Trapped: There Are No Simple Solutions to Houston's Traffic Crisis
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.
To view a larger version of this image, click here.
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.
In 2010, former chairman Frank Wilson resigned six years into his eight-year contract amid numerous allegations that included document shredding and an inappropriate relationship with a staffer as well as a Federal Transit Authority investigation into light-rail funding. During his tenure, no new track was laid. In 2011, then-president and CEO George Greanias was suspended for visiting porn sites from his METRO computer at work. Needless to say, the agency has some work to do before it can regain the public's trust.
So METRO has undertaken what it is calling a "reimagining," which includes a yearlong review of the entire agency and its services. Among those are a new express bus service designed to mimic what would have been light rail's Uptown Line through the Galleria area. It will be paid for, at least in part, by funding from the Uptown District at a significantly cheaper cost than light rail. "The main reason [rail is so successful] is because [it] has a dedicated lane. If you miss the rail, you know another train is coming in six minutes," Garcia explains. "That attribute is why bus rapid-transit systems are so successful."
In addition, METRO is reviewing its entire bus system, which Garcia calls the "backbone of METRO," in an attempt to increase ridership. As if that weren't enough, there's the maintenance and expansion of HOV lanes along the city's major freeways and the Park and Ride centers that accompany them. There is even the faintest hint of a dare-to-dream possibility of commuter rail. But nothing captures the imagination of the public, particularly the young urban professionals living inside the Loop, as much as light rail does.
They see what other cities have and wonder out loud why Houston is so far behind. "They are asking, 'How come Dallas has 100 miles [of rail] and has had the benefit of billions of dollars of stimulus,' and I can appreciate that question," Garcia says.
But with funding sources having nearly dried up and the dysfunction that plagued the agency so close in the rearview mirror, it will take more than a "reimagining" to fix light rail. In a recent live chat on the Houston Chronicle website, Parker admitted that Houston traffic problems require more comprehensive solutions than light rail. "Houston will still be the largest U.S. city in area that is not a combined metro [like the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex]. And we have to recognize that rail will not be the ultimate answer for us," she said.
For most Houstonians, the best mass-transit options will have little to do with rail's urban experience, which is why Garcia and METRO continue to focus on alternatives. "We have our hands pretty full for the foreseeable future."
Is the dream of a walkable city even possible for Houston?
In the '80s, new wave super-group Missing Persons penned "Walking in LA," a sarcastic ode to pedestrians in star-centric Hollywood. "Could it be that the smog's playing tricks on my eyes?" Dale Bozzio mockingly asked. We Houstonians may not eschew the pedestrian lifestyle because of our celebrity status, but we do have one thing in common with Los Angeles: Both cities are far too large for walking to be a viable transportation option.
Peter Brown might beg to differ. The former city councilman and director of the nonprofit BetterHouston believes we can do better without the need for zoning or even a radical change to the city's landscape. But there must be well-thought-out planning involved. "You can't just have a sidewalk or a hike-and-bike trail," he explained. "You've got to have destinations or people won't get out of their cocoon."
According to Brown, there is a genuine opportunity in Houston to encourage the same developers who produced the sprawl that now exists to try something different. "If we created some incentives for mixed-use development, you'd start to see what I call 'walkable urbanism,'" he said. "If you do it with regulatory and financial incentives, you don't need zoning for that."
While Houston has a handful of examples of "walkable urbanism," including City Centre and The Woodlands Waterway, they pale in comparison to those in other cities. Brown points to Dallas, which has created 14 small mixed-use districts where people live, work and shop, allowing for fewer cars and more opportunities for pedestrian traffic.
As one of the fastest-growing and, apparently, fattest cities in the country, Houston seems to be a good candidate for anything that encourages walking and cycling. But it goes beyond weight loss. Businesses are beginning to realize that the competition for young, skilled talent includes a need for the kind of urban development popular in other cities around the country. "I have five kids and all of them are worried about Houston," Brown said. "They think they may not stay here because there is no bona fide, authentic, walkable urban districts."
Beyond rescuing Houston for the next generation of workers, better plans for urban development have the potential to decrease traffic congestion, curb pollution, limit vehicle-pedestrian and vehicle-bike accidents, and improve the health of the average Houstonian. At the very least, we could get off the fattest-cities list. And it's something that Brown argues could be accomplished in years rather than decades.
