Houston, Texas – and why the wrong planning regime can turn cities into monsters

The scene of the crime. Image: Google Maps.

Blimey! What's this?

This, since you ask, is the outline of the urban area covered by Houston, Texas, placed over London.  Well, I guess, Americans do things bigger – portions, cars, and, evidently, cities.


That’s true in the sense of the amount of space they take up, at least. But by one very important measure, London is actually twice the size of Houston. The urban area of the British capital contains nearly 10m people; that of Houston just 5m.

So why is the latter’s footprint so much bigger? In order to best serve the American dream of owning a huge house with a rolling meadow for a garden, and a care the size of a spaceship in the driveway, Houston has very few planning restrictions. Development can happen anywhere within the city’s vicinity – a situation that’s resulted in low density sprinklings of large houses with estate-sized gardens.

Although many Houstonians reside in mansions about 10 times the size of a London flat, the urban sprawl which has resulted from the city’s liberal approach to development brings its own problems: poor health outcomes (Houston is America’s fattest city), long commuting distances, congestion, and poor public transport.

London’s growth, by contrast, is heavily regulated by planning laws like the greenbelt. That’s meant higher density development, less sprawl, comprehensive public transport, and a city with a population more than twice the size of Houston using up significantly less land.

While London’s transport system continues to evolve to meet the needs of its growing population, Houston has largely resisted mass transit system development in favour of expanding roadways, highways and interstates to accommodate more cars. This means a lot of its residents spend a significant proportion of their lives in their cars, rather than lounging in their mansions (something to think about the next time your face is pressed into the armpit of a stranger as the northern line speeds you the short distance home to your shoebox flat).

It’s not just planned cities like London that Houston blots out like the arrows of the Persian army. Even when placed over others cities which are listed among the worst offenders for sprawl, Houston still dwarfs their comparatively feeble efforts at environmental degradation. Look:

Houston has fewer people than every one of those cities.

There is one beast that even Houston cannot tame, though, and that is the insatiable urban sprawl of Los Angeles – where if you ask for directions to a subway you’re more likely to end up with pastrami on rye than a subterranean odyssey.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why one arm of the city extends so far to the south east in that way – that’s the seaside city of Galveston. That’s where the beach is. 

Joseph Kilroy is policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

 
 
 
 

London Overground is experimenting with telling passengers which bits of the next train is busiest

There must be a better way than this: Tokyo during a 1972 rail strike. Image: Getty.

One of the most fun things to do, for those who enjoy claustrophobia and other people’s body odour, is to attempt to use a mass transit system at rush hour.

Travelling on the Central line at 6pm, for example, gives you all sorts of exciting opportunities to share a single square inch of floor space with a fellow passenger, all the while becoming intimately familiar with any personal hygiene problems they may happen to have. On some, particularly lovely days you might find you don’t even get to do this for ages, but first have to spend some exciting time enjoying it as a spectator sport, before actually being able to pack yourself into one unoccupied cranny of a train.

But fear not! Transport for London has come up with a plan: telling passengers which bits of the train have the most space on them.

Here’s the science part. Many trains include automatic train weighing systems, which do exactly what the name suggests: monitoring the downward force on any individual wheel axis in real time. The data thus gathered is used mostly to optimise the braking.

But it also serves as a good proxy for how crowded a particular carriage is. All TfL are doing here is translating that into real time information visible to passengers. It’s using the standard, traffic light colour system: green means go, yellow means “hmm, maybe not”, red means “oh dear god, no, no, no”. 

All this will, hopefully, encourage some to move down the platform to where the train is less crowded, spreading the load and reducing the number of passengers who find themselves becoming overly familiar with a total stranger’s armpit.

The system is not unique, even in London: trains on the Thameslink route, a heavy-rail line which runs north/south across town (past CityMetric towers!) has a similar system visible to passengers on board. And so far it’s only a trial, at a single station, Shoreditch High Street.

But you can, if you’re so minded, watch the information update every few seconds or so here.

Can’t see why you would, but I can’t see why I would either, and that hasn’t stopped me spending much of the day watching it, so, knock yourselves out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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