- Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston by Kyle Shelton
Between World War II and the opening of Houston’s second light rail line in 2017, the city first embraced, then doubled down on, and finally tempered its commitment to highway-based mobility as an engine of economic growth. The resulting infrastructure projects provide Kyle Shelton’s theme in Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston, but they are not his subject. Rather, the book offers an insightful history of transportation politics.
Shelton tells this metropolitan story through a series of finely grained case studies including conflicts over where to put the Pierce Elevated and the Harrisburg Freeway, whether to invest in toll roads (HCTRA) or public transit (METRO), and, ultimately, who would sacrifice private property for the public good. While it is easy to get lost in the hearings, meetings, and referenda that make up these flashpoints, Shelton harnesses them to narrate a larger story of the democratization of infrastructure planning. Houstonians, he argues, “crafted a set of rhetorical and political actions that constituted” what he terms “infrastructural citizenship” (5). This citizenship was “not defined by nationality or legal standing, but instead by the quotidian acts residents used to construct themselves as political participants” (5). Rather than mourning the city’s tendency to prioritize its 1,200 miles of highways over mass transit, Shelton celebrates residents’ increasing political engagement—of citizens who found “a space to be heard” (199).
By focusing on the process rather than the product, Shelton has written a timely history of metropolitan transportation that is refreshingly free of “ought” and “must.” As he ruminates in the conclusion, “this history is not a diatribe against nondemocratic highways or a paean to the participatory wonders of transit. Instead it should be read as a reflection on the choices that went into the creation of both systems and the choices that continue to be made about each in our cities today” (224). Power Moves clearly demonstrates how the actions of an ethnically and economically diverse cast of [End Page 129] Houstonians wrested some of the power to define infrastructure from the city’s elites. This citizen empowerment, however, has come at a high cost. For the voice that individual property owners gained with infrastructural citizenship has frequently become a Trojan horse for “Not in My Backyard” activism with its defense of the individual’s private goods in opposition to public good, which is the very antithesis of citizenship. While Shelton admits that “many of the fights were incredibly localized and limited to those with direct interest in the outcome,” he also warns of the danger of dismissing all such fights as “selfish” and thereby dismissing “the validity of citizens’ attempts to protect their neighborhoods” (23–24).
This tension runs throughout Power Moves, and it is to Shelton’s credit that he does not paper over it. The hard fact is that democratic participation has been essential to building infrastructure for the common good even as it has also been the greatest obstacle to the feasibility and affordability of such projects. Expanding existing highways is far easier than building transportation alternatives. “Not in My Back Yard” resistance has been the price cities paid for democratization. As our nation struggles to find the will to repair and develop our failing infrastructure, Shelton’s detailed and nuanced account is timely indeed. This is a book worth pondering, written about a city that continues to stumble towards sustainability, justice, and accessibility. After all, as goes Houston, so goes the nation.