Since taking office in January, Mayor Sylvester Turner has shown he is committed to moving Houston forward, both on the roads and as a city of the future, making bold moves and noticeable improvements from the get-go.
One of Turner’s campaign promises that resonated with Houstonians was fixing the city streets, and more importantly, improving infrastructure across all modes of transportation.
At his swearing in ceremony at Jones Hall, he announced his now-proven pothole reporting and repair system. At the time, his announcement that each pothole reported would be “assessed and addressed” by the next business day, with the goal of repairing each reported pothole within 24 hours, sounded pretty optimistic. During his address, Mayor Turner said he made this a priority because “Houstonians deserve a safe, viable infrastructure.” Houstonians immediately did their part reporting potholes via the City help line and the Houston 311 app, and the City reciprocated enthusiastically and effectively by repairing thousands of potholes reported by citizens in record time.
Turner acknowledges repairing potholes is a temporary solution, but a necessary first step in improving mobility in Houston. Making good on fixing potholes proved to be a deft move in building trust from day one. Houston’s can-do spirit strikes again, this time with a combination of technology, collaboration and coordination on a citywide scale.
A major goal for Turner is to rehabilitate the city’s transportation/transit mentality, to open citizens’ minds about using various modes of transit, such as buses, rail, bikes, and, yes, even walking. “I put it all under the heading of infrastructure,” says Turner. “There are three million more people expected to move into the city over the next 15 years. When you think about three million more people moving into the region, that’s like adding another Chicago within the City of Houston. That means a big issue is getting people from point A to point B.
Turner spoke to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Board of Commissioners back in January. “I urged them to consider a new paradigm in terms of the allocation of their resources beyond adding roadway capacity,” says Turner. “In this region and even in the state, TxDOT has primarily built roadway capacity as the means of moving people. With 97 percent of Texans driving single occupancy vehicles (SOVs), TxDOT’s resources have gone to that 97 percent. As a result, we have expanded Interstate 10 West to 26 lanes wide, that’s including feeder roads, making it the widest freeway in the world. That cost us about $2.5 billion when it was completed in 2007, and then some seven or eight years later the same area, I-10 West at the Beltway, is the eighth most congested roadway in the state.”
Mayor Turner insists building roadway capacity alone is not going to address Houston’s issues. “We’ll always have to do it, but it can’t be the only strategy. We must think multi-modal for our strategy. That means increasing use and access to HOV lanes, park-and-ride facilities, and hike-and-bike trails. We also have to consider commuter rail, such as the line proposed along the 90A corridor for the Fort Bend area, or lines serving areas like the west side/Katy, and Clear Lake.”
Turner points out the importance of the existing METRORail lines in and around downtown, which will serve as key connectors for future rail lines. He also highlights METRO’s bus and rail network as “a vital component for mobility.” He urges adding light rail and/or bus rapid transit vehicles (BRTs), which has been proposed for the Galleria/Post Oak area.
Turner’s vision calls for a multi-layered solution for keeping our metropolis moving. “We can utilize more technology and modes of transit with METRO,” says Turner. “The synchronization of lights will also help. We are also looking into creating dedicated bus and truck lanes and extending business hours at Port of Houston to help alleviate truck traffic at peak times.”
Walk the Walk
Turner stresses the need to build an urban environment that is pedestrian friendly, a walkable city. “You have to build a city for the future,” says Turner. “More and more people want to walk to retail establishments, restaurants or their jobs on a daily basis, which means you have to have more complete streets, but even more, you need complete neighborhoods.”
With the Houston Bike Plan, announced in February 2016, Houston can potentially see an increase from the current 259 miles of bike lanes to almost 800 miles of bike lanes (many on-street, shared lanes), with further potential to reach up to 1,600 more miles of bike lanes over 20 years.
“The 800 more miles of bike lanes will cost us $95 to $150 million, but I think we can get there in the next 10 years,” says Turner. “And that’s a part of building those complete streets, which includes more sidewalks enabling people to walk to places – that’s important.”
When people walk or bike from place to place they experience health benefits while simultaneously eliminating vehicles from our congested streets, thus reducing pollution. Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission in late January “it’s in everyone’s best interest if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.”
Across the city, the hike and bike trails along major bayous have been enthusiastically embraced, applauded, and more importantly, used by residents. Mayor Turner points out that upon its completion, Bayou Greenways 2020 will yield 80 more miles of trails along bayous citywide, linking up with existing trails to yield a network of 150 miles of trails.
