Houston’s transportation history is topic of new book by Kinder Institute fellow

A new book from a fellow at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research explores the history of transportation, politics and development in the Bayou City.

A photo of Kyle Shelton and an image of his book cover, "Power Moves."“Power Moves” (University of Texas Press, 342 pages, $29.95) by Kyle Shelton, the director of strategic partnerships and a fellow at Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, is a social and political history of Houston’s transportation decision-making and how those decisions shaped the city. The book covers the growth of highways after World War II and the debates about the building of public transportation starting in the 1970s. Each chapter delves into a different element of Houston’s transportation past — from the building of Interstate 10 through the Fifth Ward to the creation of the toll roads in the 1980s. Within each of these topics, Shelton looks at how residents understood the debates around transportation infrastructure and how they were able to participate in the process of shaping it.

Shelton said that decisions made around these transportation systems are incredibly formative to the structure of cities.

“Everyone moves each day or relies on the mobility of goods and services,” he said. “So this is a system that’s crucial to the functioning of a city.”

The way Houston’s infrastructure was built enabled a particular brand of growth, Shelton said.

“There’s no doubt that highways were a crucial underpinning to the city and the region’s residential form and expansion into the suburbs,” he said. “They were built to both encourage outward growth and connect suburban commuters to the city.”

However, the Houston area faces a number of challenges because of previous choices, such as the disruption of key communities for highway space and the encouragement of auto-based growth versus public transportation, walking and biking, Shelton said. Those choices were made as city officials faced enormous pressure from citizens who wanted to drive. But, Shelton said, the commonality in all of this is that people need a seat at the table in making these decisions and need to have a voice in the conversation about development.

“While conversations about infrastructure have always been part of the daily discourse of Houstonians, they are not elevated enough,” Shelton said. “Houston has spent billions of dollars shaping our system of infrastructure, and the decisions made can last for 40 to 60 years. Most of how we talk about transportation orbits around individual experiences. For example, the need to get out of traffic has been a constant refrain since the 1950s, but the choices are creating huge macro issues — everything from economic development to the way residents experience our city. I think we need more and broader-ranging, inclusive discussions about how our transportation system shapes Houston and each of our lives and where we want it to go.”

Shelton was motivated to write the book because of the lack of work devoted to the history of Houston’s transportation systems, relative to peer cities.

“Houston is one of the most important cities in the country, and while there are numerous scholars working on the history of civil rights and the environment and a number of economic and business histories, there is little other work,” Shelton said. “My book adds to the published material about Houston’s history and brings other crucial topics — infrastructure and transportation — to the fore.”

The Kinder Institute will host a launch for the book Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of Rice’s Bioscience Research Collaborative. To register for this free event, visit http://bit.ly/2FX6mKy.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.