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Use Your Feet with Pedestrian Pete

May 8th, 2012 by Joyce · 2 Comments

One of the reasons we moved to this neighborhood is that we would be able to walk and bike more than we could in our old neighborhood.

At the time, we were expecting a new light rail line a block over with a series of improvements for pedestrian access though the neighborhood.  Six years later, however, the rail project isn’t even funded.

Train or no, our neighborhood has grown.  The tree-filled lot across the street is now occupied by six very tall townhouses.  (People always ask, “Each building is ONE HOUSE?”)  In fact, there are new townhouses all over.  And new apartment complexes.  And more restaurants and stores than ever.  In the fall I will have *five* grocery stores within 3/4 of a mile.  Houston’s booming, baby, and my house is the center of the city’s universe.

My neighborhood’s Walkscore is 85, and getting higher by the day.  We were recognized as one of “America’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods”.  In addition to all the shopping and restaurants, I am under a mile from a great university and art museum; I am under two miles away from a library, C&D’s dance class, our church, three farmers’ markets, a vegetable co-op, and my alma mater.  The city’s flagship urban park, the museum district, the zoo, and the gargantuan Texas Medical Center are all less than three miles away.  I have parks—parks!  with shade! at least part of the day.  In this older neighborhood the urban street grid is largely intact, so I don’t have to walk or cycle along busy roads.

But sometimes Houston is walk/bike/transit heaven hell, people.

Well, no, not hell, even though it does get awfully hot here.  The thing is, with the density and all that our part of the city has to offer, our infrastructure could be better.  Our graceful oaks offer shade but damage the sidewalks, lifting the concrete into awkward angles that send unsuspecting pedestrians on their knees, books, dog leash, or groceries flying.  (We try not to complain too much about that, though, because on some streets—and in entire neighborhoods throughout the city–there are no sidewalks at all.)  Sometimes cars and trucks go too fast and drive too carelessly, intimidating those on foot and bike. Crosswalks and street signs are often ignored. Mothers worry for their children: they see too many close calls on the street, and hear too many sad reports on the nighttime news.  Even in one of the most walkable neighborhoods of the United States, many people perceive walking as dangerous or unpleasant. Away from the city center, Houston spreads thinly outward, vascularized by a web of massive superhighways that are connected by highway-like streets and hot parking lot deserts.

So, as a rule, and if they can, most people in this city drive.  And drive, and drive.

Now, C&D are only seven, but even they know this isn’t a good thing.

So they complain.  They tell me they want to run for city cancel, so they can install speed bumps, bike lanes, and save the neighborhood Fiesta grocery store.  (The Fiesta has good bananas, they say).  They sit through meetings and listen to me talk but the change is so slow in coming, and not everybody agrees about the speed bumps or bike lanes or even the Fiesta.

But sometimes that’s difficult to do when you’re seven.  People treat you like you’re, well, a child, and you actually are, and the meetings get kind of boring, anyway, especially if there’s not a playground close by, and it’s hard to understand why anybody would disagree with you and your mom, besides.

One day, C&D watched an online video of Pedestrian Pete.  He seemed friendly, spoke in rhyme sometimes (a favorite thing to do in this house), and made good sense.  His videos were all short, so we watched them all.  The videos illustrate concepts in walkable urban planning and inspire Houston as a city to do better.  If we build it–pleasant public spaces, the functional sidewalks–they will come, and the city will thrive. Carmen even started reciting parts of Pedestrian Pete’s poems.  Pete was our kind of guy.

Soon Pedestrian Pete invited us for a walk.  C&D wanted to take him to the playground to swing, or maybe to visit their friend Monroe, but settled for a trip to the grocery store (one of our four, almost five) to get sorbet.  A couple of nights before, while C&D were having a bedtime snack and dawdling, they started brainstorming.  What would they ask Pedestrian Pete about?  The ideas started coming fast and furious; I ran to the chalkboard and started scribbling.

IMGP3592Carmen wanted big, 100’ long bike racks, long enough for storing 50 bikes if each bike was allowed about 2’ of space on the racks.  She thought parking lots, on the other hand, should only be about 16’ wide.  Is that big enough for a Tahoe?  Not sure.  She wanted water fountains because she hates being thirsty, and thought our standard-issue, 4’ wide sidewalks were way too narrow—she wants to be able to walk with her brother and mother side by side.  She also thought some sidewalks were too close to the street, and others made her trip and skin her knee because they are uneven.  She also thought we should tidy the city up, and put some trash bins out.

David offered that he did not like sidewalks that were blocked due to trees or utility poles growing in the middle of them, or hanging over into the pedestrian’s space.  At the same time he wanted more grass and trees overall—he thought streets were ugly, and thought they should be “skinnier” (this is a traffic-calming measure, in fact).  While the streets should be narrowed, he thought the sidewalks should be made “thicker”—wider—with benches and picnic tables here and there so we could take a rest.  It does get hot here, after all.  He wanted soft, low lights to light his way at night, and thought the city should plant trees in the treelawn that wouldn’t “puff up”—pick up and break—the sidewalk as they grew larger.  He wanted every park to be a green oasis, with “100” trees for shade and climbing, and he wanted bike rental stations scattered around the city.  He hates the smell of car exhaust so wanted sidewalks far from the road, and had an idea for a street deodorizer at every intersection to absorb the car stink.

