Talking with Sylvester Turner, the Mayor of Houston Texas

by Jenn Fox January 27, 2021 in News, People Behind the Progress

Sylvester Turner is in his second term as Mayor of Houston, Texas. He is working to break down silos in the city’s approach to mobility and he recently launched Houston’s Vision Zero Plan Action Plan. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with the Mayor about the City’s work for safe mobility.
Vision Zero Network: Houston is the U.S.’s 2nd largest city by area and the 4th largest city by population. With 1,600 miles of streets and 2.3 million people looking to your leadership, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges to keep people safe on Houston’s roads, sidewalks, and bikeways?

Mayor Sylvester Turner: With so many streets in neighborhoods with different cultures and contexts, we have an amazing opportunity to come up with unique solutions for safe streets. Our biggest challenge will be making sure we engage with people in those neighborhoods to identify solutions that will work for them. It’s not going to be the same safety treatment for each neighborhood. And safe streets mean something different for each of us. We won’t know that meaning until we talk to our communities and ask, ‘what do safe streets look like in your neighborhood?’ Houston is diverse, in its people and its landscape. We’ve got wide, one-way corridors through Downtown, two-way residential streets with open ditches, and multi-lane boulevards that function more like highways in commercial areas. Add in that people move in and out using a variety of modes of transportation, it’s going to require innovative solutions from the City and our communities to make streets safer. And safe for everyone, because that’s the commonality across all of our neighborhoods. We must eliminate the death and serious injury that happens every day and every year, on our city’s streets.

VZN: Houston has a particularly alarming traffic safety record. I read the “Out of Control” series in the Houston Chronicle, which described 12 road deaths in an average week and 200 deaths every year.  That’s tragic. How do you turn around such a troubling situation? What kind of changes can we expect to see in Houston that you think will make the biggest difference?

ST: We turn around the situation first by acknowledging the problem. It is unacceptable that we have so many people dying on our roadways. We have 200 people dying every single year. 200 is too many. One is too many.

I’ve been talking about a paradigm shift in how we think about transportation and this is absolutely necessary to end traffic deaths. We shift our thinking by celebrating that people move around Houston in all types of ways, using different modes of transportation. We take another step by providing physical space for those people who walk, bike, use a wheelchair, and take transit to get where they’re going.

Houston is known as a car city, but that is changing. And the City needs to support that change and demand for alternative transportation. We need to allocate space for everyone who uses our streets. We’ve already made a head start. In the last year, through a City-County partnership, we created almost 50 miles of high-comfort bicycle facilities, nearly 20 of which were on-street protected bikeways. We addressed 12 of the most dangerous intersections in Houston, some with quick fixes like restriping and signage, and others with more transformative treatments like redesigning a corridor to make it safe for all road users. And City Council recently approved the Walkable Places and Transit-Oriented Development initiative, which will widen sidewalks for pedestrians and people who used mobility aids like wheelchairs, walkers and strollers.

The Vision Zero Action Plan calls for a holistic and strategic approach to traffic safety, a departure from the view that streets only have a single purpose. We will build a minimum 25 miles of high-comfort bikeways each year, which will ensure that the City is continually programming space on streets for people biking. The Vision Zero Action Plan calls for an additional 50 miles of sidewalk construction each year and 10 High Injury Network locations to be reconstructed within three years of redesign. City standards will incorporate Vision Zero goals, such as designing streets to prioritize human life over vehicle speed. We will design streets for people of all ages and abilities, such as children and older adults who may not be as visible or may need more time crossing the street. We will change how we analyze traffic to look at data and propose solutions for all travelers, not just vehicle users. These are programmatic shifts the City is making because we are committed to ensuring Houston’s streets are safe for everyone.

VZN: Based on the Houston High Injury Network analysis, you’ve found that 60% of the fatalities and serious injuries in Houston occur on only 6% of the streets, a majority of which are in low income neighborhoods. This is a common reality in many cities in the U.S. How do you make sure that Houston’s streets work for everyone, especially in light of decades of disinvestment and problematic policies burdening some communities more than others in cities across the country?

ST: For Houston’s streets to work for everyone, we can’t be a city of have and have-nots. All of Houston, not just certain parts, must have access to good jobs, quality housing, good schools, grocery stores, parks – the resources that contribute to quality of life. This is one of the reasons I’ve championed our Complete Communities program. We recognize not every community in Houston has been able to reach their full potential and so we’ve identified and worked with 10 communities so far to develop individual action plans addressing jobs, education, housing, and transportation. This program is a starting point to lift up those communities and to ensure that Houston is a city with equitable access to goods and services.

Houston’s Vision Zero strategy carves out a similar path to ensure equity. Our streets must be a place for everyone. We think about the social factors that are part of street safety – that data shows vulnerable communities in Houston, such as those experiencing poverty, are disproportionately impacted by traffic deaths and serious injuries. And we think about the spatial components at play – that data shows pedestrians are 32% of traffic deaths yet only 2% of people walk to work in Houston. So, we look to those vulnerable communities, prioritize investments in those communities, and work directly with them to identify solutions that meet their needs. And we rethink our streets to ensure we are allocating space to our most vulnerable road users. Whatever solutions we dream up, we must ask ourselves about equitable outcomes – ‘how will this impact our most vulnerable communities?’ Making streets safe for everyone means putting first the people and communities who have been negatively impacted by severe crashes.  And often times our communities will have the answer. They have a vision for safe streets, and any strategy for equity must allow our communities to influence the outcome.

Sunset Boulevard at Rice University Road Improvements
VZN: Can you speak more about Houston’s plans to manage speed for safety? We know that people will be safer on our streets – especially those walking and biking – if we effectively lower driving speeds. Yet, there is often political and public resistance, despite the overwhelming evidence that speed kills. How will you make changes that won’t be popular with everyone, especially related to slowing the city’s streets down?

ST: Speed is a factor in one out of three traffic deaths in Houston. So, we manage vehicle speeds and we save lives. I’m not sure how anyone can argue that saving lives isn’t the best answer. It’s the only answer. If we know the cause, and we have the solutions to address it, then let’s make change. And that’s what the Vision Zero Action Plan addresses – Safe Speeds are 1 of four key approaches with three priority actions to address signal timing and pedestrian right-of-way at intersections and use design as a tool to enforce slow speeds. We will determine the safest vehicle speeds for all road users and then design the street to support that speed. We need to be comprehensive about how we manage speeds. A one-and-done treatment isn’t enough. Instead, we need a toolkit including signs and markings, design and operations, and messaging and education. That’s how we start to shift the culture here in Houston.

VZN: Thank you for your leadership. We’re thrilled that Houston is joining the growing list of Vision Zero cities and grateful for your leadership to making Houston safer for all people. What is your advice for other mayors and leaders considering committing to Vision Zero?

ST: Across the globe I would say we are seeing the negative impacts of traffic deaths on our communities. The health, resiliency, sustainability, and equity of our cities is at stake when we ignore that people are dying from something we can prevent. So, I urge leaders and other mayors to transform that narrative, both in word and in action. This a public health issue and we must address it as such, with preventative approaches and actions that lead to zero traffic deaths. Whether it’s through Vision Zero or other street safety initiatives, if we can come together to end traffic deaths and serious injuries then we will see the positive impacts in our communities.

Press Conference of the Houston Vision Zero Action Plan, December 2020

 


Watch the Mayor’s two-minute address and read the Action Plan about Houston’s commitment to ending traffic deaths by 2030. We have been grateful to support Houston’s journey and were thrilled to add them to this Vision Zero Communities map. Please check out these resources and interviews with other Vision Zero leaders to support work in your community toward zero deaths.

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