Will the Future of Houston Be Reached on Foot?

by James McClister

Suburban sprawl over the last 50 years has led to an expanse of drivable city space, but a recent study suggests walkable urbanization may be the direction of the future.

For the past half-century, suburban sprawl has helped define the trajectory of urban building. However, in recent years, construction has begun reflecting a growing desire to stay connected, which has resulted in drastic increases in walkable urban places, better known as WalkUPs, which essentially mean areas accessible by either public transportation, bike routes or by foot, according to a new report from The George Washington University School of Business.

In Houston, WalkUPs have become somewhat prominent, but further growth is needed for the city to stand out as a national trailblazer, which currently ranks as the second most sprawling large metro, next to Atlanta. Still, the city is ranked fifteenth among walkable urban metros, and its heavy investments in energy promise considerable investment and development opportunities.

Walkability By the Numbers

The study, authored by professors Christopher Leinberger and Patrick Lynch, rates Houston as a city with moderate levels of walkability, sandwiched between the metros of Denver, Philadelphia, Columbus and Kansas City. The actual scale that measures walkability is determined by a combination of population, the walkability of office and retail space, income and the overall number of WalkUPs in the metro. In Houston, data showed:

  • Fueled by energy investments, the city has become the nation’s leading exporter, which has also helped boost GDP per capita to $58,900.
  • The city has 12 total WalkUPs with an average population of 540,000 per, which ranks twenty-fifth in the nation.
  • There is more than 638,000,000 square feet of office and retail space in the city, and 109,089,000 is located in WalkUPs.

Driving Towards a Balance

Leinberger and Lynch paint the picture of Houston, and Dallas for that matter, as an anomalous metro. Because of the city’s largely energy-based economy, it is hard to determine how things will develop.

On its current trajectory, the pair writes, Houston will need to make a considerable move towards rail transit if it hopes to transition into a more walkable urban environment. However, considering the areas unique economy, the city may be better suited by striking a balancing between drivable suburban and walkable ubran areas, which Leinberger and Lynch say is a distinct and likely possibility.

As the study ranks the walkability of large metros, it also measures and quantifies development potential. As things currently stand, Houston is ranked thirteenth, just ahead of Portland and Chicago, and just behind Phoenix and Los Angeles. Going by the study’s Fair Share Index (FSI), where anything above a zero signifies that a metro’s WalkUPs have gained market share, Houston’s growth from 2010-2014 has been relatively minimal. See our graph below to learn more, or read our infograph story!

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