Mobility options: building a healthier, more equitable city

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The Jurez-Lincoln bridge, pictured above, sees 15,000 legitimate non-commercial crossings daily, as a conduit that connects the residents of both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.

Laredo is home to more than 250,000 inhabitants. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, that number will reach 500,000 by the year 2050. How are we addressing the population and transportation challenges of the future?

Like most Texas cities, Laredo has a highly car-dependent culture. The Federal Highway Act of 1944 saw highways as essential components to the economy after World War II. Federal funds created highways across the nation, slowly increasing the dependence on cars while shifting the culture away from pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Even though highways facilitated the ability to transport goods from place to place, the concentration of traffic in major arteries of a city increased congestion.
Laredo is home to more than 250,000 inhabitants. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, that number will reach 500,000 by the year 2050. How are we addressing the population and transportation challenges of the future?

The 2008 image below illustrates congestion in different areas of the city. The 2040 map projections indicate that if land development patterns continue to follow the trends they have followed in past years, congestion in Laredo will intensify, not only in industrial and high-density commercial zones, but on almost every major road in the city.

 

Over decades, the shift in the way we commute has converted into congestion even in a city like Laredo — a  place where the transportation challenges of over-populated cities like Los Angeles, Houston, or Austin may seem irrelevant. In Laredo, 94% of the population travels primarily by car. Even if there was an attempt by the 94% to employ alternative transportation methods, the infrastructure in the city makes it unlikely for people to do so. We have built roads under the assumption that everyone has access to a personal vehicle, leaving the underprivileged disenfranchised and without access to efficient ways to travel.

As stated in our previous installments, the ideal travel distance for a person on foot is estimated to be about a quarter-mile, which is also referred to as a five-minute walk. In Laredo, that doesn’t really get people anywhere useful in daily life. If people want to go from point A to point B, the use of a car is imperative.

Our health: how are streets impacting our bodies?

There is a correlation between our roads and our health. To the average folk, it’s apparent that a healthy diet and a 10-minute jog walk may be all that’s necessary to stay fit. Roads may seem a distant issue belonging somewhere in the city’s planning department office and not necessarily relevant to the health of the average Laredoan. However, when the City of Laredo Health Department reports that 31% of Webb County residents are obese, when Laredo ranks 99th healthiest of 100 cities ranked, and when the diabetes mortality rate is at 38 deaths per 1,000 (state average is 21.6), it is critical to examine the factors that enable such sedentary lifestyles.

National data reveals 60% of the population is interested in cycling but concerned that conditions are not safe. “If cycling is to be universally adopted as a means of transportation, then the concerns of the majority must be addressed.” – Roger Geller, National Association of City Transportation Officials

First comes the understanding that people are not always unhealthy by choice, but rather as a result of their environments. National data reveals that 67% of the population is enthused about using an alternate method of transportation, such as riding a bicycle to work, but most people have concerns for a lack of infrastructure that does not prioritize the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.

Lack of mobility options disenfranchises the underprivileged.

Based on the 2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Laredo’s Median Household Income is $39,408/year. The same study reveals that 31.2% of individuals live below poverty, which is measured at $20,160 for a family of three. These numbers are calculated before taxes. An estimated 32% of Laredoans’ income is spent on transportation costs alone. In order for transportation to be affordable, the percentage spent on it needs to be at 15%.

Walkability expert Jeff Speck explains that the spread of suburban sprawl has created a major dependence on vehicles, harming the environment and the most disadvantaged populations as a result. In order to own and maintain a car, a person needs a job.

To put the previous numbers into perspective, imagine the following scenario: a single mother of two with a monthly take-home income of $1,300 living below the poverty line will likely need to spend anywhere between $400-$450/month maintaining her vehicle. One day, her car breaks down and the cost to repair it goes beyond her means. She is forced to use public transportation or cut expenses somewhere else in the already limited family budget. The nearest bus stop is two miles away and requires two different bus routes to get her to her job. She needs to wake up two hours earlier in order to catch the first one, so now she will not be able to get her kids ready for school. Her kid has an accident and she misses the first bus, so now she needs to call in late for work. If this happens again, her job is in jeopardy. She would be unable to pay for rent, day care, or food. It’s a Catch-22 that planners and policy makers continue to deal with. By having to drive to work, she ends up working to drive.

People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not the only ones affected by this issue. People with mental health issues, the physically disabled or handicapped, the elderly population – those without immediate or easy access to a car are all left disenfranchised by a car-driven culture. Access to affordable, efficient transportation is a civil rights issue as much as it is a health and transportation one.

What are our solutions?

Implementing a bike plan that connects an efficient transportation system in all sectors of the city creates opportunities for residents to easily commute. Those with cars can still use their cars, but they won’t have to for every trip. Those without cars can have an alternative. Bike and park plazas, added bike lanes, alternative bus routes – these components provide safe mobility options.

Another urban planning improvement is the completion of streets to ensure that infrastructure, streets, roads, and boulevards, can accommodate every type of commuter. Creating on-street parking, shaded sidewalks, separating bike-lanes from vehicle-lanes through trees or bumpers not only creates aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods, but creates mobility options for residents of different socioeconomic status, not just the ones who are able to afford motor vehicles.

A way to challenge a car-driven norm is through road diets. Road diets aim to examine the way streets are built and attempt to find ways to reduce them in size without reducing in efficiency. For example, a street where traffic accidents often occur can benefit from added bike lanes and trees, which have shown to have a direct impact in reducing drivers’ speed. Pedestrians have a 90% chance of surviving a car hitting them at 20 mph, while they have a 90% chance of dying when hit by a car going 40 mph.

The forthcoming City of Laredo Comprehensive Plan, otherwise known as Viva Laredo, examines these factors in an attempt to challenge the staggering statistics that spell the health of our city. The plan serves as a guiding document to create policies that measure up to the completion of those goals. It is expected to be presented to City Council for adoption in the summer of 2017.

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