A street deodorizer?  I like the way these people think.

That Friday, we took a walk with Pedestrian Pete.  C&D got excited and told him everything, like who left trash in the street and who didn’t pick up after their dog, and proposed new ideas like parade-sized sidewalks and under-driveway tunnels to eliminate the problem of cars blocking the sidewalk.  Offbeat ideas or no, C&D knew that the grownups in their lives could be doing much better at creating a safe, clean, comfortable place for them to live, and they figured Pedestrian Pete could do something about it. Three videos came out of our walk; they can be watched on the blog or here:

Later, Carmen recorded herself reading a couple of Pedestrian Pete poems:

We drive and drive
One big challenge

We are grateful for the opportunity to have walked with Pedestrian Pete, also known as former Houston City Council member Peter Brown. We learned so much, and hope we can continue to work to make a BetterHouston.

Tags: Bigger Pictures · Dynamic Duo · Learn Something

Dress Rehearsal

May 3rd, 2012 by Joyce · 1 Comment

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Tags: Arts · Dynamic Duo

Two sillies, too late, before David’s haircut

March 29th, 2012 by Joyce

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Tags: Dynamic Duo

Home/School Home/Work

November 22nd, 2011 by Joyce

A layer of onion skin viewed by the new-to-us American Optical One-Ten trinocular scope with a Celestron digital imager via Gnome’s Cheese software.

Tags: Learn Something

TAG Basic Bike Mechanics Class

September 11th, 2011 by Joyce

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A few pictures from the Transition Houston Transportation Action Group Basic Bike Mechanics class at Performance Bike.  We started with a bike fit and repair overview and then moved on to discussing (and fixing) problems on our own bikes.  It was fun to have the bike shop to ourselves after hours.  After the workshop several of us enjoyed the 10% discount.  I bought a little something to help me clean up the chains on our family steeds.  Cleaning up the chain is my least favorite maintenance step, but it needs to be done—the chains get mighty gunky, hurting performance and wearing down those cute little teeth on the bikes’ gears.  It’s a hassle to repair stuff like that, so it’s better just to keep the chain clean to begin with. 

Tags: Bikey

If you give a mouse a cookie

August 29th, 2011 by Joyce · 1 Comment

  he’s going to ask for a glass of milk

If you give us a clogged condensate line coming from our air conditioner last Sunday night just after we send C&D to bed, we’ll realize that we can’t really unplug it.  So, we use a hacksaw and cut it open.  We could just add a union and a cleanout and call the job done, but we decide that since we’re poking around in our 120*F attic, we can divert the primary condensate line to a rain barrel (condensate barrel, in this case) and send our secondary overflow to a spot over the kitchen window, where we can see it if there is a problem.IMGP1399

These are the lines coming out of our balcony ceiling.  We will have to patch a bit of the hole in our ceiling later—Matt didn’t have the right drill bit.  The open pipe is the one for the secondary line.  The PVC piping travels across the balconyIMGP1397

down to a corner a little bit out of the way, where we have an old Coca-Cola syrup container.IMGP1396

The container—a big plastic barrel–collects water that can be used to irrigate C&D’s fruit trees, over the balcony IMGP1392

and down, downIMGP1394

into the patio, where it ends in a little spigot even C&D can reach.IMGP1395

Since we were going to be tinkering, anyhow, Matt realized we could also take the water and get it flowing through some skinny irrigation tubingIMGP1390

which we could send down alongside the gutterIMGP1402

and around our foundation to a bird bath by the front door, where it wraps around the pedestalIMGP1414

and pops up to drip, drip, drip into the birdbath.  We will have to work to make this a more permanent setup, but it works for now.  We chose the location because we have a good view of the area from our upstairs.  C&D have a particularly good view from their favorite window.IMGP1408

I found the concrete bird bath in a trash pile near my house one day; I also found the square of granite in the same pile.  The granite is a weight for a patio umbrella.  It is also an attractive bird bath-leveler.  My neighbor didn’t mean to actually send these things to the landfill; she knew that if she put those things out on her curb somebody would come along and take what they wanted.  I put out things in front of my house, too, for the same reason.

Because we don’t know when to stop, the next day, when it was only 107*F instead of 109*F, Matt and I bought a bunch of Texas natives to add to our front yard to support our neighborhood birds and bees and butterflies and lizards.  We are watering like crazy this week.  But the animals are thirsty and hungry this year; it’s too hot and too dry.  Some of the plants we bought have medicinal, craft,  and food value for humans, too.  Come over sometime and I will show you.

