Eight years ago, Sylvester Turner ran for mayor on a platform of fixing city streets. He launched his repair effort with enough gusto that one outlet dubbed him the “prince of potholes.”

Even after two terms of a mayor who campaigned on the issue, however, many Houstonians remain frustrated with the city’s roads, according to a survey released by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University on Tuesday. Add to that concerns about city services and infrastructure, from recycling to the ever-present threat of flooding.

Overall, nearly three-quarters of Houston residents surveyed said it was important for the next mayor to take action on infrastructure, including roads and drainage – nearly as many as those who named the flashier issue of crime as a top priority.

Mayoral candidates should take note, said Mustafa Tameez, board chair of the Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston.

“Crime in urban areas always comes up,” Tameez said. “What I believe is that when you invest in infrastructure, it creates jobs and opportunity … We want the next mayor to be focused on the long-term future of Houston, not just the first few years.”

City Council in June passed a 2024 fiscal year budget that includes $3.3 billion for capital improvements, including $268 million for street upgrades and $263 million for the storm drainage system. The total planned over five years includes $1.1 billion for streets and traffic management and $921 million for drainage.


TUESDAY: The Houston Landing in partnership with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research launches a series of stories examining priorities of residents for the next mayor.

WEDNESDAY: Crime — 81 percent of Houston residents said it was very important for the next mayor to reduce crime.

THURSDAY: Economy — Almost 40 percent of Houstonians worried about paying for housing.

TODAY: Infrastructure — The majority of residents want the city to improve drainage, roads and water supply.

MONDAY: Environment — More than 70 percent of Houstonians worry about climate change and extreme weather.

Observers such as Tameez say the city has an opportunity in President Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law, which includes billions of dollars in potential funding for local governments. The next mayor also will steward the city’s ongoing, $2 billion agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its sewer system.

The Kinder Institute survey was conducted in partnership with Houston Landing and was made possible with financial support from the Houston Endowment. More than 2,000 people answered questionnaires in four languages, powering results that come with a 2.25 percent margin of error.

Survey respondents’ demand for the next mayor to upgrade the city’s streets, drainage, power and water supply extended across age and demographic lines.

There were specific groups who felt more passionately. For example, 80 percent of residents concerned about climate change asked the next mayor to focus on infrastructure.

The survey revealed anxiety about what will happen the next time Houston is hit with major flooding. Fifty-six percent of residents said enough has been done to prepare Houston since Hurricane Harvey, compared to 44 percent of residents who disagreed. Forty-two percent of residents said their own home is not safe.

“Having lived at one point for 25 years in Timber Grove, I worry about the flooding situation and all those homes that got flooded during Harvey getting flooded again,” said Fred Walters, a massage therapist who responded to the Kinder survey. “Have things improved? We won’t know until we get another Harvey.”

That uncertainty may be why flooding concerns were the top issue selected by Houstonians asked about the environmental challenges facing their neighborhoods. Researchers at the Kinder Institute said the uncertainty may reflect natural anxiety about the weather in the Gulf Coast, but it also could indicate the city should do more to educate residents about billions of dollars in improvements since Harvey.

Roads should join storm drains on the next mayor’s agenda, many Houstonians said. Forty-two percent of Houstonians said the streets in their neighborhood were “poor” or “failing,” according to the survey. About 90 percent of those respondents said the next mayor should focus on infrastructure.

Sylvia Ann Trevino, a survey respondent who resides in Settegast, said she hopes the city will install more stoplights on Wayside near her house. Last year, 323 people died on Houston’s streets.

“There’s no stoplights in between. It’s road, road, road,” Trevino said. “People keep steady dying on Wayside.”

A fallen tree rests on top of a mobile home in Greenspoint after an overnight storm moved through the area
A fallen tree rests on top of a mobile home in Greenspoint after an overnight storm moved through the area, Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Houston. (File photo by Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

The residents most likely to say that their streets were in sorry shape resided in West University and the Museum District, according to the survey.

Kathleen O’Reilly, president of the Museum Park super neighborhood, chalked up the dissatisfaction in her area to concerns about the complete streetscape – sidewalks, crosswalks, ramps and more. Her own father struggled to navigate the area in a wheelchair, she said.

“It’s criminal,” O’Reilly said. “You should be able to get from this community to the Medical Center in a wheelchair.”

Nearly half of residents in West University and the Museum District said their sidewalks are poor or failing. Dissatisfaction with sidewalks was widespread across the city, however. Between 32 and 49 percent of survey respondents in every area of the city said theirs were poor or failing.

Residents of some neighborhoods, like students walking to school in Gulfton, struggle to access sidewalks at all. Four percent of survey respondents said their neighborhoods did not have them.

About 54 percent of residents said it was very important for the next mayor to expand public transportation. While the city’s responsibilities on transportation are split with the county, state and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, there is much a mayor can do, said Tameez, who served as campaign manager for former Mayor Bill White.

“The mayor of Houston is a very different job than other cities, where they’re more ceremonial,” Tameez said. “That prominence of the Houston mayor is an asset to the region, because he can be a convener, he can be the puller-together to get things done.”

A man in a motorized chair near Woodhead Street makes his way through the chaotic ongoing infrastructure repairs in Houston.
A man in a motorized chair near Woodhead Street makes his way through the chaotic ongoing infrastructure repairs in Houston, Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, in Houston. (Douglas Sweet Jr. for Houston Landing)

Concerns about green spaces and parks were concentrated in northeast Houston. Nearly 8 percent of survey respondents in the Northshore, Settegast and East Little York neighborhoods, which are criss-crossed by highways and industry, said their areas did not have any parks at all. Residents there were the least likely to say the parks they do have are “excellent.”

The survey results reflect a city in which some neighborhoods have “destination” parks like Memorial and Hermann, said Daniel Potter, senior director of research at the Kinder Institute.

“You’ve got these destination parks that serve that purpose, and serve as park and greenspace for a lot of communities. But when you start moving outside of that Inner 610 space … while you might have green areas, those green areas are not necessarily being upkept,” Potter said.

Turner’s emphasis on potholes during his first campaign was meant to project a pragmatic, can-do approach to city services. Eight years later, Houston residents give city services a mixed rating, with a plurality of 41 percent of survey respondents calling local government “average.”

City of Houston recycling bins stand unemptied by the city’s Solid Waste Management
City of Houston recycling bins stand unemptied by the city’s Solid Waste Management, Monday, July 3, 2023, in Houston. (File photo by Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Houstonians were enthusiastic about their firefighters, with 37 percent of residents rating the fire department as “excellent.” Libraries also got a thumbs up, with a majority of residents who had a local library rating it as good or excellent.

The upbeat attitude did not cross over to the city’s curbside recycling program, which has been plagued by collection delays since the onset of the COVID pandemic. It is the latest stumbling block for a program that has had years of problems, including when it tossed 2.6 million pounds of recyclables into the trash in 2019.

Over the past year, there have been more than 19,000 calls to 311 about missed recycling pick-up, according to a city database.

Twice as many residents rated recycling pickup as poor or failing as the share calling it excellent. Potter, the survey researcher, attributed that response to lived experience.

“This is not data, but literally my recycling bin is on the street, waiting to get picked up,” Potter said. “A challenge to the next mayor becomes, what does it take to get it to work?”

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...