"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.
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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.