Since David Fields arrived on the job in Houston in February he has been a man in motion, even as the city nearly ground to halt to stop COVID-19.
As the city’s first chief transportation planner — a position aimed at coordinating Houston’s ever-changing streets into a coherent system for drivers, transit users, cyclists and anyone who uses the roads — Fields finds himself watching along with the rest of us what the virus and lockdown are doing to commute patterns and recreational trips through neighborhoods. Traffic may have dropped dramatically on local freeways but bayou trails are teeming with runners and bike riders.
Fields came from a private sector job in San Francisco, where much of his work was for local governments and transit agencies redesigning streets, plazas and bus and train depots, and establishing policies for parking and vehicle use.
In an email discussion, Fields says in the future residents could find streets that consider more than just cars, where safety for everyone trumps speed, depending on what the city is trying to achieve for particular streets so sprawling Houston can get full use of the funds it dedicates to roads.
As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?
Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.
COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.
Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.
LANDSCAPE PLANNER: Post-pandemic world could be ‘a little bit slower and a whole lot greener’
From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?
COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute