Houston Mayor Gauges Impact of Traffic

Runaway gas prices have prompted talk of alternatives to cars — even in the ultimate oil boom town of Houston. Mayor Bill White discusses the city's traffic congestion and other car-related issues.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION, we've been hearing how Americans struggle to adapt to higher gas prices. It's affecting decisions they make in their daily lives. We heard from a driver who's having trouble getting rid of his two SUVs.

Mr. DEREK HUNTER (Lima, Ohio): We had actually made a joke about finding a place that had mass transit that hit every street corner, and I'm thinking I don't know that it'd be any cheaper to move me and all our kids to New York.

INSKEEP: We also heard about efforts to design more-efficient vehicles.

Mr. GEOFF WARDLE (Director of Advanced Mobility Research, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California): For 85 percent of the people in somewhere like Los Angeles, who are driving alone to and from work, we need to be driving a small one-seater or two-seater vehicle.

INSKEEP: Now let's draw back for an even-bigger picture. You'd have to be airborne, in fact, to get the full picture of Houston, Texas. It's home to more than two million people spread across hundreds of square miles with even more people in the suburbs.

The Texas Transportation Institute says those people have some of the nation's worst commutes. Houston's booming economy, including by the way, the oil industry, may draw millions more people to Houston in the coming years, yet high gas prices are forcing people to rethink the way they live.

The people trying to conserve on their commutes include the mayor, Bill White.

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston, Texas): My personal car is a Prius, and on occasion, I'll bike to work.

INSKEEP: Do you hear people expressing concern about the future of Houston, the way it's developed, the way it's laid out right now, and whether it's going to make sense if gas is at $4 or $5 or $6 a gallon?

Mayor WHITE: I'm one of those who, for a long time, has been concerned about the impact that I thought was inevitable of higher fuel prices. We just need to re-order the way we live.

INSKEEP: What does that mean, in Houston, to re-order the way that you live?

Mayor WHITE: Well for one thing, flexible working hours. You know, people don't need to be in their cubicles from 8:30 to 5:30. We're encouraging multiple employment centers so people have choices, where they can live close to where they work. They don't - shouldn't have to have all the employment in a central location and then either have to be very wealthy or commute for 40 or 50 miles. That's wrong. It also means building more mass transit.

INSKEEP: Although you still have a problem, don't you, because…

Mayor WHITE: Oh you bet, I mean, and the problem is compounded by the fact that we grow extremely fast because we have good-quality jobs and affordable cost of living.

INSKEEP: So you mentioned a couple of partial solutions here. You want people not necessarily to work nine to five. You want to encourage people to work at home. You want to encourage to live a little bit closer to work. What about mass transit?

Mayor WHITE: That's a critically important part of it. More people are using mass transit in our community. It's up sharply this year, and we're going to be probably the most aggressive builder of new light-rail lines of any city in the United States over the next three years.

INSKEEP: Are you going to have to encourage people to live in what I might imagine is a very un-Texas way, to give up the big house, to give up the big yard, to live in a smaller apartment, to live a lot closer together so that it makes sense to have that transit option?

Mayor WHITE: Actually, Steve, we don't have to encourage people. They get it. There's a tremendous demand, particularly as fuel prices have risen, for people who want to give up that car, go from two cars to one car, and live along a transit line.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, Mayor Bill White of Houston, it's commonly said in the South and the West, there's a lot more freedom for people to use their land as they see fit. Do you have the power, as mayor of Houston, or do your fellow officials in municipal governments have the power, to channel development in the ways that you're talking about, to make it denser in more places?

Mayor WHITE: Well as I've said, we really don't have to channel what consumers want, but we do have a number of tools that we use, including where we build our infrastructure and what the density that we allow within our different building codes, as well as having tools such as energy-efficient codes.

We adopted the most aggressive energy-efficient building code in the country. But we retain a degree of consumer choice, because you know, some of those communities that have had zoning are trying to dismantle zoning because the traditional 1920s and '30s style of zoning was intended to segregate employment in one area, residences in another area, and commercial or retail activity in another.

As our cities have grown, there's more and more demand for mixed-use areas, where people can shop, send their kids to school and work much closer.

INSKEEP: Do you worry, Mayor White, that some of these efforts, as laudable as they sound, will in the end just work around the margins, but most people will feel it desirable or necessary to go on living as they've lived?

Mayor WHITE: I think there's a tremendous demand, which I sense in all areas of the city, for energy efficiency. We've had large changes in behavior.

INSKEEP: And do you believe there will be a fundamentally different city of Houston 10 or 20 years from now?

Mayor WHITE: No question about it. We'll be bigger, we'll be denser. There's new attitudes cropping up every day when somebody fills up their tank.

INSKEEP: Mayor Bill White of Houston. Thanks very much.

Mayor WHITE: You take care. Thanks, Steve.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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