I love walking. I live in downtown Houston, which is one of the few places in this car dominated city where you can conceivably walk to get everything you need. The street grid is city blocks are short and the streets are one way, so I can ramble around wherever I want while avoiding cars pretty easily.
Being able to walk everywhere of the best parts about living in my apartment. Before moving here I barely walked places at all. This city is built for the suburban commuter, so by far the easiest way to get around town is to drive. Highways are everywhere. The surface streets have are multi-lane, wide, and decently paved. It is easy to get anywhere you’d like to go in the loop, the core area of the city bound by 610, using a car. Sidewalks, where they exist, are small and aren’t well maintained. The city blocks are huge, making serendipitous adventures difficult. The crosswalks are slow and unresponsive, while the streetlights are optimized to ease traffic. It’s hard being a walker here.
When the city went under a stay at home order in around mid-March, things changed dramatically. For a whole month as I walked the streets I saw few, if any, cars. Many streets in this usually bustling part of town had no cars driving down them. Parking lots were empty. Bars, restaurants, and stores were all shuttered. It was so quiet that I could hear the birds singing among the skyscrapers! My hometown, the fourth largest city in the United States, had turned into a ghost town.
It was a wonderful time to be a walker. When I trekked out of my apartment building, I felt completely free. I didn’t have to wait for my turn to walk in the street. I just crossed. The air was fresher. I didn’t have car exhaust clogging my throat, stinging my eyes, or ruining my sense of smell. The sidewalks were all mine as most people had retreated into their flats to hide from La Rona. One man and his dog exploring a deserted cityscape. I was the king of downtown Houston.
As Texas has begun to open up, things have changed. The cars are back, less than previously, but they’re here. I have to be on the look out for wild drivers, people have gotten more reckless since the restrictions were lifted. Cars are running reds far more often. The traffic is back, degrading air quality and blasting unwanted noise into the neighborhood. The birds are still singing, but I can’t hear them. I have been put back in my place. I am just a lone walker in a city built for cars.
Even though the streets have gone back to normal, I haven’t. I’ve been radicalized. I saw what an environmentally-conscious, pedestrian-friendly Houston could look like. Now, as I walk past the miles of empty parking lots, I daydream about using a jackhammer to break up every inch of concrete in my neighborhood. I see these useless lots transformed into community gardens, pocket parks, and pop-up markets. Bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and closed off streets fill the space. I envision streets designed for all travelers, not just for car owners. I will make it so.