Trapped: There Are No Simple Solutions to Houston's Traffic Crisis

The crazy, complicated conundrum of Houston traffic.

image Houston is an incredibly diverse place with people from all backgrounds, races, walks of life and political persuasions. But nothing unites us like our shared disdain for the city's traffic nightmare. From pothole-filled streets and congested freeways to never-ending construction and poor planning, nothing inspires the kind of hatred you find when engaging a Houstonian about traffic.

"Sitting in traffic is, to me, a complete waste of time," said George Kovacik, public relations manager at Houston Methodist Hospital and a longtime Houston commuter. "What I don't like about traffic is you are not constantly moving. I'll take shortcuts, even though it is probably the stupidest thing I could do."

Time might not be the only thing drivers are sacrificing. Recent studies have suggested that prolonged exposure to stop-and-go traffic can have a dramatic impact on your health. And in that category, Houston is one of the worst. Last year, the Texas A&M Traffic Institute ranked Houston sixth among major U.S. cities in number of hours drivers spend in traffic per year. Four of the ten worst sections of highway for traffic in Texas are within our city limits.

"We have a traffic crisis in Houston," Peter Brown, a former city councilman and an advocate of urban districts that encourage pedestrian and bike traffic, said, adding, "We are the pothole capital of the world."

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. Among U.S. cities with more than 500,000 residents, only Oklahoma City comprises a larger physical area, and it has one-quarter the population. Fixing traffic in Houston — with its nearly 600 square miles of space, not including surrounding communities, and a rapidly expanding population — will take more than pouring concrete or laying rail.

Kovacik, 49 and a resident of Kingwood, gave up driving his 2000 Honda Civic to work in 2007 when gas prices first went above $3 per gallon. "I traded in my parking space for a Q Card," he explained, describing how he now commutes the 33 miles to work each day by way of METRO's Park and Ride service and the downtown light-rail line. Before switching, he was putting 25,000 miles a year on his car, bloating his gas bill and, worst yet, making himself miserable.

"My wife said she noticed a difference when I first started [commuting by bus]," he said. "It is stressful driving in traffic."

According to METRO, Park and Ride has 33,000 weekly boardings and light rail has 41,800, and the agency is feverishly working toward increasing ridership, something the city has yet to fully embrace. "It is a stress-free mode of transit," METRO chairman Gilbert Andrew Garcia said. "When people try the system, particularly the rail, they love it."

Our resistance to public transportation seems rooted in the fact that Houston has always been a car city (or a truck city, depending on whom you ask), which leads to unfettered congestion and, worse, roads littered with potholes and torn apart for maintenance and construction. Mayor Annise Parker, discussing the massive renovations being undertaken as part of the Renew Houston initiative, recently said, "Streets are an issue all over the city. You can't overcome decades of deferred maintenance overnight."

Which is exactly why it will take more than concrete, mass transit, urban development, or even more bike lanes and bigger sidewalks to fix what ails Houston's traffic. It will require a shift in attitude that, as Brown explained, has long remained the same. "Everybody gets in their cars, even in the inner core," he said, "and they drive to where they work; they drive to where they shop."

But not Kovacik. He is comfortable with his commute, so much so that he has ignored needed repairs for his trusty Civic since December, the same month the regular bus driver on his route gave everyone on the bus a Christmas card. "Besides dropping me off at the door of my job and providing me with a meal as I get off the bus," Kovacik joked, "I don't know what else they could do that would make it any better."

If only that were true for the rest of the tangled mess that is Houston traffic.

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To Rail or Not to Rail

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, faced with blocked funding and a history of corruption, lurches forward.

At a recent luncheon at the swank Tony's restaurant in Greenway Plaza, a group of concerned business owners and well-off citizens listened to state Representative John Culberson, a longtime critic of light rail, declare rail on Richmond Avenue to be dead. Culberson was flaunting his successful efforts in Congress to block funding for light rail through his district, nullifying METRO's future plans for connecting the University of Houston, the Museum District, Montrose, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria.

"I'm disappointed," Garcia said of Culberson's crusade against light rail. "I think that transit is so needed, and I think the people in the community want it." Garcia conceded that while rail could be built with local money, doing so would be extremely difficult.

And while rail may dominate the conversation, anti-rail advocates would seem to be the least of METRO's worries as the embattled agency tries to rebuild an image tarnished by scandals, lawsuits and serious financial issues. Shirley DeLibero, chairman and CEO of METRO from 1999 to 2004, was responsible for getting light rail up and running for the city. However, DeLibero was suspended for 30 days for failing to report a collision involving her company car and for padding her résumé by listing two associate degrees she did not have.