"We're waiting for some invisible hand to make a great city. It's not gonna happen," he said. "We've got to do it."
A Modest Proposal
One proposal Brown supports that has been discussed is the closing of Main Street to vehicle traffic in downtown. Light rail reduced the number of traffic lanes from four to two, and there is even a stretch in the heart of downtown that's closed off to cars. Why not shut down the whole thing?
Closing off Main would barely limit traffic on a street most downtown drivers avoid like the plague. What it would instead do is encourage shopping, something the city has been working to improve for more than a decade.
And with the city's new Open Streets initiative, which will close stretches of Washington Avenue, Westheimer and White Oak for four hours on Sundays beginning next month, why not place a permanent ban on cars on Main Street? It certainly couldn't make the traffic any worse.
Enter at Your Own Risk
Houston's 10 most treacherous freeway entrance ramps.
10. I-45 northbound from El Dorado
The Clear Lake "narrows" offers its own special brand of traffic torture, but the real danger here lies in getting on the freeway. Really, you could take your pick between Bay Area Boulevard and El Dorado. The entrance ramps for both are awful since one lane serves for getting on and off the freeway, a special nuance found at many exits around town.
9. I-10 westbound and eastbound from Taylor (tie)
Any freeway entrance that incorporates an incline is probably asking for trouble, especially in a mountain-challenged city like Houston. Both entrances are pitched slopes into the mess that is I-10. On the eastbound side you have the added bonus of navigating the I-45/I-10 interchange.
8. U.S. 59 southbound from Weslayan
Yet another exit/entrance combo, this spot has the added benefit of being just south of one of the busiest freeway interchanges in the city at 610 and 59. Trying to avoid hitting people exiting at Newcastle — who think they can avoid Galleria traffic when they're really just plunging themselves deeper into it — is difficult enough. Trying to weave across three lanes of freeway to get to 59's southbound lanes is a fool's errand. Suck it up and get on the Westpark Tollway.
7. 610 eastbound from Airline Drive
Much like No. 8 on our list, the entrance from Airline Drive onto the North Loop is complicated by the proximity to the ramps leading to I-45 south. If you intend to try to skate all the way across to the North Freeway exit, you take your life and the lives of countless others in your hands. Take Airline all the way to 45 instead, and the life you save might be mine.
6. I-45 southbound from Patton
Another descent into madness is exacerbated by a stoplight, an incredibly short distance to the freeway and no merge lane. I've seen cars sitting in the median holding up traffic on the ramp because the drivers were terrified of trying to enter the main lanes. As if that weren't enough, the entrance is a favorite of semi-truck drivers coming from the truck stop on Patton.
5. U.S. 59 northbound from Chimney Rock
Whoever thought it was a good idea to put an entrance ramp smack dab in the middle of a freeway interchange wasn't having his best day on the job. This is certainly the worst example of that poor feat of engineering. It's a near impossibility to get from feeder road to 59 northbound most times, and this entrance only increases traffic in an already desperately clogged area.
4. U.S. 59 southbound from Greenbriar
This is one of the few problem spots that have as much to do with the side street as they do with the feeder road or the ramp itself. Climbing the ramp to enter the freeway in the tangle of traffic near Kirby is bad enough, but there are two right-turn lanes from Greenbriar onto the feeder road because engineers chose this spot to merge Greenbriar and Shepherd. Cars flying from the farthest left-turn lane make it difficult for those in the right lane to get near the entrance ramp, let alone enter it.
3. I-45 southbound just before Dallas
This is the first of two entrances in this immediate area. Yet another decline onto a freeway with no merge lane is the feature here. Because it sends drivers careening into busy traffic heading for the Pierce Elevated, it's especially dangerous. The fact that it's always crowded means everyone drives it cautiously and slowly — the latter a recipe for disaster.
2. U.S. 59 southbound from Spur 527
I imagine that an Indy car driver was the person who designed this concrete slingshot that banks like a bobsled course before sending drivers hurtling toward 59. It's an equal shock if you're on 59 going south and see cars flying in from your right at insane speeds. You can, if you know the area, get in the far right lane and give yourself more time to merge safely, but no one does. Instead, drivers live out some slalom-course fantasies at the expense of everyone else.
