A Houston That Might’ve Been

Without cars, Houston might've grown no wider than today"s "Inside the Loop" area.

The problems of mass transportation in Houston are virtually unsolvable unless we finally get it into our collective heads that they are almost absolutely necessary. I say almost because the alternatives to mass transit will always be out there: (1) We can continue to live large portions of our working days stuck in our 0ne-person-per-car traffic jams, covering long distances each on our drive-ins from hinterlands; or, (2) Others of us can find ways to contain our lives in one of those constantly developing smaller sections of Greater Houston and simply only venture beyond our personal world gates when we absolutely have to go elsewhere.

Houston didn’t have to develop along these lines, but it almost had no choice. As one of the newer developing major cities of this country that sprung up west of the Mississippi River, Houston quickly got caught up in America’s eco-political addiction and sale of the spontaneous combustion engine to “We, The People” during the early decades of the 20th century.

What a campaign that was. It must have been as tough as it is for drug dealers when they try to sell crack cocaine to street addicts. The people wanted their own wheels – and these came in stages. First the forces behind the gas-powered engine sold communities on the bus as a superior mode of transportation than the train or street care because it wasn’t contained to a fixed route. Once approved, rail tracks were pulled up so that there was no going back. Then the campaign shifted from busses to cars. “Why wait on the bus when you can plan your own trip with a personal automobile”

They Ford and Chevy salesmen forgot to tell us what will happen once a quarter million of us started planning the same trip to work every day at the same time on the same old two-lane street to downtown. By the 1940s, in Houston and elsewhere, we were getting the message that “super highways,” or so-called “freeways,” were needed to solve the problem of traffic jams.

Houston got its first superhighway in 1948 with the opening of the Gulf Freeway. It solved very few needs for long and it has been in a state of continuous updating ever since, as it apparently always will be. It’s just the nature of the beast. The driving dynamic is the constant growth of a population in which all new members also want to drive their own personal autos alone each day over streets that never get wider on their own,

The problem with mass transportation in Houston now, whether it’s by bus or train, is, “Who is going to use it?” The other driving force against useful public transit is the growing fear of people that  their lives may be in greater danger from random acts of violence as passengers on public vehicles.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe there isn’t one. In fact, one of our larger problems in America today may be the naive belief that every problem we create has a solution that simply needs to be located at a later date. Oh really? Is that what we are counting on in the matters of our huge national debt and the big tab of that bill that’s now owned by China?

As for the smaller matter of “the Houston that might have been,” had we not grown up with the personal auto, my guess is that the actual city today would only cover a land area that is roughly, if not perfectly, comparable to the space within our present 610 Loop. It would be without a loop, or any other freeway, of course, but it would have rail service to all of its not-so-distant-from-downtown points.

Houston North would run no further north than Crosstimbers, just north of the present day 610 Loop.

Houston West would end at the far western side of Memorial Park, pretty much along the trail of our current 610 Loop and heading south along Post Oak Road to South Main.

Houston South would trail along the area that is currently 610 Loop, south of Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. (Parts of Houston West and South would be cut out by the cities of Bellaire, West University Place, and Southside Place.

Houston East would also take a raggedy-patch route as far southeast as Park Place, up Old Galveston Road to Broadway, north to Harrisburg, and over the Ship Channel to take in Denver Harbor, and on north to present day Loop 610 North, give or take few blocks, here and there.

Downtown Houston would have remained the heart of local business activity and retail marketing, and it would have grown as the hub of Houston’s mass transit rail system, cultural and sporting events, and entertainment district. With a few exceptions. like the present growth of our cultural, sporting, and museum venues in and near downtown today, it would have been a very different Houston from the one we actually built – had it not been for the automobile.

We can’t know if the rail system version of Houston would’ve been better for us because we don’t know how we would have grown up personally had we not fallen in love with the idea of the personal car so many years ago.

Our love affair with the automobile may have caused some problems with traffic and the environment that have no real solutions to them in a world that continues to depend on freeways and oil-based fuel. Our hope has to be that it has also sparked the scientific genius we shall need to work our way out of the problems that come with our dependency on cars  – and that we are not stuck with a fatal attraction to something that eventually wipes out our “precious” way of life.

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