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36 comments
ashleighelizabeth35
ashleighelizabeth35

God what a bunch of whiners this city holds.  Traffic here is actually quite moderate for such a large city.  New York, Los Angeles, Washington and even Atlanta all have far worse rush hours.  All of those cities also have much more extensive metro rail systems as well.  Rest assured that even if the light rail system were greatly expanded here (and it definitely needs to be) there will still be traffic problems in Houston.  Bad traffic is just part of living in the city.  Don't like it?  Move to the country.


What really amazes me about Houston though is how God awful the roads are.  I have never in my life seen streets and high ways so poorly maintained as they are in Houston.  Every time I visit Atlanta (where I lived for 2 decades) I marvel at how smooth and quiet the roads are.  I certainly didn't ever expect to say something like that while I was living there either.  And those roads are built and maintained without the benefit of multiple toll highways.  Deferred maintenance, poor planing and lack of funding are the biggest problem with transportation in Houston metro.  Until those problems are fixed the commute in Houston is not likely to improve.

yllennoc
yllennoc

Why does the myth that Houston is the largest city, by area, in the U.S. keep circulating?  I have heard this misinformation at least three times in the last month.  The top four U.S. cities by area are all in Alaska.  If you count only the cities in the 48 contiguous states, Houston is fifth on the list.  In the lower 48, Jacksonville, Florida is the largest U.S. city, by area, and with a population of 800,00+, they more than exceed your criteria of a population over 500,000.

aggierose
aggierose

It's not the "Texas A&M Traffic Institute."  It's the "Texas Transportation Institute," known at TAMU as "TTI."  I know.  I worked there.

adambevo
adambevo

Maybe if Mr. Kovacik and hundreds of thousands of other commuters would actually try to live closer to their jobs, they might not be spending much time in traffic.

Nina Afrique
Nina Afrique

High speed trains. enclosed hov lanes then having a cop stand watch does not help much. neither do the ones on 45 downtown area. pls whoever watches the freeway cameras should send assistance quickly to stalled vehicles in the middle of the freeway.

Leigh Ann Salyers
Leigh Ann Salyers

I say subway system I know it's a hell of a long shot but hey.

2askjoe
2askjoe

Kingwood-downtown, Woodlands-downtown, Tomball/Willowbrook-downtown, Cypress-downtown, Katy-downtown, Sugarland-med center, Pearland-med center, Friendswood-med center Channelview-downtown are the heavily-utilized commuter corridors and therefore where light rail should go. Proposing any other routes without those is a waste of time and resources.

2askjoe
2askjoe

Under the subheading Where the Streets Have New Names, FM 1960/Highway 6/Addicks has also been known previously (and old-timers still refer to it) as Jackrabbit Road, and FM 1960 is now Cypress Creek Parkway.

Robert541
Robert541

Streets didn't have problems when they were made of brick. Bricks move and adjust independently of each other. Perfect for the water sucking Live Oaks planners insist on putting in street medians.

Tim Dugan
Tim Dugan

Rail is a good idea but it's not the total solution.

Kim Carter
Kim Carter

That is because Houston has essentially for decades acted like and refused to be a metropolitan city. It has systemically, not developed a modern rail that can loop around this city and get traffic off the roads. Major cities have a system for traffic even Japan has a high speed line in place.

toryu88
toryu88

People have a short memory.  I did the aerial photo analysis for Metro of the Union Pacific Right of Way that became the Katy Freeway expansion, and the corridor to Sugar Land and north to Bryan.  Metro could have put in rail on all of that, but instead chose to build the abortion of I-10 with speed humps ever mile over the crossing streets.  Houston's roads are so crappy I stay out of the city as much as possible. The decline started under Mayor Brown and has just continued.  As for bicyclists, I've had enough of them to last a lifetime.  I've had to deal with the bike Nazis in San Francisco and Austin.  I guess it is their mindset of superiority,  "Look at me!  I don't drive a car so I must be better, more healthy than you!"  It breeds a sense of entitlement.  I see way too many bicyclist ignoring the rules of the rode, blowing through stop signs and ignoring lights.  I'll go along with an expansion of bicycle venues when cops pursue bicyclist for rule violations as vigorously as the do drivers.

mpayne4
mpayne4

Houston has the potential to be one of the top cycling cities in the US.  By developing a Master Bicycle Plan and investing in priority corridors Houston will get more people cycling more safely.  The benefits of this are first and foremost economic as Houston becomes a preferred destination for the best and brightest workers from around the country and begins to see the decrease in healthcare costs as we reverse the negative trends associated with obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  These benefits are shared by cyclists and motorists alike.


