Cover Story: Trapped in Houston's Traffic Nightmare

If you are under 40 and live inside the 610 Loop, where many young professionals have moved in the last 10 years and continue to do so with the kind of frenzied pace normally reserved for the Loop itself, your solutions to traffic are probably quite different than if you live in Clear Lake.

When asked, most inner loopers will tell you that an expanded rail service, more hike and bike paths, better sidewalks and street repairs to some of our worst roads should be at the top of the list. Ask a suburban dweller and the answer is probably wider freeways, more Park and Ride options and better HOV lanes. Both ignore those forced to use public transportation every day in a city built by people who value their vehicles like they value their own lives.

But, at least we can agree on one thing: Houston traffic sucks.

Un-tangling the snarl of traffic in our rapidly growing city isn't easy. Rail is expensive and limited in how many people it can reach. Most people live too far to ride their bike to work, or walk. More concrete won't fix the fact that Houston will see a dramatic rise in population over the next decade. There is no one-size-fits-all fix, which makes the job of Metro Chairman Gilbert Andrew Garcia extremely difficult.

"We are mode agnostic," he said in a recent interview, explaining that it will take rail (light and commuter), HOV lanes, Park and Ride and rapid bus service to help repair some of the problems we created for ourselves through an irresponsible lack of planning over the last 50 years. And those are just the things under his purview. That doesn't account for street repairs, freeway design flaws and a serious case of sprawl that started long before most of the 20 somethings who are about to inherit this disaster were born.

Former city councilman and an advocate for pedestrian and bicycle-friendly city streets Peter Brown is more succinct in his assessment, "We have a traffic crisis in the city of Houston."

In this week's cover story, I went looking for hope and found more questions than answers. George Kovacik, Public Relations Manager at Houston Methodist Hospital, has been riding the bus and light rail to work from Kingwood nearly every day for seven years, which has extended the life of his car and reduced his stress. He told me that the Park and Ride system, at least in his neck of the woods is thriving, and the people riding it include some you might not expect.

"You would think that people who work in the oil industry and energy industry drive in," he said, "But the [park and ride] in Kingwood is packed every day. You're hard pressed to find a parking space within three-quarters of a mile of the bus."

Still, with so much to do and so little time to do it before the city's growth-to-traffic ratio gets out of control, it is hard not to just sit back and complain, confronted with the ugly truth that traffic may have to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, though, considering what it is like now, that is hard to imagine.

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