in September, TXDOT quietly changed the agency’s organizational chart, following a meeting with Corpus Christi area transportation safety activist Lance Hamm. We have been working with people across the state, including Lance, to help TXDOT move toward a higher priority on safety.
While doing some background research in the summer of 2018 on the role of safety at state DOTs, our summer intern Laura Thomas grabbed the TXDOT org chart below:
In September, this new org chart was posted. Under “Engineering and Safety Operations,” the final division “Traffic Operations” has been changed to “Traffic Safety.” We have recently met with TXDOT leadership to discuss safety efforts, and can say that this does not represent a trivial change, but is part of a significant effort to upgrade how the state DOT addresses safety.
The Texas transportation decision making system has a structural flaw: the people serving on various committees and decision making roles do not reflect the full race, ethnic, gender, abilities, class, age, and geographic diversity of the State, and often miss the mark to a remarkable extent.
One of Farm&City’s long term goals is to fix this flaw that hinders the effectiveness of Texas transportation policies and spending. The Decide Texas project is built around the year long study I did on the issue in 2016 to contribute to that year’s TXDOT Sunset Process.
Every MPO policy board, every appointment by the governor, every city advisory committee, and the overall suite of elected officials need to better reflect the full diversity of state for us to make better decisions reflecting the reality of the lives of all 28 million (and growing) Texans.
I am in the middle of a two year term on the City of Austin Pedestrian Advisory Council (PAC) and it has been a great privilege to serve the people of Austin and work for safer streets, fight for sufficient sidewalk funding, and to help to balance the needs and desires of people on foot, in wheelchairs, on scooters, on bikes, and in cars and trucks.
But there is a problem.
As far as I can tell, all full voting members of the PAC are non-hispanic white. This isn’t unique in Texas. The Texas Transportation Commission – a five member body appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate – is currently three non-hispanic white males and one non-hispanic white female. In the entire history of the institution, you can count the people of color on one hand out of hundreds of commissioners.
We need all such commissions, from neighborhoods to nonprofit boards to cities to counties to regions to statewide transportation planning entities to better reflect the full wisdom of the diverse people of Texas. Our transportation system is less efficient – we’re making dumb decisions – if our it remains systematically unaware of the experiences, needs, desires, and wisdom of people of color and women.
The City of Austin is now a majority minority plurality city, with no single race or ethnic group making a majority. In particular with pedestrian issues, voices of people of color are crucial, as we know that people of color in America are more likely to be killed as pedestrians. We also know that “the elderly, the poor and those without health insurance were more likely to live in areas that are dangerous for pedestrians“.
So lets start with the PAC. Nominations are due September 16 and you can nominate yourself or someone else to the PAC here. You don’t need to be a traffic engineer or planner to join the PAC. You just need to care about all pedestrians and give of yourself to attend an evening meeting each month for the next two years and to contribute to bettering our city for all people.
While we’re at it the City of Austin Bicycle Advisory Council is also open for nominations at this time. There are currently people of color serving on that committee, but there’s always room for more voices at these tables.