Houston's Traffic Pain Is a Slow Burn Thanks to a Lack of Vision

This is our fault.
This is our fault.

One of the toughest things to deal with besides daily traffic in Houston is the prolonged traffic nightmare faced by Houstonians over years and years and years thanks to poor planning and a lack of foresight. While most cities struggle with similar issues, ours feels like its own special brand of hell because Houston has so much physical area. Getting from one extreme end of the city to another would be like driving between multiple towns in some parts of the country.

But more than size and planning, there has been an inherent lack of vision from our city's leaders and its citizens for a very long time.

We could spend hours discussing the insane tangle of freeways that snarl traffic thanks to an inability to predict development or the non existent zoning laws and restrictions on growth that turned vast expanses into strip mall-covered wastelands that act as not much more than landmarks for people on the way home from work to the 'burbs. We could talk about the problems and corruption that have plagued public transportation for decades or how builders have somehow owned every political argument seemingly in Houston history often to the detriment of the city practically and aesthetically.

But none of that would matter if we had a collective vision for what we wanted from a city and from the transportation in and around it.

Of course, it is tough to develop a vision when your city's demographics have so markedly changed. In the last 40 years, Houston has undergone a massive shift from blue to white collar, industrial to technological, and we are struggling to keep up.

For decades, growth beyond the Beltway on Highway 290 was speeding along. From Jersey Village to Copperfield, the northwest corridor was exploding, yet the primary artery for getting people to and from there was ignored. Finally, construction is proceeding that should transform the entire freeway and areas around it, but it took nearly 20 years to see it happen.

On Wednesday, I wrote about proposals to do something about the North Freeway and possibly the Pierce Elevated. God knows how long that will take, but at least the powers that be are discussing it. The drive from Bush IAH to downtown Houston is abysmal. The only follow up question is when will the Gulf Freeway get its turn?   But, this struggle is no better illustrated then in the fight over what amounts to a puny light rail system. Cities across the world have vast systems of mass transit, often in the form of trains. Not Houston. And the battle to do nothing more than find efficient means of moving people from one place to another has been as ridiculous as it has been destructive.

Years of work have only produced one north-south line with still years left to complete the first east-west line (though part will open later this year). Yet there are only stalled plans to connect these to the city's other major business and retail hub, the Galleria, and no plans even being discussed to shuttle people to and from the airports, seemingly the most practical and useful concept not on the table.

Some of the delays are the result of government inefficiencies and corruption. God knows METRO has had more scandals than success stories over the years. But the biggest hurdle to smart, organized development in Houston is its citizens. We constantly stand in the way of progress. We vote down light rail options. We shun public transportation.

The whole time we cling to our cars like the last vestige of civilization, we bemoan the very things they create: pollution, traffic, accidents. It is our ironic curse that the very thing we all love, driving, is also our undoing, the thing that not only plants us in traffic every morning (and afternoon and night and weekend) but keeps us from demanding the kinds of changes that would solve the problems.

And when changes finally do begin to ooze through the cracks in the well-worn pavement, they create even more chaos because they are slow to develop and even slower to finish, a product of our own frustrating inaction.

A city like Houston will never be completely free of traffic or cars. This is not some egalitarian utopia where the birds are chirping and sunny, happy people stroll by unfettered by stress. Nor should it be. But if we don't realize that as our city expands, we are going to need more solutions to our traffic problems that include public transportation and new, creative ways to move people around, we will only be creating more misery for ourselves and generations of Houstonians to come.

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