The Future of Airline Drive

The small uproar associated with what appears to be either rumored or real changes to the Bagby Street reconstruction is heartening, but I wonder can Airline Drive get a little of this love—and maybe some recognition that complete streets and parklets (or at least small placitas in parking lots) have application outside of the core of Houston?

Airline Drive is a messy mix of all the ingredients that make for an unplanned, unadulterated urban experience. Local chefs stock up at its huge farmer’s market. Families walk the long aisles of produce and other goods bargaining in Spanish and English. Tacos al carbon and hot chili-dusted mangos on a stick fill empty stomachs. As the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau celebrates, “There’s no place else in the city where you can buy a farm-fresh pineapple (in bulk, if you wish) at 6 a.m. any day of the week, year-round.” Airline is the seam between several distinct neighborhoods, some lined with renovated bungalows and others with affordable apartments. It supports the sort of gritty vitality that Houston as a whole should rejoice in more and work harder not to destroy. Unfortunately, a major public works project to improve Airline Drive could unintentionally diminish this vibrancy, privileging the car (and speed) over all else.

Airline Drive, between 610 and Calvacade, where Canino’s Market is located is being expanded, from its existing width of 44’ curb-to-curb to a proposed 60’ width.  This will mean two 12’ outside lanes and two 11’ inside lanes, and a 14’ left turn lane (for trucks).  Zoom, zoom, zoom.  The expanded street and wider lanes will undoubtedly move more traffic, and at higher speeds, the larger issue at stake is the potential impact of the project on the vibrant street life of the corridor.  Right now, largely as a product of existing road conditions—giant potholes, rough surfaces, and tiny little lanes like those found on lower Westheimer—traffic moves slowly, making it easy for pedestrians to jog across the street. This is a benefit for anyone who might want to venture to the other side, as there is only one traffic light between 610 and Cavalcade, at Link Road.

The facts: 

  • Destinations along Airline, such as El Bolillo’s and Canino’s are featured on two tours sponsored by the Greater Houston Visitor’s and Convention Bureau, the “Tour-O de Mayo” and the tour of “Grocery and Ethnic Markets”
  • Along the two-thirds of a mile between Cavalcade and the North Loop there are 10 markets selling everything from produce, fresh fish, to household goods, 7 restaurants and bars, numerous popular food trucks, and a very popular Mexican bakery
  • Hundreds, if not thousands of people, are drawn to the area everyday including many of our City’s most famous chefs
  • The Metro bus that serves Airline, #56, has the highest number of boardings on Sunday, the fourth highest on Saturday, and the eighth highest on weekdays

Existing Street Conditions

  • 44’ street dimension, curb-to-curb
  • Two 9’ lanes in each direction, 8’ left-turn lane
  • Right-of-way encroached with parking and loading docks
  • Only 50% of the distance between Cavalcade and 610 has sidewalks, many of these sidewalks are very narrow

Proposed Street Conditions

  • 60’ street dimension, curb-to-curb
  • Two 12’ outside lanes (the typical dimension of a freeway lane), two 11’ inside lanes, 14’ left-turn lane
  • According to a Planning Commission report prepared by Edwards and Kelcey and dated 2008 two lanes in each direction are not required based on traffic counts, but instead were recommended to reduce traffic accidents

Airline, regardless of its messy appearance, is one of Houston’s greatest streets—with a bit of the same uproar surrounding the rumored Bagby changes, and a little love, the proposed street widening project could potentially be transformed into a prime example of a green or complete street project.  Can Airline get some love?

Above, Street Sections