Traffic sucks. It's a way of life in Houston, a fact of living in a city that is simultaneously one of the most populous and one of the most spread out. The city limits alone cover 600 square miles. Tack on the suburban areas and you have the stuff of nightmares for urban planners. Through the years, we have attempted to patch the problem, curb it (if you will) and expand to fit it. Some of it will absolutely never be fixed because Houstonians remain almost genetically linked to their vehicles, some for substantive reasons and others just because they can.
Unfortunately, we will always suffer from traffic issues in the same way New York City will always be crowded -- try to squeeze 10 million people into an area roughly the size of the space inside the 610 Loop, but ONLY west of I-45, and you'll understand. But, there are ways to improve it, projects that could change the way we think about driving in certain areas of town.
Not all of them would be designed to improve the flow of traffic, mind you. Some would be to make life easier for pedestrians or to change how we see the city. But, all of these suggestions -- many of which have been or remain on the table as possibilities considered by the city and state, or recommended by transportation experts -- would change how many of us view driving in Houston.
Close Main Street to Traffic
This certainly wouldn't turn downtown into a traffic-free zone, but it could re-shape Main Street and change a major portion of downtown -- something I suggested in last year's traffic feature. One of the key issues with downtown Houston is that it is only marginally pedestrian friendly. The city along with the Downtown Management District have undertaken numerous projects to change this, from angled parking to the upcoming expansion of sidewalks along Dallas Street to Discovery Green. But, closing Main Street could be a real game changer.
Not only would it make downtown more walkable, but it would spur retail development, something the city has been desperate for since the '70s. It would connect two sides of downtown on foot and make the light rail even more accessible. It would give daily workers reason to emerge from the skyscrapers and out of the tunnels. And it wouldn't curb traffic east and west if cross streets remained open at key locations.
There is already a block of it closed to traffic and they've experimented with closing larger sections for block parties with great success. This isn't banning traffic in the whole area, like some cities in Europe do, but it would change how many of us think about downtown Houston.
Re-Design the Loop Exchanges
It is difficult not to argue that the worst freeway traffic in Houston centers on the exchanges connecting Loop 610 and the major freeways. The one at 59 is a disaster and the one at 45/288 is worse. It's time for a radical re-imagining of these convoluted messes to make them more efficient. In a way, this is the antithesis of closing Main Street. This is about streamlining and improving how people get from one freeway to another.
The model for this may be in the making on 290 of all places. That disaster of a freeway that has been undergoing construction for several years and will continue through 2017 has demonstrated at least one positive thus far: the exit ramp from 290 to I-10 is pretty amazing. At the moment, traffic surrounding it is still awful, but that is pre expansion. When the freeway widens to five lanes, having an exit that forces drivers to make a decision a mile before the actual freeway connection and gives them four lanes instead of two (two lanes for each direction of I-10) is brilliant.
This would be difficult to accomplish on 610 heading south at 59, but not impossible. They are considering this very thing on 45 going north at 59, perhaps a test case for what they could do elsewhere. It would take time and the interim would make all of us want to blow up a concrete factory, but it could be worth it in the long run.
Build the Hempstead Toll Road
There is a plan under consideration to turn Hempstead Highway, what was once the fastest way to get to Hempstead and College Station, into a toll road that extends well out to the northwest of the city. With the explosion of population in Cypress and other areas along this corridor, it is no surprise 290's expansion became a priority of the state a few years ago, but it likely will not be enough.
Much like the Westpark Tollway gets drivers out to far west Houston and the Hardy Toll Road gets people to the Woodlands, Hempstead could be expanded to provide access to commuters wanting to go northwest and helping to alleviate congestion on 290, which will continue to strain under the weight of drivers even after the expansion is complete. Install Commuter Rail
Speaking of Hempstead Highway, one potential plan would be to not only expand the road into a tollway but add commuter rail alongside -- there is a rail artery there already. In fact, commuter rail has been a suggestion floated for several areas of town including south to Galveston -- how could would taking a train to the beach be? -- and southwest along US 90.
Unfortunately, many of the railways that used to criss cross the city were removed years ago, the right of ways taken over by larger highways or commercial development. But there are still spots that have the rail necessary to create a commuter rail system to move people in and out of downtown. We should be using that infrastructure while we still have it.
Build a Bridge Over or Tunnel Under the Rails Along Washington at Shepherd and TC Jester
There are certain places where trains don't seem to cause a major problem for traffic despite where they are. The rails that wind through Oak Forest or cut through River Oaks and Bellaire all move so quickly thanks to few if any needed stops along those paths that it rarely causes delays. Then there are the rails that move along Washington Avenue.
Not only do they often back up traffic for more than a mile in one of Houston's most popular inner loop residential areas, but they sometimes come to a complete stop on the rails blocking Shepherd entirely. Studemont goes under the rail as does Houston Avenue, but TC Jester and Shepherd don't causing massive delays.
Nothing is more frustrating than when one train finally creeps by heading west only for you to realize another train is passing going east moving equally as slowly. This problem was solved north of I-10 where there is a huge rail yard that stretches along White Oak Bayou with bridges going over both the waterway and the rail. Why not do the same thing south of I-10?
Convert Pierce Elevated to a Parkway
This plan is one of several possible options for re-routing traffic on freeways encircling downtown. Before you start talking about how it would make traffic worse, think about the fact that the elevated area of 59 behind George R. Brown Convention Center could go two-tiered, providing expanded space for traffic. With far fewer exits needed on that side of downtown, it would make an ideal expansion.
Then think about how turning Pierce into a sprawling parkway would change the very landscape of the area. Instead of crumbling buildings, there could be expanded retail in an area that is one of the city's most expensive. This would literally open the side of downtown between it and the Medical Center. It would spur development and change the actual face of downtown.
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Extend Light Rail to the Airports
Light rail is controversial for many annoyingly ridiculous reasons. It has all but been squashed in one of the most needed areas -- Montrose to the Galleria -- thanks to short-sighted politicians. But, the rail that is open has been wildly successful. The new lines coming on line promise to be as well.
From the beginning, one of the arguments made by people who blocked rail expansion was that the plan wasn't comprehensive enough. Why build six miles of rail through the busiest stretch of town when we could expand to the suburbs? Right. No one who made this argument did so to legitimately get us to consider that possibility but to distract from what was being built. Still, why haven't we considered it?
Getting people to and from the airports is ridiculously complex, nevermind that it sends people through a maze of strip malls and abandoned car lots en route. The North Line already runs out to Northline Mall. Airline is a pretty wide thoroughfare with no doubt a lot of residents and businesses that would welcome better transportation options. That runs all the way out to just south of the Beltway, just a couple miles from Bush IAH. Get cracking, METRO.