Matt, Carmen, and David did most of the engineering for our condensate barrel project.  Now they want rain barrels to catch rain water, too.  David would like to design a rain collection and irrigation system like this: IMGP1374

In the picture you see the water falling off the roof and into a collection system of some sort.  There is piping to take the water to the front of the house, and to the back.  In the piping there are valves to control the flow.

(In the picture you also see someone’s math work.  C&D are learning to tell time, count money, work with fractions, do simple multiplication, and adding two- and three-digit numbers.  I think Carmen likes subtraction because she likes hoping that she will end up with a negative number.) 

Impressed by the physics of the water moving through the pipes and barrel, and tickled by the idea of irrigation, David has been experimenting with the remaining tubing using a bucket to serve as a kid-sized rain barrel.IMGP1389A piece of spare tubing is inserted into the bottom of the bucket.  The water flows down the stairs to a spotIMGP1379where David can experiment with the valves and connectors, and remaining pieces of PVC.  (I like how in these pictures I can see that David has taken his shoes off so they do not get wet, but he has forgotten to take off his socks.  We do a lot of laundry in this house.  Yes, we’re thinking about a greywater system from the washing machine next.  The machine is very efficient, but think of all those dirty socks!)IMGP1380<IMGP1384It is very hard and thoughtful work, all this planning, all this experimenting.  When we are working with the tubing we are too busy to even look at the camera.

We are all happy about our little project:  we have a system that is more complex, but at the same time we can more easily observe and maintain it; we are directing our A/C condensate to specifically beneficial locations (fruit trees, birdbath); we have done a favor for our our soil and plants as they will receive pure water from the air conditioner’s evaporator coils, not the chlorinated city water; our neighborhood bees and birds will have access to fresh water; when those flying friends come C&D will be able to observe nature from their favorite upstairs window; C&D are learning about the physics of water; and we learned a lot about collecting water, and caring for it as a resource.

Over the weekend while David continued to study the water moving through the tubing, Carmen got restless.  She decided to make brownies.  She read the directionsIMGP1417and added extra ingredients like nuts and coconut to prevent the brownies from being too rich.IMGP1416

We cooked our browies in muffin tins so we could eat some, and freeze the rest for later.  They are delicious. 

When David finally got tired of working outside, and Carmen got tired of baking, C&D starting making projects out of paper.  C&D have access to plenty of recycled paper, and have made everything from doll clothes to pretend fishing poles from it.  This weekend David made a steam engine, and glued it on a piece of paper so he could drag it along.IMGP1421He tried to put aquarium gravel in the center car—I think it is a coal car—but it collapsed a bit.  That’s okay—we can pretend.  Or perhaps make some out of paper.  We probably have enough to spare.      IMGP1419 Earlier in the week Carmen made a scene out of an old Whole Foods bag and the very end of  a green mesh produce bag (the kind used for selling bags of limes or potatoes, for instance).  There is a bunny with green grass and a tree.  The bunny and tree are reinforced by the stiffer bag handles.IMGP1378

Sweet people, you’re such fun.

Tags: Bigger Pictures · Crafty · Dynamic Duo · Go Joyce Go · Home Ec · Learn Something

Toe clips for Carmen

July 18th, 2011 by Joyce · 1 Comment

This Saturday, C&D will mark being 6 and a half years old. 

Last year, when C&D turned 5.5 years old, we threw a party at my mom’s house.  We invited the whole family: great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and the cousin’s children.  We rode ponies in the back yard, ate barbecue and cake, broke a piñata and opened a mountain of presents.

This year, the summer has been unusually dry and hot, too hot for a half-birthday party.  But we don’t need a party for presents.  A couple of weeks ago Carmen announced what she wanted for her half-birthday present—toe clips.  Toe clips are the plastic or metal enclosures that attach to the front of a bike pedal.   Carmen’s feet never slip off the pedals.  But Mommy has toe clips.  Daddy has toe clips.  Not one to miss out on something, Carmen decided she must have toe clips, too.

David doesn’t want toe clips.  He thinks the idea is crazy.  

And so apparently does every bike manufacturer in the United States, because nobody makes kid-sized toe clips. 

I found this out when I went to visit my favorite bike shop to pick up a pair of pedals for one of our bikes.  But they knew Carmen wouldn’t take no for an answer.  We’re all too hard-headed that way.  In case I wanted to try a little something experimental, they sent me home with a pair of toe clips.  Maybe I could figure something out?  I went home making a mental list of supplies for the next day: Dremel tool, duct tape, screws.

The next evening, we studied the cages and stared at Carmen’s pedals.  Matt figured the first and easiest thing to try was to just stick them on.  So he did.  And to our surprise, the cages actually kind of fit.  We were missing a strap for one of the cages, but Carmen got the idea, and loved them.  The next morning, we took a quick ride to our local bike shop to make friends and buy a couple of odds and ends, including that second strap. 

Carmen’s got toe clips on her bike.  You go, girl. IMGP1016 IMGP1017 IMGP1023 IMGP1024 IMGP1025IMGP1026

Tags: Bikey · Dynamic Duo