Planning by Pitchfork… and Free Hamburgers

photo by Dan Lipinski

Another great podcast by Jeff Wood interviewing Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow about Houston’s new general plan. Jay is a proponent of “meaningful, equitable planning,” and finds it distressing that until now, “A $5 billion business [Houston] doesn’t have a general plan.”


Houston also notable for its bus system redesign. There are many interesting insights for transportation planners, but I struck by how public health is served best when transportation works well.  A really strong bus system encourages and supports active transport, which leads to many public health benefits.  In addition, because it’s the buses that serve the needs of low-income workers, getting the bus system right is crucial for limiting the stress and time-cost of transportation among those whom public health most needs to serve.  At the same time, transit and buses are for everyone—they shouldn’t be second-class transportation just because their clientele includes low-income people.  Just like clean water and safe food, a well-functioning bus system is part of the public health environment.  And yes, that includes the bus stops!


But I was struck most of all by the phrase, “planning by pitchfork.” When this is how democracy works, it doesn’t work. Low-income people (including minorities) get locked out of neighborhoods, commutes lengthen, rents rise, and the propertied class wins. This is not a recipe for public health.  On the contrary, public planning that responds to the voices with the most political leverage is part of the context that makes public-health work highly challenging. It’s the same process that gives us sports stadiums that don’t produce jobs, ever-wider roads that don’t reduce traffic congestion, and free hamburgers.


The new Houston General Plan now stipulates that Houston spend money wisely. Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many boondoggles continue to get through the political process, from $20 billion a year in fossil-fuel subsidies, to initiatives that prevent affordable housing in wealthy areas, to making crime suspects pay for their own incarceration. Public health is served better when policy is made thoughtfully, not by the outrage of the entitled.

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