1. I-45 southbound from Allen Parkway
There is no better place to look fear and death in the eye on Houston freeways than this roller-coaster entrance onto I-45 just north of the Pierce Elevated. It is common to see a person sitting at the end of the twisting and turning ramp, dead stopped and praying to God for mercy after having chosen to take this route. It is equally as common to see a lunatic with a death wish rocket onto the freeway as if he'd been fired out of a pistol. How this ramp continues to exist is a mystery to me and a constant terror to anyone who must use it or drive near it.
Twists and Turns
Houston's three worst freeway interchanges.
At times it feels as if our freeway system is just a massive tangle of concrete with little rhyme or reason. But little compares to where these arteries meet. I often wonder if the architect of these connections was inspired by an M.C. Escher painting or the design of roller coasters (ever exited I-10 to the Beltway and felt as if you were 100 stories in the air?), or maybe he was just insane. Whatever the case, we're left with some of the most ridiculous and confusing interchanges in some of the city's most heavily trafficked areas.
3. U.S. 290, the North Loop and I-10
The only thing that saved this from being No. 1 is the fact that it's under construction and there's the hope that something will be done to repair this disaster that currently resembles a war zone. Not only does this convergence occur in one of the fastest-growing parts of town, but it extends almost a half mile as 290 and 610 meet I-10 to the south.
From every direction, this jumble is complicated to navigate, but the worst part is the stretch in between all three where a huge number of traffic lanes split off in multiple directions. Even with stenciled freeway names on the lanes, it's nearly impossible to discern exactly where to go. Worse yet, when you're trying to merge from, say, I-10 heading west onto 290 going north, you have to cross six lanes of traffic congested by people aiming for multiple exits ahead. Enter at your own peril.
2. U.S. 59 at the West Loop
I once read that the exit from 610 going west to the Southwest Freeway was on the list for most traffic accidents per year in Texas. That would not surprise me. I hate this exchange so much that I wrote an angry letter last year to people who drive it. At virtually no time of the day is this area not packed with cars, and yet drivers moving from one freeway to another are forced into single lanes of traffic.
Coming from 59 south to 610 is equally bad, made even worse by an entrance ramp from Chimney Rock — on my list of the worst freeway entrance ramps. From the other direction, the single-lane exit to 610 going north is always packed, causing some drivers to panic and exit Newcastle, which is an even more painful choice than sitting and waiting on the freeway. There's no hope in this area, only misery. Avoid it at all costs.
1. Tx 288, U.S. 59 and I-45
And still, nothing compares to the nightmare where Tx 288, U.S. 59 and I-45 intersect. In addition to elevated portions of 45 and 59, massive traffic in and around the Medical Center, and the dangerous exit to Spur 527 off 59 just before you reach this confluence, there's a bizarre, almost subterranean feel to stretches of 59 between 288 and 45 that are as claustrophobic as they are jammed with people.
With so many exits pushing and pulling drivers all over the highway along this lower level, it's a miracle anyone ever gets to his or her intended destination. I wouldn't be surprised if someone trying to get to the University of Houston ends up near the Ship Channel weeping and hoping his cell phone doesn't die before help arrives. It doesn't help that drivers here often act as if their only job is to avoid any possible slowdown, whipping in and out of lanes to find the fastest route to Galveston.
If you cannot avoid this area, my best advice is to read many maps carefully. Become a cartographer if you must, but don't drive here unless you know what you're doing. and even then, a prayer couldn't hurt.
The 10 worst major roads in Houston (right now).
10. TC Jester between 34th Street and Pinemont Drive
I have the misfortune of driving this nearly every day, and have driven it for many years. In high school, I had friends who drove big cars with cream-puff suspensions who enjoyed going fast northbound in the right-hand lane on TC Jester because the giant dips created by roads intersecting it would nearly send them airborne. Those conditions still exist, but now they're worse. And for some crazy reason, parking is allowed in the right-hand lane of the southbound side near the dog park. It becomes a choice between hitting a parked car and hitting a massive pothole. It's not always a clear-cut decision.
