Houston Freeway Traffic: A Primer for Newbies and a Refresher Course For the Rest of Us

When U.S. 290 opened to five lanes, people living along that corridor shed tears of joy.
When U.S. 290 opened to five lanes, people living along that corridor shed tears of joy. Photo by Jeff Balke
Hey, welcome to Houston! You'll love it here...once we get to October. But, there are some things you should know, particularly about Houston's ungodly traffic. Recently, a gentleman emailed us from Canada saying he was moving to Houston (to the far northwest side, to be specific) and had questions about the traffic problems along the Northwest Freeway. First, we chuckled, then we assured him his drive would suck no matter what the status of construction along that long-suffering corridor.

But, seriously, there are some parts of town that are better than others and knowing your way around will help you know what you are in for. For our purposes here, we are going to stick with the major highways in and out of town. We'll get to the Loops and smaller highway options in a later installment.

Interstate 10 West

Nickname: Katy Freeway
Construction Status: Recently expanded and generally good to the county line.
Type of Drivers: Well off imported car drivers and truckers passing through.
Worst Stretch: Near the interchanges

I-10 West passes through the Energy Corridor on its way into town and out toward the suburbs. Since its expansion to five lanes, traffic has improved on this busy highway. It still bogs down near the interchange with Beltway 8 during evening rush and it can get pretty nasty both near the West Loop and Interstate 45 near downtown on your way in. Unfortunately, there aren't really any faster ways to get in and out of town from the west, so you're stuck with this one.

Interstate 10 East

Nickname: East or (sometimes) Baytown Freeway
Construction Status: Expansion project is underway and will be a real headache for drivers heading east for some time.
Type of Drivers: Industrial employees and semi drivers.
Worst Stretch: Around the San Jacinto River bridge.

Some of the region's biggest industrial areas are located east of town near Baytown. As a result, this freeway it typically chock full of big rigs. A major expansion is now in the planning stages, but there are areas, particularly near the San Jacinto River, that are already being "fixed." There isn't much you can do to avoid this highway, so consider METRO's Park and Ride or have a good list of podcasts to enjoy.

Interstate 45 North

Nickname: North Freeway
Construction Status: Expansion project expected to begin in the next few years between downtown and Beltway 8.
Type of Drivers: People heading to the airport.
Worst Stretch: The Shepherd Curve

The drive between downtown and the airport along the North Freeway is, how do we put this, ugly. It is a really unfortunate view for many first visiting Houston to have on their ride in. And the traffic here gets pretty nasty during both rush hours. A planned major expansion won't help things over the next 5 to 10 years. The worst is near a bend in the freeway about halfway between downtown and the Beltway at Shepherd Drive. Don't run late for your flight and expect drivers here will show you mercy. However, if you need to get WAY outside the Beltway, you can hop over to the Hardy Toll Road.

Interstate 45 South

Nickname: Gulf Freeway
Construction Status: See I-45 North.
Type of Drivers: People going to and (God help us) coming from the beach.
Worst Stretch: Near the University of Houston

A recent completed expansion in Clear Lake really has helped to ease congestion near the Beltway, but the closer you get into town, the worse it gets. As you near downtown, the freeway narrows and traffic is brutal day or night. If you have a flight out of Hobby, plan ahead. The expansion that has already begun here is part of the overall Interstate 45 plan and it will last for years, so buckle up.

Interstate 69 South

Nickname: Southwest Freeway
Construction Status: New construction near the downtown interchange to begin soon.
Type of Drivers: Culturally diverse Houstonians.
Worst Stretch: Near the Spur and the 610 Loop

For the purposes of this story, we will identify the Southwest Freeway as everything between Interstate 45 in downtown and Sugar Land. The good news is everything south of the Loop has been expanded and the traffic along there is remarkably good most days despite how awful it used to be. The bad news is the area near the Loop and then between Spur 527 and downtown is a nightmare. Both the 69/610 interchange and the 45/69/288 interchange are planned for simultaneous construction projects. Given that this area contains some of Houston's most popular areas (Montrose, Museum District, Medical Center, Rice University, Upper Kirby), that construction is going to cause some serious headaches. Try to avoid it by taking a side road or Uber.

Interstate 69 North

Nickname: Eastex Freeway
Construction Status: Fine, once you leave the downtown area.
Type of Drivers: Suburbanites, Astros fans and those taking an alternate route to the airport.
Worst Stretch: Downtown...and getting worse.

Imagine that over the next 10 years, all traffic from I-45, I-69 and much of I-10 will be routed through downtown along the current corridor used currently just for I-69 and you can see how this stretch of freeway will be nearly un-traversable over the next however many years it takes to get the project finished. Once you get out of downtown, the drive north is pretty damn pleasant, but you may NEVER GET OUT!

Texas State Highway 288

Nickname: South Freeway
Construction Status: Minor expansion underway.
Type of Drivers: People looking for an alternate way to the coast, fans of Killen's Barbecue.
Worst Stretch: Inside the Loop

SH-288 has been undergoing a rather small expansion to increase HOV lanes. Pearland, which is the suburb south on 288, has grown dramatically, as have many other neighborhoods in that corridor, and there are growing pains. That expansion should be done in a year or so, but there isn't currently a long-term plan for what to do next. As a result, the highway is still fairly small and it can get bogged down in traffic near the interchanges. This does have one of the best views of the skyline on your way in, however.

U.S. 290

Nickname: Northwest Freeway
Construction Status: Almost complete, praise the Lord.
Type of Drivers: The annoyed kind.
Worst Stretch: Between the Beltway and Highway 6.

You can't blame drivers who have to travel 290 on a daily basis for their hostility. For seven years, the construction has been nothing short of apocalyptic. But, it has also been necessary. The northwest part of Houston, from Oak Forest to Jersey Village to Cypress, has been one of the city's fastest growing. They have dodged pot holes, tried to figure out ever-changing entrances and exits, and spent the equivalent of perhaps months of their lives stuck here. Fortunately, the entire project will be completed in early 2018. Traffic will get better and we can move on to complaining about something else, like why there are no good grocery stores between the Loop and Jersey Village.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke