Saturday, March 14, 2009

Highways through The Woodlands from the west

This article is the beginning of a series on Mobility for Woodlands residents.

What is this about highways through our community? When I grew up, I got to know about highways. My grandmother lived on one. The speed limit was 60 miles an hour, 55 at night, strictly enforced. As you approached the city limits, the speed limit dropped to 50 and then 40 in front of my grandmother’s home. As time advanced, we got “modern”. The limit was increased to 70 on the highway, 65 at night, but still was reduced to 40 in front of Grandma's house. Then people started changing. The idea was to get from one place to another as quickly as possible at the highest rate of speed that could be considered "safe" for the automobile and driver. Driver reaction time as a primary consideration for speed limiting became archaic. Instead, we began to define "safe" from an automobile manufacturing perspective. Now we call the movement of traffic “mobility”. After all, that is one of the values we embrace. We want to be mobile in a car, with our mobile telephone in hand and sometimes with our mobile computers and mobile locators. The sub-value of mobility is time. In recent generations, time has become more important, pushing us to rush from one place to another. That means we have to move a large number of vehicles sharing the road in minimum time.

For decades, the strategy has been to move people with their own vehicles from point to point. This has been a very costly strategy. Today, as the cost is getting higher to operate vehicles and to build roads and bridges, we all realize how costly this strategy can be. So, instead of using public money, we seek private money to build toll highways. Make the population, which utilize these roads, pay for what they get. Sound good? Maybe. It sure influences our choices on how to reach one place from another. But the principle reason for building networks of roads continues to be "people must be able to freely and efficiently move from point to point in their automobiles".

Two days ago, I heard someone talking about raising the speed limit on the Woodlands Parkway. Can we change the parkway to a freeway? I grimaced. OK, I thought to myself, this person would like a 70 MPH speed limit on the parkway without traffic lights. Right now, the speed limit is 45 with an additional 10mph no-ticketing policy; therefore, people travel at 55 on it regularly. The average speed is actually higher than 55 as measured by at least one county camera system. Doesn’t current driving practice already negatively impact our values? There are residents living in the back of The Woodlands who would like to see a freeway here. Therefore, we look at our constraints and decide to widen and build up. We need to take a different approach, and we are, in some aspects looking at real change.

What does all this have to do with mobility within The Woodlands? The assumptions are that all these automobiles we see out there are required to be on the road, and The Woodlands east/west transportation arteries are going to be an east/west conduit for new development towards our west. People living west of SH 2978 have to access I-45. Residents in the western part of The Woodlands also have to access I-45. Some of our residents work in Greenspoint and others in downtown Houston or the Medical Center. New data will be collected for the 2010 census that should reveal a commuting trend of local residents in and out of The Woodlands. This should be helpful in determining the commuting needs of this community.

We need to consider our values and let those values drive us to executable conclusions. Safety has to be the first on my list. There is nothing more valuable than the life of a child or resident. Second would be the quality of life that attracted us here to begin with. To me, that would be the forest and parks - their tranquility, beauty, and diversity. A third would be the hometown spirit that emerged when The Woodlands was so far separated from the big city. That spirit lives on but most evident in the eastern villages. A fourth value would be the amenities, which we all share and enjoy. Another value is the school system quality that emerged as the result of considerable resident participation and parental care over the years. I have also come to really appreciate the availability of commercial goods and services within easy reach of residents, but not infringing on the home lifestyle of residents.

This brings us to a few mobility strategies within The Woodlands that need to be driven by our values. Perhaps the very core of human value on this planet and human existence is embedded in the concept of quality and safe living in harmony with nature. That may be our very basic frame of vision. Biblically and logically, we are the caretakers of lower forms of life on this planet. We do not live in a concrete jungle and don’t want to either. Otherwise, this community would not even exist.

Here in The Woodlands, we have some very important core values which lead us to strategize the future for our community. Among those strategies, by necessity, is one of mobility and transportation. Certainly we recognize that we are a part of the whole and must play a larger community role that benefits those following us here. However, we can and must shape our own destiny and define our role among the communities in our region. That is why we chose to be ourselves and not be part of Houston or Conroe. We want to retain our own identity.

Are we threatened by the growth to our west? Certainly! Many of us are looking forward to a reduction of traffic on our thoroughfares, as The Woodlands is finally built out. Personally, I do not want our roads to serve as regional conduits for 18-wheelers moving cut trees and building materials to and from locations to our west. Neither do I wish to see service vehicles conveniently using our roads to pass through and provide services in other communities. Noise, pollution and congestion do not belong here, as well as imminent danger to our residents by easy access to our community by outside interests.

Lets not think that we must coexist with highways cutting through our community. Let's think of ourselves as a neighborhood with children playing, pedestrians walking, all enjoying a master planned community, supporting everyone in an equal visionary value system.

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