“All those things in combination will address a lot of our challenges in transportation and mobility,” says Turner. “The whole point is to address transportation and mobility with a more multi-modal way of thinking.”
So how do you get the citizens to embrace that multi-modal transportation mindset? “Quite frankly, I think if you give people options, they utilize them,” he says. “Especially when they are reliable options that they feel safe using.”
He cites the new bike lanes as an example: “If we create more bike lanes with a reliable infrastructure that is safe – and that’s an important component – then I think more people will utilize them.”
Same goes for sidewalks and pedestrian pathways, light rail and all modes of transit, when paired with business that offer goods and services along these routes that serve these populations, you truly have a walkable city.
A City for All Houstonians
Turner’s vision for Houston is much broader that patching potholes and reducing traffic jams. Upon taking office, Turner also pledged to work on minimizing flooding risks, build more affordable housing, and steer the city toward financial stability. Turner has spoken about the need for more police officers and firefighters and the importance of quality neighborhood parks. He also has highlighted income inequality and called for improved access to grocery stores and education options in underserved communities, as well as renovating or removing rundown properties.
"I am committed to rebuilding neighborhoods that have been overlooked for years and years, I am committed to making sure that we do not have two cities in one, of haves and have-nots -- we are all Houstonians," Turner said at his swearing in ceremony.
Building up neighborhoods and providing a high quality of life for all citizens are matters that are close to Turner’s heart. Born and raised in the Acres Homes community in northwest Houston, he is one of nine children who grew up in the family’s two-bedroom home. Turner’s mother worked as a maid in the old Rice Hotel, while his father worked as a painter for Continental Ensco and mowed yards with his sons on the weekends. After his father passed away from cancer when Turner was 13 years old, his mother took over the household. Although she never finished high school or learned to drive, Turner’s mother motivated each of her children to get an education and inspired them to achieve.
As a boy, Turner attended public schools in the Acres Homes neighborhood until forced integration came to Houston and he was bused to Klein High School, where he was eventually elected president of the student body and graduated as valedictorian. Focused on his studies, Turner graduated from the University of Houston and Harvard Law School.
Working for Houston
His upbringing must have taught him a few things about determination, negotiating, compromise and understanding the needs of others. Upon graduating from Harvard Law School, Turner joined the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. He later founded the Houston law firm of Barnes & Turner in 1983 and in 1988 he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, serving the people of House District 139 in Northwest Houston for 25 years before being elected mayor of Houston.
Turner has officed Downtown for decades and likes the direction that the Central Business District is headed. “What’s been done and what’s in the works for the bayous is enhancing the quality of life for the Downtown area and a lot of the city. And that’s a plus,” he says. “We now have connections for bike lanes and trails from east to west side, north to south – it’s a real network, and that’s a big plus.”
Turner hopes Houston can continue to build on what’s been done Downtown. “For years people left Downtown at 5 p.m., he says. “That has been changing. We now have sports stadiums and a more dynamic scene.” He also applauds the incentives offered to build residential Downtown, because increasing the number of people living Downtown spurs development.
Following the recent increase in hotel construction, , with more in the pipeline, Turner says now we need to bring more retail Downtown. “We have a lot of great buildings Downtown, but generally that first floor is kind of a barren, empty space,” he says. “We can encourage developers to utilize first floor for retail and restaurants, that will be more attractive to tenants, customers, residents, and more. Yes, certainly there is retail underground in the tunnels – and you can still have that underground mall – but you also need a street-level experience, especially for evenings.”
The mayor is excited about the changes in store for the George R. Brown Convention Center, which will add to Downtown’s appeal. By 2017 the front of the George R. Brown will be transformed, not only by the addition of the 1,000-room Marriott Marquis, but also the conversion of the six-lane Avendia de las Americas into Avenida Plaza, a 99,000-square-foot, pedestrian-friendly, outdoor space. And the George R. Brown itself will get a makeover, with modern facilities and amenities.
Turner spotlights the Theater District as a vibrant part of Downtown. “The Theater District still has a lot of potential to be developed, which will add to the personality, creative mindset and energy of Downtown,” he says. “Downtown has so much potential. Certainly there’s much more activity than there was 30 years ago, and there’s still a lot of room for more development.”
Turner highlights the neighborhoods close to Downtown as examples of what all neighborhoods across the city can be. He points to neighborhoods such as the East End, which is designated as both a historical district and a cultural district. He stresses the importance of preserving and maintaining cultural history and personality of older neighborhoods like the Northside/N. Main area, Westheimer/Montrose and South/Sunnyside.
“So many people want to live in our neighborhoods with personality and character, but they can’t afford it,” says Turner. “We need affordable options in every neighborhood.” He suggests using incentives like those used to bring residential projects to Downtown, to similarly bring more affordable housing to neighborhoods across the city.
“A lot of people, such as artists, want to live close in, but they can’t afford it, not even within the 600 square miles of the city limits,” says Turner. “So they are moving out to Spring, Tomball, Pearland, because they can get a better buy and quality of schools. We need to build up inner-city neighborhoods. Professionals who live in the city can advocate for quality programming in the schools in their own neighborhood – it goes hand in hand. What I don’t want to see, and I am very passionate about this, is a city of haves and have-nots. I think we will all lose if that is the case.”
“We have to build up neighborhoods, not force people out of the community who have been there for years and years, especially our seniors,” says Turner. “You want to revitalize communities in ways that don’t force people out, and don’t destroy the history, and the human connections in the community.” He emphasizes that a neighborhood is made up of people and should not be viewed as “a teardown.”
“We lost that history with Freedmen’s Town, which was later called Fourth Ward and is now Midtown,” says Turner. “Let’s hang on to that history in the East End and Westheimer/Montrose and others. Neighborhoods can be developed in ways that are attractive for people to live and business to thrive, while still maintaining that historical flavor, yet have a modern lifestyle. There are ways to strike a balance.
Celebrate our History and Diversity
Turner believes that whether people are traveling to Houston or they live here, “they want to be able to come to a Downtown that is popping, energetic, where things are happening. And to be able to go just a few miles and see Midtown, but with that historic flavor, then go to East End where you have landmarks like Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Navigation Boulevard. And then swing over to Third Ward and see Emancipation Park and see the history of freed slaves that came from Galveston in 1865. Or swing out to southwest Houston to experience Little Saigon, and the culture of our Asian population, and Nigerian population. There is so much culture to be proud of and we have such a unique story. Houston is a city where you can travel the globe on any given day without leaving the city.”
Since hosting the NCAA Final Four this past spring, and looking forward to Super Bowl LI being held in Houston, Turner urges Houstonians to let the world know about everything our city offers. “These are opportunities for Houston to be on the main stage, an international stage,” he says. “The Super Bowl is the singular most important sporting event in the United States, but it is also watched by people around the globe. For this event, we’ll have more than one million visitors from all over, so this is a big opportunity to tell Houston’s story. I think most people outside of Houston don’t realize we are the most diverse city in the U.S.
Turner explains that during the Final Four, numerous out-of-state reporters had no idea of Houston’s rich diversity. “Most of them said ‘you’re kidding’,” says Turner. “Most people don’t realize there are over 140 languages spoken in Houston and we have more than 92 consulates.”
Tell the Story of Houston
Sure, we are an oil and gas town and always will be, but we are so much more. “This is not the time for Houstonians to be bashful. We have to be bold, claim our rightful position on the international stage,” says Turner. The mayor challenges anyone: “Try to find another city that can offer what we offer.”
“We are known for petrochemical industry, but manufacturing is increasing and our economy is much more diverse than past,” says Turner. “Today, we only rely on oil and gas for about 40 percent of our economy.”
After five straight years of tremendous job growth (upwards of 100,000 new jobs per year), numbers are down to around 12,000 to 15,000 for 2015. “Even as oil prices have been lower, we have still been on the plus side of job creation,” says Turner.
Transit Connects Us All
With Houston’s more than 600 square miles and so many people tied to their cars, Mayor Turner says “you can get stuck in a quadrant of Houston, so we have to tell the story, and tell it to one another.
Turner admits telling that story can be difficult if you don’t know the whole story. “And that’s why it’s so important to address the transportation and mobility issue,” he says. “It’s not just for hosting the NCAA Final Four or the Super Bowl. It’s for Houstonians themselves, who need a transportation grid they can utilize that will efficiently get them around the city so they can be a part of it. That’s why the bike trails are so important. I can tell you that is a wonderful way to see the city from a bicycling perspective.”