9. Farrell Road between Aldine Road and FM1960
This tiny little back road in north Houston on the outskirts of the airport is still a popular alternate route for area residents trying to avoid traffic on the North Freeway and Greens Road. Unfortunately, it looks as if a Mad Max movie was filmed here. I used to live on this side of town as a kid, and it was bad at that time. That was 30 years ago.
8. West Gray between Montrose and Waugh Drive
This is the first of what you will undoubtedly notice is a pattern of really awful east-west roads through the Montrose area. This is the shortest stretch of the bunch, but certainly one of the worst. It has four lanes, so you'd think the city could close parts of it down for a week to repave, but so far, no such luck. A better option would be to take Dallas to the north. Remarkably, it's not awful.
7. Holcombe Boulevard between Kirby Drive and Stella Link
Surprising that a road between West University and Bellaire would be so awful, but it most certainly is. Despite the fact that much of Holcombe to the east and Bellaire Boulevard (the name it changes to after Kirby Drive) to the west is in good shape, this section is a nightmare.
6. Alabama between Spur 527 and Shepherd Drive
I've never encountered slower drivers than those on Alabama between Weslayan and the Montrose. Fortunately, for a fairly long stretch west of Shepherd, the road is at least paved well. Not so once you get near Alabama Icehouse. Through an area with expensive homes and beautiful museums, it's like a patchwork quilt of potholes that's as ugly as the tree-lined neighborhoods are beautiful. Add the center switchback lane that runs in alternating directions during rush hours, and it has all the makings of a traffic nightmare.
5. South Shepherd Drive between West Gray and U.S. 59
Much like other roads in the area, South Shepherd is extremely busy, making it nearly impossible to shut down and repair well. It would also be difficult to expand it and widen the lanes thanks to the businesses and the affluent River Oaks neighborhood along the road's path. But South Shepherd is still one of the quicker north-south routes between U.S. 59 and Memorial Drive. At some point, the city needs to bite the bullet and make traffic worse so it can eventually get better.
4. Westheimer between Spur 527 and Shepherd Drive
It's bad enough that this stretch of Westheimer has such narrow lanes. Between Taft and Montrose, you may as well consider this a two-lane road despite the painted white lines to the contrary. But toss in a bumpy ride courtesy of a mess of a road surface and you have a recipe for sideswipes. It's difficult to imagine shutting down Westheimer for repairs, but the city is managing to do that to the section just west of Shepherd, so hope springs.
3. Greenbriar Drive between University Boulevard and Holcombe Boulevard
It's ironic that in such an affluent part of town there would be a road so hideous that most drivers stay below posted speed limits. This (thankfully) rather short stretch of pavement near Rice University has fault lines and poorly filled potholes covering it while neighborhood streets that cross it sit pristine and even.
2. Cullen Boulevard between Elgin Street and Wheeler Avenue
It's a joke that the primary artery traversing our city's biggest college, the University of Houston, looks like the beaches of Normandy after allied forces landed on D-Day. Other streets in the area are awful as well, but nothing compares to this damaged and neglected stretch of road. Fortunately, with light rail going in soon near the north end of the campus, people will be able to avoid Cullen altogether.
1. Richmond Avenue
Recently state Representative John Culberson, a staunch opponent of all things light rail, met with supporters at high-end restaurant Tony's in Greenway Plaza to declare light rail on Richmond dead. One of the plans had been to run a line down Richmond Avenue through Greenway Plaza and over to the Galleria. Area businesses and residents balked, but it's hard to understand why anyone would block the chance to fix what is the most godforsaken road in the entire city. I tried to narrow it down to a stretch, but the fact is, Richmond is a hideous, pothole-infested disaster area from Main Street to the Beltway. In fact, if you went farther east after it becomes Wheeler, you could start a whole new section. Why this mostly four-lane road hasn't been extensively repaired is beyond me, but it certainly qualifies as the worst in town.
Where the Streets Have New Names
Running down the roads in Houston that change names.
There are numerous major roads in our fair city that change names with no warning. Weird, right? Even those of us who have lived here for years are still surprised to find out we are lost thanks to a street that went from one name to another for seemingly no reason.