Michael Payne 

Executive Director

BikeHouston.org

MichelsonMorley
MichelsonMorley

Quoting Missing Person's 'Walking in LA' deserves an honorable mention! You've made my day.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6REd01Vowf4


Look ahead as we pass, try and focus on it
I won't be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick
It must have been just a cardboard cut out of a man
Top-forty cast off from a record stand

Walkin' in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.


I don't know could've been a lame jogger maybe
Or someone just about to do the freeway strangler baby
Shopping cart pusher or maybe someone groovie
One thing's for sure, he isn't starring in the movies.
'Cause he's walkin' in L.A.

You won't see a cop walkin' on the beat
You only see 'em drivin' cars out on the street
Nobody's walkin' walkin'
You won't see a kid walkin' home from school
Their mothers pick 'em up in a car pool


Could it be that the smog's playing tricks on my eyes
or is it a rollerskater in some kind of headphone disguise
Maybe somebody who just ran out of gas,
Making his way back to the pumps the best way he can.


right, just sayin,,

Lexicon13
Lexicon13

TC Jester between 34th Street and Pinemont Drive is atrocious and the construction on 290/610/I10 means that 3 freeways are jacked up morning, afternoon and night. 

Love the whole "we want more people to ride" but we'll shut down the only park n ride in the area so you're stuck using the park n ride at i10  or the one at w. little york and 290, no other stops in between, thanks metro for killing the 216 and screwing people that live in this area trying to get to work downtown, you suck. 

dbcsez
dbcsez

On the subject of streets that change names: The cake-topper in my experience is North Braeswood becoming Beechnut after crossing Stella Link, South Braeswood becoming North Braeswood at the West Loop, and South Braeswood the other direction suddenly becoming the South Loop.


Even odder is the phenomenon of streets and roads that end and a mile or two later.  In my family we have grown accustomed to calling this "jestering" after T.C. Jester Boulevard, which used to be the prime example. This is certainly not unique to Houston, but it's frustratingly common here. Outside the Loop, a lot of the roads that formerly jestered have been stitched together in the last 30 years. Put up some stadiums and parks in Downtown, EaDo, and Midtown, and now you have increased inner-city jestering.


By the way, for those keeping score, it's Bammel-N. Houston/N. Houston Rosslyn/Bingle/Voss/Hillcroft/Fort Bend Parkway. And Buffalo Speedway does morph into Willowbend, but then it jesters to just north of West Orem Drive.

HDCA
HDCA

Wow.  Has the person who wrote the 3 worst freeway interchange list every lived anywhere else or driven in another city?  I agree with a couple of the things wrong with each interchange but there are much worse interchanges throughout the country.  My job, unfortunately, has called me away from Houston again last month and the first thing I noticed is how much I miss the simplicity of the highways and interchanges in Houston compared to the confusion and poor signage on the interstates surrounding our nation's capital.

jdoeballer
jdoeballer

I'll tell you one easy solution that might help. How come you can hardly ever take a left on a green yield???


There are so many lights in Houston that you have to wait for the green arrow to take a left. Otherwise its red! Why not have yield left turns on green?!?!

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

Ah yes, light rail. The amazingly ineffective 4 mile ride from the med center to downtown, started 12 years ago to help attract the 2012 Olympics. Yea, let's keep talking about it. 41,000 people a week riding from the med center to downtown at lunch to grab something different to eat. That's about all it does. It is of no use to anyone else in the rest of the city and surrounding areas.

texanite
texanite

There are so many places in Houston where light rail would be a success but no one wants rail through their neighborhood.  I think the time for the use of eminent domain is here. Yes, even if I was in the path I would understand and accept it.  The needs of the many outweighs the the needs of the few.  I have used public transportation (including light rail) throughout the world and guess what?  It works when properly designed.  You learn where you get off to connect to the next rail (if needed) and you get where you want to go nearly hassle free.  Yes, you can even carry a Macy's shopping bag or two with you.

Our city leaders have been extremely short-sighted when it comes to light rail.  There have been those with the vision who have tried but ultimately been shot down because of lack of support.  Is it expensive?  Yes, without a doubt.  When you weigh the cost of the overall projects with the countless hours commuters spend in traffic and  the enormous amount of wasted energy and time sitting in traffic the payoff makes a lot of sense.  Common sense seems to be in short supply in our city, state and federal governments as well the citizens who would benefit from it.    

nowake200
nowake200

It is not only the major roadways that are falling apart, the very urban neighborhoods they are pushing have roads that remind me of ones in New York City that dead-ended next to the scrap metal yards or warehouses.  Simply put, deplorable conditions for the amount of taxes paid!  Good luck trying to bike, jog, skateboard never mind simply walk on these streets and sidewalks!  Something needs to be done!


