A city divided: Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey reveals city residents split on transportation

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April 24, 2014

Rice University

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David Ruth

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Amy Hodges

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A city divided: Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey reveals city residents split on transportation
Other findings: Houstonians feel better about personal economic outlooks, support alternatives to the death penalty, and hold more positive attitudes toward immigration

HOUSTON – (April 24, 2014) – Findings from the 33rd annual Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey by Rice University reveal that the residents of one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing cities are now evenly divided on an issue that will have a long-term impact on quality of life – public versus private transportation. And traffic is now perceived as Houston’s No. 1 problem.

STEPHEN KLINEBERG

STEPHEN KLINEBERG

Other key findings from the 2014 survey:

  • Houstonians overwhelmingly support alternatives to the death penalty.
  • Attitudes toward undocumented immigrants continue to improve.
  • Personal economic outlooks have brightened considerably.
  • Area residents increasingly support gay rights and medical marijuana.

The survey results were presented today by sociologist Stephen Klineberg, co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, at the 2014 Kinder Institute Annual Luncheon at the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston.

Quality of life and transportation

While Houstonians agree on the city’s livability — 77 percent said the Houston area is an “excellent” or “good” place to live — residents are evenly divided in their support for improved public transit (49 percent) or expanded highways (47 percent) and for living in single-family, car-dependent residential areas (47 percent) or in more urbanized neighborhoods with a mix of developments (51 percent). In addition, 29 percent (up from 21 percent in 2013) now say that traffic — more than the economy or crime — is the biggest problem facing the Houston area.

“The Houston region is one of the most sprawling, least dense, most automobile-dependent metropolitan areas in the country,” Klineberg said. “By 2030, the Houston-Galveston Area Council forecasts that Harris County will add another one million residents, and another 3.5 million will move into the nine-county region as a whole. Area leaders need to think long and hard about how best to accommodate this growth.”

Klineberg said that while few would call for implementing comprehensive zoning regulations in Houston, 69 percent of this year’s survey respondents agreed that better land-use planning is needed to guide development in the Houston area. Only 28 percent agreed instead that “people and business should be free to build wherever they want.”

“No zoning does not have to mean no planning,” Klineberg said.

Social issues and ethnic relations

Texas is widely known for its use of the death penalty, with the state accounting for 42 percent of U.S. executions in 2013, twice as many as any other state. However, Houstonians themselves are overwhelmingly in favor of alternatives to capital punishment. In the 2014 survey, 68 percent of area residents expressed support for life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty “for persons convicted of first-degree murder.” In addition, 72 percent of the survey respondents agreed that “individuals in possession of small amounts of illegal drugs should be fined rather than sent to jail,” and 65 percent support “making marijuana legally available for medical purposes.”

Klineberg noted that the Houston metropolitan area, by 41 to 37 percent, is only slightly more Democratic than Republican. He said the survey’s findings on capital punishment represent an important shift in thinking among both liberals and conservatives, in light of exorbitant costs and the potential for mistakenly executing innocent people.

Klineberg also noted the striking shift in Houstonians’ attitudes toward gay rights over the years. In 1991, for example, only 17 percent of the survey respondents said they were in favor of “homosexuals being legally permitted to adopt children.” That support grew to 28 percent in 2000, 35 percent in 2002, 49 percent in 2010 and to 51 percent in this year’s survey.

Attitudes toward immigration and diversity have also shifted consistently over the years, with 68 percent of area residents today asserting that Houston’s increasing diversity will become “a source of great strength for the city” rather than “a growing problem,” up from 55 percent in 1996. In addition, 59 percent in this year’s survey believed that “immigrants to the U.S. generally contribute more to the American economy than they take,” compared with 49 percent in 2012.

“Immigration itself has slowed considerably in recent years, and more Houstonians are recognizing the benefits that immigrants have brought to our city,” Klineberg said. “The surveys reveal a marked reduction in anti-immigrant attitudes among the general public.”

Although feelings toward immigration have continued to improve, the survey also revealed that Houstonians are slightly less optimistic about the state of interethnic relationships in general. The percent who said that the relations among ethnic groups in the Houston area are excellent or good declined between 2013 and 2014 in all groups, dropping from 59 to 53 percent for Anglos, from 44 to 37 percent for African-Americans and from 43 to 35 percent for Latinos.

“These changing evaluations should serve as important reminders that although Houston’s burgeoning diversity may well be a great asset for this major port city, helping to build the bridges to the global economy, it can also be the basis for deepening social and economic divides,” Klineberg said. “It is not surprising that such rapid and profound transformations might be accompanied by signs of conflict and anxiety. How this plays out in the future will depend importantly on the way the diverse leadership of this generation speaks to these compelling new realities.”

Economic outlooks, jobs and the minimum wage

As the local economy strengthens and the unemployment rate drops (from 6.8 percent in February 2013 to 5.7 percent in January 2014 — more than a full percentage point below the national average), Houstonians’ personal economic outlooks have also brightened. Only 20 percent of area residents in this year’s survey saw the economy as “the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area today,” compared with 26 percent in 2013 and 44 percent in 2009, as the recession was taking hold. Fully 60 percent of Houstonians in 2014 gave ratings of “excellent” or “good” to local job opportunities, compared with 35 percent in 2010 and 2011.

Area residents are also feeling better about their personal economic circumstances. For the first time since 2011, the survey recorded a significant increase in the proportion of area residents who reported that their personal economic circumstances had been improving in the past few years (from 26 percent in 2013 to 34 percent today). And 55 percent of this year’s respondents said they thought they would be better off three or four years down the road, compared with 51 percent in 2013.

Despite these improving personal circumstances, Klineberg noted that most area residents continue to recognize that people can lose their jobs or fall into poverty through no fault of their own, and 62 percent believe that “government should take action to reduce income differences between rich and poor in America.” This number was up from 59 percent agreement in 2012 and 45 percent in 2010. When asked in 2014 about raising the minimum wage – even if it might lead to fewer jobs – 48 percent were strongly in favor and another 23 percent were slightly in favor; only 28 percent were opposed.

About the Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey

Now in its 33rd year, the Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey is the nation’s longest-running study of any metropolitan area’s economy, population, life experiences, beliefs and attitudes. The 2014 survey included 1,353 respondents from the Greater Houston metropolitan area. Comparisons with past years are based on the respondents from Harris County only. Social Science Research Solutions conducted the interviews by phone between Feb. 12 and March 12.

For more information or to download a copy of the survey report, visit http://kinder.rice.edu/.

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For more information, contact Amy Hodges, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at 713-348-6777 or amy.hodges@rice.edu.

Klineberg is a professor of sociology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences.

This news release can be found online at http://news.rice.edu/.

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Related Materials:

Kinder Institute for Urban Research: http://kinder.rice.edu/

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