This list does not include directional streets. So while it may be weird that there is a North Shepherd and a South Shepherd, or, worse yet, a variety of Main Streets around town, that's not what we're talking about. Also, this is not about divided roads. The fact that, for a stretch, North Shepherd splits into Shepherd (moving northbound) and Durham (going south) is unsettling but not technically a name change.
Finally, there are nearly as many streets that end through a merge with another thoroughfare as there are ones that change names, but as confusing as it may be that 20th crosses North Main onto Cavalcade or Washington Avenue divides into three streets as it passes under I-45 into downtown, it just ends, it doesn't change.
East T.C. Jester/Rosslyn
FM 1960/Highway 6/Addicks
Fairbanks North Houston/Blalock/
Bammel North Houston/North Houston
Hirsch/Broyles/Altoona/Waco/Hirsch (again!)/North York/Scott
When will current freeway projects be done already?
Scope: From the North Loop to the Grand Parkway
Estimated Completion: 2017 (610/290/I-10 interchange
by early 2015)
Scope: From Taylor Street to
Second quarter 2014
Get Me Outta Here
A newbie's guide to getting on the freeway from downtown Houston.
The downtown areas of most major metropolitan areas can create some confusion for new drivers. Despite the common grid layout of city streets, signage is often limited when it comes to directing drivers out of downtown and skyscrapers obscure the landscape, leaving the inexperienced disoriented and lost. Houston is no different, but there are, remarkably, quite a few ways to escape.
There are all sorts of neighborhood "shortcuts" that require GPS, a map and a Sherpa, but this list tries to boil down the simplest routes for those who don't know Houston as the rest of us do. So buck up, newbies; you won't have to remain trapped for long. Just follow these simple directions and you'll be back on a traffic-choked freeway in no time.
There are numerous ways to get on the North Freeway, so if you're headed for Bush Intercontinental Airport, your first and simplest way out of downtown is Travis Street, which launches you onto 45 as it exits downtown with a lovely view of UH-Downtown. If you are on the south side of the skyscrapers, try taking Pease Street, which winds around for a while before getting you onto the freeway. Walker Street is an option from the Theater District, but watch out because it's a one-lane exit and comes up quickly.
Finally, there are a couple of odd alternatives for you adventurers. Hardy Street, on the city's north side, enters I-10 going west and has an exit to 45 North very soon after. If you really want to go native, take Franklin Street to Houston Avenue going north and follow it through the Heights to where it hits 45 North. It's like you've lived here all your life!
Much like its northern component, the Gulf Freeway has plenty of entrances from downtown. The quickest is via Jefferson Street, which ramps up over the freeway before connecting near the University of Houston's central campus. The Pierce Elevated is so named because Pierce Street runs parallel to it and directly underneath, but only in a southerly direction, making it a perfect route onto 45 South, albeit with a bunch of stoplights. Perhaps the quirkiest option is Capitol Street to North Memorial Way — a fancy name for the feeder road along Memorial Drive — where it connects to Houston Avenue going south.
You can also get to Houston Avenue by taking the same route on Franklin Street as mentioned above for 45 North, but turn right instead of left. Finally, you can use the same route from Hardy Street onto I-10 West, but the exit to the Gulf Freeway is way in the left lane, so proceed with caution. I also hesitate to mention it, but you could get to 45 South (or North, for that matter) via San Jacinto Street if you took I-10 East and then 59 South, but, honestly, who the hell wants to do that during rush hour?
I-10 in both directions is surprisingly accessible from numerous spots in downtown. Louisiana Street is the easiest out, entering the freeway near the downtown post office. Hardy Street is probably your next best bet. It's a little out of the way down in the warehouse district, but if you miss your turn, you can just stop off at Saint Arnold Brewing Company for happy hour.
There are also two methods to reach I-10 via 45 North. The first is by taking Pease Street, which connects to 45 and has an exit for I-10 West on the left-hand side of the freeway just outside downtown. The second is via Walker Street, which lands you on 45 in essentially the same spot as Pease. The final entrance is from Chartres Street on the southeast side of downtown. But this insane ramp provides access to four directions of two separate freeways, so beware.
