How the Coronavirus Could Reshape the Debate on Traffic in Houston

Haven't seen much of this lately.
Photo by Doogie Roux
Haven't seen much of this lately.
For years the debate over traffic in Houston has centered primarily around two concepts. The first is that we needed far greater vehicle infrastructure (i.e. more freeways) to handle the surge in commuters and those new to the city. The second was a move toward more public transportation with an emphasis on rail services, particularly to the suburbs.

There have, of course, been plenty of other ideas bandied about from increasing walking and bike riding, especially in the city core, to an increase in density in areas closer to work. While those are both worthwhile ideas, it's a bit like saying there is a resurgence in interest in vinyl records when they went from 0.1 percent of the entire music sales market to 0.2 percent.

Ultimately, the battle between more concrete and more rail is at the heart of the matter.

But, if there is anything we have learned from the quarantining and working from home during the coronavirus outbreak, it's that traffic is greatly diminished when fewer people are on the road. But, until recently, did anyone actually think convincing business it was a good idea for their employees to work remotely?

Now, we are being forced into it. Sure, there are plenty of folks who have no choice but to work in an actual work setting, but Houston has a tremendous amount of white collar work environments for which there are legitimate ways to "telecommute," as they called it in the old days.

Commercial real estate developers won't be thrilled with the premise, but imagine major employers giving their employees even just a single day each week to work from home. Or, better yet, give those with the ability to work from home the option of doing it most if not all of the time.

That would have to be thousands of people off the roads just like that without another ounce of concrete poured or a single foot of rail track laid. No doubt the city and county could find ways to incentivize businesses to do this. God knows it could save millions each year in everything from pollution to wear and tear on area highways.

This is not a panacea, however. We need better (much better) public transportation and we do begrudgingly need more roads. But maybe this quarantine will help businesses to recognize the work-at-home option is not only viable, it can be productive.

And the city would owe them a debt of thanks in the process.