The latest Kinder Houston Area Survey reveals that most Houstonians want a more walkable city with better transit access. To pay for such improvements, a majority of citizens voiced preference to revert the currently diverted transit taxes back to transit projects. (See Houston Tomorrow’s commentary about the transit tax issue here.)
These preferences reflect what survey founder Stephen Klineberg predicts will become a fundamental shift in one of the nation’s most car-centric cities, according to The Houston Chronicle:
It’s not just $4-a-gallon gas, he said.
“The suburbs were beautiful when only a few of us were living out there,” he said. “The romance with the automobile is fading.”
The survey, which has tracked the attitudes of Houstonians for more than 30 years, found people continue to feel better about the local economy than about the national economy - a hallmark of past surveys - but are worried about their personal prospects and increasingly concerned about the gulf between rich and poor.
More people than ever say relations between ethnic groups here are good or excellent, and attitudes toward immigrants are less antagonistic than in the past.
Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, will discuss his findings Tuesday at a luncheon sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership.
He started the survey in 1982, intending it to be a one-time class project. Thirty-one years later, it has become a Houston institution.
The survey has looked beyond Houston and Harris County before, but this year marks the first systematic expansion to the 10-county metropolitan area.
Klineberg said that will continue, an acknowledgement that businesses and other services no longer stop at city and county lines.
The expansion makes sense, said Karl Eschbach, a former state demographer who is director of population research at the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
More people than ever live in one city and work in another, Eschbach said, and Harris County is no longer a good prism for regional attitudes.
Experiences - from traffic to attitudes about diversity and other issues - may differ from one part of the metro area to another, he noted.
The 1,610 interviews were conducted by Philadelphia-based Social Science Research Solutions and included 496 people from outside Harris County; 31 percent were conducted by cell phone. The margin of error is plus/minus 3 percentage points.
Tough times, flat wages
The economy continued to dominate people’s thoughts, as it has since the recession began.
Almost half of respondents - 48 percent - rated job opportunities here as good or excellent, up from 35 percent in 2010 and 2011; 57 percent felt that way in 2008.
But 58 percent said the country as a whole is headed for “more difficult times.”
Reports of personal economic well-being were even gloomier.
Just 27 percent said their economic circumstances have improved over the past few years, up slightly from 2010 but down sharply from 2008, when 42 percent said they were doing better.
And this year, 32 percent of people with children at home said they had at least some difficulty buying food during the past year, the highest percentage ever.
“Wages are staying flat for most Americans,” said Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank. “With food and energy costs going up, that’s increasing pressure on people.”
The real issue isn’t higher food prices but stagnant wages, Greene said.
“What we’re seeing in food banks around the country, more and more of the households we’re serving are working households,” he said. “They’re just not making enough money.”
Klineberg said the finding indicates an uneven recovery, as does the fact that 59 percent of people said “government should take action to reduce income differences between rich and poor in America,” up from 45 percent in 2010.
More transit, please
But perhaps the most dramatic change, Klineberg said, was the desire of Harris County residents for a less car-centered, more urban lifestyle.
Just more than half of people - 51 percent - said they would choose a smaller home within walking distance of workplaces and shops, rather than a single-family home with a big yard, which required driving almost everywhere they wanted to go.
That was up from 39 percent in 2010, the last time the question was asked.
Klineberg attributed the increase to exasperation with traffic, new and refurbished residential buildings downtown, in Midtown and east of downtown and the action in and around Discovery Green. But it also could reflect revamped suburban developments in Sugar Land, The Woodlands and elsewhere that combine homes, shops and entertainment, he said.
People in Harris County and in the surrounding counties offered support for mass transit, including a majority who said they would prefer the current diversion of transit taxes for street, drainage and landscaping projects be spent instead on transit.
“That is completely consistent with what we are seeing,” said Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board. “Everyone wants more service. We know people want to see their tax dollars spent on mobility and transit.”