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Houston’s Transportation Leaders Are Becoming More Diverse

As the city approaches a population of 8 million, transportation leaders will need to find ways to improve movement across the region before the growth becomes unsustainable. Leaders with more diverse backgrounds may help with the solution.

Rapidly approaching 8 million people, the Houston metro area faces a future when the solo car or truck trip will become unsustainable for most residents. As the city grows denser and suburban development spreads even further, a simple back-and-forth trip could cover tens of miles and in increasing traffic.

Milton Rahman has seen it and lived it. Harris County's engineering department executive director is a native of Bangladesh's third-largest city, and went to school in Dhaka, its capital and largest urban area. Geographically, Dhaka is one-sixth the size of Houston, yet it is home to nearly five times as many people.

Eight million? Try 22.5 million in metro Dhaka.

"Today, the average traffic speed in Dhaka is below 4 mph," Rahman said. "Two major factors contributed to Dhaka's current traffic congestion: Lack of planning and preparation over several decades and an over-reliance on cars, due to a deficient public transportation system."

For decades, as Rahman and others note, the Houston area had mostly one way of addressing congestion: more lanes. That solution often came from one demographic: white men.

As the Houston region, over three decades, exploded in growth and became increasingly diverse, the leaders behind its transportation development rarely reflected that change.

Local elected officials with immense sway in how federal, state and local tax dollars were spent were mostly no different, but that is less true at this moment than ever before.

Look no further than the wall at the Texas Department of Transportation's Houston headquarters where the portraits of district directors hang. It is photo after of photo of white men, mostly graduates of Texas A&M University or the University of Texas. The eras change, but the hairstyles largely stay the same.

Then there is the last photo, of current director Eliza Paul, who took the reins of the Houston office in 2019. Not only is Paul the first woman to hold the top spot in Houston, she is the first minority. A century of state highway officials in Houston, a century of white men.

Rahman and Paul are refining transportation in the region as the Houston area closes in on 5 million residents and reckons with the inevitable spending of tens of billions of dollars on improved and new freeways and tollways and record spending for transit, pedestrian safety and mobility.

Those backgrounds in some cases might be surprising or come with contradictions. Paul, a TxDOT veteran who has lived in Houston for nearly 40 years, leads an agency hounded by its detractors for shoehorning more lanes of freeway into a city crying out for urban options such as transit and bicycling. Yet she grew up in Hong Kong — one of the densest and pedestrian-rich patches of ground on the planet — and studied at Imperial College London. She commuted to school via underground subway.

"Having that knowledge helps me to have an open mind to different options even though TxDOT's funding is statutorily highway centric," Paul said in a questionnaire sent to 10 local leaders about how their backgrounds influence their decision-making. "With that in mind, I look for ways to leverage our funding to incorporate and expand multi-modal options such as the managed lanes which incentivize transit and carpooling."

More of them are women and minorities than ever before, but it is their biographies that show even more difference in perspective. Among the major players:

—Paul's deputy, Varuna Singh, grew up in Guyana, a coastal South American country considered the "land of many rivers," where those rivers require bridges that create many of the same choke points Singh is tasked with untying at Houston's freeway interchanges.

—Houston Chief Transportation Planner David Fields grew up in New York City's suburban enclaves and now balances how a city built for cars works to overlay other modes so residents have the options he did as a boy visiting his grandparents on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

—Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran hails from a small mining town in India built in large part by his civil engineer father. As a child, Ramabhadran was fascinated by his town's bus system.

—Roberto Trevino, head of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, grew up in tiny Taft, Texas, north of Corpus Christi, where kids mostly walked to school — a foreign concept for many Houston-area schoolchildren.

—Carol Lewis, a transportation studies professor at Texas Southern University who many elected officials rely on for context when it comes to regional movement, has lived in Houston for nearly a half century but retains lessons from time riding the bus with her grandmother in Kansas City.

The level of diversity, however, remains uncertain in the near term. Ramabhadran and Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock — the first woman to lead public works — are mayoral appointees likely to be swapped out after Sylvester Turner leaves office. Their replacements will dictate the diversity of the next five years.

Houston Councilman David Robinson, chairman of the influential Transportation Policy Council at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, will leave the post soon as he is term-limited.

That the leadership is becoming more diverse is a function of both local government prioritizing it and a reflection of the tremendous mix of cultures and backgrounds that Houston is home to. Forty years ago, the pool of engineers was far more white and male, and for a long time they promoted one another to positions of power.

That's clearly changed, said Jay Crossley, executive director of Austin-based Farm & City that advocates for more diversity among transportation leaders. In his previous roles, including Houston Tomorrow, which studied the lack of diversity on regional boards, Crossley was critical of what many called the "old boy network" that made many local decisions.

"Every institution in the Houston region has to go through these changes, and there is clear evidence that in the last 10 years many of the transportation planning institutions have started going through these changes," Crossley said. "But we are in no way out of the woods."

The Transportation Policy Council, which doles out regional transportation funds, is still majority white and male, and — Crossley noted — dominated by appointees from car-dependent areas.

That disparity was at the heart of efforts by Fair For Houston, which successfully convinced Houston voters to require city leaders to back out of any regional board that was not structured with members based on a proportional share of population. The aim, proponents said, was to bring more voices to the table.

Even, in some cases, people who grew up in Houston who have since seen that changes are warranted.

"I was a white, suburban kid with a highly educated, stay-at-home mom and a dad in oil and gas," said Molly Cook, an organizer of the Fair For Houston campaign and state senate candidate. "Freeways and dendritic streets were invented for my family and me."

Cook is among a growing number of diverse younger Houstonians who have carved out transportation issues as ripe for further conversation because of what they view as a lack of options.

For all of the diversity of the new crew of leaders, Houston's transportation diversity is far from the mix of its people. More than 80 percent of the region commutes by car or truck to work, and while that does not represent all trips in the region, it shows the automobile is still the dominant mode.

"The lack of transportation diversity can be directly attributed to the fact that, for decades, elected and agency officials have favored moving vehicles rather than people," said Gabe Cazares, executive director of the advocacy group LINKHouston. "If the infrastructure primarily supports driving, people will drive and yet congestion will persist as a problem."



(c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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