Houston Traffic Is Not Nearly as Bad as You Think

We like to complain about this, but it could be a LOT worse.
We like to complain about this, but it could be a LOT worse. Photo by David Rogers via Flickr
No one sitting on the West Loop during rush hour is going to be persuaded by the headline of this story, but they shouldn't be looking at their phones right now anyway. We love to complain about traffic in Houston and we often have good reasons, many of them enumerated in this very publication over the years. But, compared to most places, we live in a driving paradise.

In doing research for stories about congestion, we ran across the Tom Tom Traffic Index. You might know Tom Tom from their portable GPS traffic systems in cars. Well, they began tracking vehicles on freeways across the world in real time eight years ago and the data they have compiled is rather eye opening.

They measure traffic data from the largest 403 cities around the globe, any city over 800,000 people, which includes six cities in Texas: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and McAllen. They measure what they call "congestion level," described on their website as such:

The congestion level percentages represent the measured amount of extra travel time experienced by drivers across the entire year. We start by establishing a baseline of travel times during uncongested, free flow conditions across each road segment in each city. We then analyze travel times across the entire year (24/7) for each city – and compare this information against free flow periods to derive extra travel time.

An overall congestion level of 36% means that the extra travel time is 36% more than an average trip would take during uncongested conditions.

It's an intriguing look at not just how traffic is in different places, but how it is improving or worsening. In 2018, they began showing the index from the previous year. And while there isn't data going back eight years, just the one-year changes for some places are dramatic (go, Jakarta, with your 8 percent drop!).

First, the rankings in Texas. Austin is actually the worst at 25 percent, Houston is second at 23 percent followed by DFW (18), San Antonio (17), McAllen (17) and El Paso (15). Houston, Dallas and San Antonio saw 1 percent decreases in 2018 over 2017. The other cities remained the same.

For anyone who has driven in both Houston and Austin, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the state's capital struggles with rough traffic. Caught between battles over regional transit and an expanding population, ATX can be a pretty rough ride.

But, when you look at the bigger — global — picture, you realize just how far down the list Houston is considering all the issues we've had.

Houston ranks 18th in the United States, 23rd in North America and doesn't even make the worst 200 in the world (Austin clocks in at 197). Our congestion rate is better than places that are much smaller than Houston and with far more public transit options. Naturally, LA and New York City are the two worst in the United States. But you might be surprised to see Atlanta, Seattle and Baton Rouge (of all places) in the top 10 in America, well ahead of H-Town.

If you really want to count your blessings, try comparing us to some of the worst situations around the world. The top nine including Mumbai, Bogota, Lima, New Delhi, Moscow, Instanbul, Jakarta, Bangkok and Mexico City all have congestion percentages above 50 percent. Mumbai is at a mind-blowing 65 percent.

Mumbai's worst day of the year last year saw congestion rates of 111 percent, which is staggering.

Back home in Houston, our worst day last year was Halloween. On that day, traffic rates were 44 percent higher than when freeways are clear.

A couple other notes: Houston's traffic is worse during evening rush hour (59 percent) than morning (42). On a commute that takes 30 minutes with clear roadways, during evening rush, it takes 48 minutes. And the worst time of the week to be on the road is Thursday between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. We see you sneaking out early for a three-day weekend.

By no means should we all site smugly satisfied and talk about how amazing it is to only tack on 18 minutes to our 30-minute drive (though we could scoff a bit at anyone who swears Austin is way better than Houston), but when you consider what it is like in other places, maybe we should count our blessings.
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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