photo: Cyclists in Buffalo Bayou Park in downtown Houston.
Cyclists in Buffalo Bayou Park in downtown Houston. The Texas city has recently adopted an ambitious climate and mass transit plan. Sharon Steinmann/Bloomberg

How Car-Clogged Houston Could Be a Climate Policy Leader

Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could become a climate-policy asset as the sprawling Texas metropolis attempts to steer a more sustainable course.

April was supposed to be a big month for Houston city planning. America’s largest unzoned city was poised to host the American Planning Association’s national convention for the first time, bringing thousands of attendees to town. Walking tours were arranged; awkward cocktail mixers were scheduled.

Of course, with a global outbreak of the coronavirus, it wasn’t meant to be.

Undeterred, Houston quietly adopted the Bayou City’s first citywide climate action plan on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If city leaders can pull it off, America’s sprawling oil capital could end up teaching a lot to more traditionally green urban strongholds.

Houston is no stranger to the extreme weather events believed to be associated with climate change. In 2017, the city was slammed by Hurricane Harvey, resulting in over $120 billion in damage and 68 lost lives. In the aftermath, the city moved to expand stormwater management infrastructure and aggressively control floodplain development. The recently passed climate action plan takes a more proactive approach, setting out ways that Houston, which is one of the largest per capita greenhouse gas emitters among U.S. cities, can minimize its impact on the environment in the first place.

The plan includes plenty of mainstay climate-policy prescriptions, including calls to electrify the city’s fleet of vehicles, switch to renewable sources of energy, and improve energy efficiency in buildings. But then things become rather unique. The city’s first bicycle master plan, adopted in 2017, gets a lot of play, as does the MetroNEXT Moving Forward plan, a widely lauded $3.5 billion push to overhaul mass transit in the notoriously auto-oriented city. The emphasis on mobility makes sense, since nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Houston maintains one of the highest rates of automobile use in the country.

Toward this same end, one of the plan’s more innovative proposals calls on policymakers to eliminate minimum parking requirements by 2030. While Houston famously lacks zoning — meaning that it doesn’t segregate uses or restrict densities — it still enforces some conventional land-use regulations. These include minimum parking requirements, which mandate that developers build off-street parking for each project, regardless of actual demand. In Houston, this can mean up to two parking spaces for every apartment or four spaces for every thousand square feet of office space.

Thanks to the pioneering work of urban economist Donald Shoup, minimum parking requirements have lately come under fire from affordable housing activists and environmentalists. The former note that the construction of an underground parking garage can raise the cost of an apartment by as much as $34,000. The latter point out that mandating parking bakes in resource-intensive sprawl, foreclosing the possibility of a more urban, less car-dependent lifestyle.

Several cities — including Buffalo, Hartford and San Francisco — have already scrapped minimum parking requirements. And in 2019, Houston itself moved to increase the number of neighborhoods it exempts from minimum parking requirements, dubbed locally as the “market-based parking” area. But most neighborhoods along the city’s major new light rail lines remain subject to the requirements, potentially undercutting walkable infill development.

In pursuit of less driving and more energy efficiency, the plan also calls on policymakers to rally behind infill. With the proposed “Walkable Places Ordinance” and “Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance,” a blend of improved sidewalks and light design guidance could soon improve the pedestrian experience in Houston’s potentially walkable nodes, reducing the incentive to drive. With minimum parking requirements gone, small patches of walkable urbanism could soon take root among some of the Sun Belt’s most notorious sprawl.

Indeed, Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could end up being one of its greatest assets in pursuing climate goals. Without all of the anti-density baggage that comes with zoning — from apartment bans to an onerous approvals process — there is relatively little standing in the way of a rapidly densifying Houston and all of the environmental benefits it brings.

The city has a long way to go before it becomes anyone’s idea of an environmental exemplar. But if all goes according to plan, Houston could soon rank among those cities that have scrapped out-of-date parking requirements — a group that conspicuously doesn’t include progressive stalwarts like Portland and New York City. In a city otherwise famous for its supposed lack of planning, easing up on the right rules might just turn Houston green.

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