It comes do to money and resources... these roads will not fix themselves and it cannot be done cheaply, it will also require a larger work force.  Houston is a big city that needs a lot of employees and STRONG oversight!  I know this is very bad concept in todays "government is bad" mentality, but maybe our city's streets got this point because of this very mindset.  

 

dwdickersonjr
dwdickersonjr

I have been driving over 50 years and the streets of Houston have been full of potholes. It has never been any different. The city is too sprawled to really keep it up, and the city allows developers to develop areas before the supporting infrastructure is in place (like expanding roads BEFORE any building is allowed to take place). The roads are not likely to get better - they fix one and then others need to be repaired. 

So: Mass transit. We could sure use it here in Houston, but buses and ground level rail!? We have a city that floods, so they build ground level rail and do not even put up crossing gates or lights! Ugh... Why didn't they put in monorail on elevated tracks so the trains don't get in the way of traffic and they can still run when the streets are flooded. Well, they can if the water doesn't get too high. And why isn't rail put in in the areas most affected by high traffic? Rail/Monorail should have been run down 45, I-10, 290, 59... But the rail is only run in the inner city. 

You can't run buses down crowded roads. Buses should also have turn-off lanes for each stop to remove the stationary buses from being nothing but a traffic obstacle. The current rail system is an expensive joke. Not to mention they can't even make people pay to ride the light rail!

tagthatstock
tagthatstock

Houston's poor road design is reflective of the ignorance and / or corruption of both the politician/city planner who approved the projects and the companies that built them.  Look around at the area just near where 2 major highways meet. Some moron decided to add another on ramp compounding the already too congested intersection. Its like when you are in line at a store, would a manager suddenly tell everyone in the next lane to move to your lane and ahead of you?

tagthatstock
tagthatstock

Houston's poor road design is reflective of the ignorance and / or corruption of both the politician/city planner who approved the projects and the companies that built them.  Look around at the area just near where 2 major highways meet. Some moron decided to add another on ramp compounding the already too congested intersection. Its like when you are in line at a store, would a manager suddenly tell everyone in the next lane to move to your lane and ahead of you?

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Traffic and mobility in Houston has always been difficult.  But the one thing that I could never understand is why people would live 30+ miles away from where they work and waste a significant amount of their lives just getting to and from where they work.


As far as the road designs go, it is a phenomena called "The Revenge of the C- Student".


And as far as the potholes go, I have always felt that a majority of Houston roadways were built on the cheap, not much stronger than someone's driveway.


Then again, I think that Houston has done some of the more innovative things when it comes to mobility, such as when Mayor Whitmire, expanded Westheimer literally overnight by restriping it from three lanes to four.

Anon4790
Anon4790

There are two simple reasons that Richmond is #1 on your list of the worst pot-holed streets in the city.  I am a little puzzled that you couldn't figure this out for yourself.


1.  The City and METRO figured they would be putting light rail down it and so why waste money repairing it while that was pending.  (The nice reason)

2.  Retribution against the businesses that stopped light rail and against Culberson personally/politically.  (The not-nice reason)


It seems to me that #2 is the biggest reason, because the City doesn't even seem to do simple black top patches here and there.  And the #1 reason seems like it should have expired about 3 years ago.  I think that (liberal Dem) Annise Parker & Company, in office for 4+ years at this point, just want to let it get worse and worse and say "that's what you get for electing (conservative Rep) Culberson to represent you."

dexdan
dexdan

Um, no...I've commuted in all of the above, as well as Dallas.  Until I spent 3 years in Houston, I realized all of them (with the possible exception of the GW Bridge- but even that's only a section of NY traffic as a whole) had been merely practice for the truly worst traffic in the country.   

2askjoe
2askjoe

@mpayne4 :

Yes, however toryu88 has a point about cyclists ignoring the rules...whether rode OR road... ;-)

Robert541
Robert541

@dwdickersonjr But its about as bad as it can get and has been this way since the dawn of the Drainage Fee.

dwdickersonjr
dwdickersonjr

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul I like living where I live, and expect to have to pay, in some way, to have a comfortable home. I have 3 acres of land and a small house. The taxes are a pittance compared to what I would pay in Houston on 1/4 acre, and I'll be able to afford my home when/if I retire. Yeah, the stress of my commute is not enjoyable, but I can't live in close proximity with people in an urban setting - that for me is far more stressful. No, a long commute (mine is 60 miles each way) is not for everyone, and I would love to be able to take a train to/from town, but until I can...I'll just tough it out.


ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@dwdickersonjr @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul 

You explained it and I still don't understand it.  When I lived in Houston and worked downtown, the 15 to 20 minute commute was my preference.  For me, I just felt that I could accomplish more with that 2 to 3 hours a day doing something else other than driving a car or sitting on a METRO bus.

 
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