Just as with I-10 West, you can head to Baytown instead of Katy using several of the same entrances, including that crazy tangle from Chartres Street, as well as both Pease Street and Walker Street via I-45 North. In both of the latter two options, the I-10 East exit is on the same side of the freeway as your entrance, making it super-easy even in rush-hour traffic.
The only entrance solely for I-10 East is from San Jacinto Street, which traverses all of downtown heading north. If you live on the east side and are coming in for jury duty, this is a good option since San Jacinto runs right through the part of downtown with all the courthouses. Once San Jacinto reaches the freeway, make a right onto a kind of mini feeder road to get to the entrance.
U.S. 59 South
The same entrance that gets you onto I-10 East via San Jacinto Street will lead you to the 59 South exit less than a mile east of your entrance, but you'll have to plow through traffic on the elevated portion of 59 behind Minute Maid Park and the convention center. Your best option is to take Hamilton Street, which runs southwest along downtown's eastern edge near Toyota Center. It dumps you right into the nightmare that is 59 South.
But if you want a slightly more adventurous route, you can take Smith Street under the Pierce Elevated and through Midtown, where it connects with Spur 527 and ultimately 59 South. Sure, it's one of the most terrifying entrance ramps in the entire city, but it probably is faster than wading through the 59/45/288 interchange from Hamilton.
U.S. 59 North
Getting onto 59 North is probably more challenging than trying to enter any other major freeway in the downtown area. Perhaps the Eastex Freeway is disliked by city planners, but it's a far more convenient — and attractive — route to Bush IAH than 45 North is, so maybe it's worth the effort. The fastest connection to it is via Chenevert Street on the northern side of Minute Maid Park. Just don't try that the day of a ball game.
Chartres Street, with the complicated ramp that connects with 59 North and South as well as I-10 West and East, is also a safe bet if you can navigate like Magellan. But if you confuse easily or rely on medication to stay focused, taking the San Jacinto Street route to I-10 West as described earlier is an easy way to get to 59 North. Be prepared for the left exit off the freeway, though, because it appears out of nowhere.
As Pearland grows in popularity, so does 288, but there aren't many easy ways to reach it from downtown. In fact, there are technically only two that don't require a long trip down Fannin Street to damn near the Medical Center. The first is via Webster Street, which runs south just west of the Pierce Elevated. It's the safest and easiest way onto 288 that doesn't find you taking your life in your hands. The second is by way of Hamilton Street, the same street that provides the entrance to 59 South.
But beware: The ramp to 59 does not get you to 288, as ridiculous as that may sound. Instead, you must continue southwest down Hamilton until it essentially ends by magically turning into a ramp that merges with 288. I never said driving in Houston would be easy.
If you're feeling like you don't want to deal with the freeway at all, or maybe you don't have to in order to get home (lucky you), there are alternatives that can get you out of downtown quickly. The most notable are Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. Memorial is reached via Prairie Street and will take you west toward the West Loop. Allen Parkway's easiest entrance is Lamar Street, and it takes you toward 59 South through River Oaks and Midtown.
One lesser-known thoroughfare is Elysian Street, which runs north out of downtown via Crawford Street. It snakes its way through the city's east side before reaching the 610 Loop very near the Hardy Toll Road. If you live in The Woodlands and work in downtown (God help you), this is your best bet. Don't say I never gave you anything.
Lanny Griffith's 5 Traffic Hot Spots
The veteran of Houston traffic reveals the worst spots to be in rush hour...and otherwise.
By Lanny Griffith
Anywhere on 290
I can't believe there hasn't been any road rage up there. I guess the folks are numb after four years of living hell from construction.
North Freeway between Conroe and The Woodlands
Wall-to-wall cars going in and out. With Exxon hiring 10,000 people at its new digs, for-sale signs must be popping up everywhere.
Southwest Freeway at the West Loop
You know it's bad when the Texas Department of Transportation puts a permanent sign up telling you how many people have died on that stretch on 59 out to Beechnut.
The West Loop
It SUCKS, period.
Forty-five minutesto an hour every day to the Medical Center from Manvel. Where's that proposed toll road?
And if it's raining, multiply the above comments by 100.
Lanny Griffith is a traffic reporter for KROI 92 FM, the former Bureau Chief of METRO Traffic Control and a member of the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.