Mayor Turner opts for car ride to Earth Day event despite no-car challenge

Only four of the city's 16 council members confirmed they would take part in the no-car Earth Day challenge from LINKHouston and BikeHouston.

Photo of Jay R. Jordan
Mayor Sylvester Turner waves to people as he walks along Washington Ave., during the Cigna Sunday Streets Houston Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. 

Mayor Sylvester Turner waves to people as he walks along Washington Ave., during the Cigna Sunday Streets Houston Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. 

Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

An Earth Day challenge that asked Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston’s 16 City Council members to ditch their cars for the day has drawn just four confirmed participants—not including Turner.

The challenge was posed during the City Council meeting on April 12 by Ines Sigel, director of equitable transportation advocacy group LINKHouston, who asked the elected officials to make a symbolic gesture in support of a greener, more multimodal city by trading in their automobiles for walking, biking or taking public transit such as the bus or light rail.

"I realize I'm preaching to the choir when I say that our current transportation system, one that primarily focuses on cars, is inequitable and contributes to climate change shocks in our region as well as negative health outcomes," Sigel said. "We're challenging you to get out of your cars so you can really experience what it's like to navigate Houston on foot, bike or by bus to get to work, your meetings, grocery stores and other appointments. We need your leadership." 

BikeHouston, which advocates for cultural and infrastructure changes for Houstonians who bike, also posed the challenge alongside LINKHouston. 

Chron reached out to each member of the City Council to gauge their participation and heard back from only a handful. At-large council members Sallie Alcorn, who already participates in her own weekly no-car Friday tradition, and David Robinson, chair of the council's Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee, were onboard with the challenge. Karla Cisneros, who represents District H on City Council, walked to work, her office said. Staff for Amy Peck, who represents District A, said she was willing to participate but was still recovering from an ankle injury she suffered while riding a bike. 

District C Council Member Abbie Kamin tweeted that she is participating in the challenge by riding a Houston BCycle, a network of shared-use bicycles stationed throughout the city. No other council members responded. 

Mary Benton, Turner's spokesperson, said the mayor had too much on his schedule to participate. Here's her full statement: 

"Mayor Turner owns a bike and enjoys riding it frequently, and he also supports the no-car Earth Day challenge. As chair of the national group Climate Mayors, he also is committed to protecting the environment and making healthy and environmentally friendly decisions. However, he has multiple events on his calendar Friday, and it would be impossible or challenging at best for him to arrive on a bike to each of his destinations."

One of those destinations was Sunnyside, where Turner on Friday morning announced approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to move forward on a much-anticipated solar farm project on top of the neighborhood's shuttered and infamous landfill, a project that proponents say will help revitalize the longtime underserved community. The event appears to be the only one on Turner's public schedule, although it is possible he has other private events that were not made public by his office. Benton did not return a request for clarification. 

"The mayor's inability to get around without a car, even for just one day, perfectly illustrates the challenge that so many Houstonians face every single day: that so much of our city is out of reach if you don't have access to a car," said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston. 

Though he declined to participate in the challenge, Turner can tout the change he's brought to the city. In 2020, he unveiled the Houston Climate Action Plan which pledges the city will work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Part of the plan, along with Turner's Resilient Houston plan released that same year, is to get to a point where the city can rely solely on renewable energy. Houston is currently the largest municipal user of renewable energy in the country, according to Climate Mayors. The Sunnyside solar farm is another large step toward the city's environmental goals. 

"It was pretty much talking and hoping," Turner said of the solar farm's prospects up until now. "Now, we've got the green light to proceed. What a better day to announce it than on Earth Day 2022."

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