In Houston, if you are driving on a freeway and there is no traffic, you can be relatively certain it is a holiday or early morning on a Sunday. Even then, road construction and accidents can make your travels miserable. For the past month-plus, the city has experienced a prolonged and welcome respite from traffic thanks to the lockdown associated with the coronavirus. But with Governor Greg Abbott re-opening the state on Friday over the cautions of some political and healthcare leaders, should we expect a logjam Monday morning? Maybe.
First, many businesses like retail and restaurants are only open at 25 percent capacity. Also, there are plenty of offices that will allow employees to work from home if they are able. Finally, city and county facilities, for the most part, will still be only open on a limited basis.
Still, thousands upon thousands of Houstonians will be getting back to work on Monday. We say Monday even though Friday is the first official day of the "re-opening" because we can all agree most people aren't going back to work in a way that will cause all kinds of traffic until Monday. The three-day weekend beckons for many.
Once we do see the traffic around town on Monday morning, it will tell us a lot about just how re-opened we are as a city. Expect the biggest jams on the West Loop, where a years-long construction project continues unabated, and near downtown. Those should be expected given that they are hubs of enterprise. But what about suburban commuters?
It will be interesting to see if large percentages of workers from Kingwood, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Clear Lake, Katy, Pearland and Baytown will begin making the trek into the heart of the city again.
Best guess is the roads will be a bit like a minor national holiday when banks and government offices are closed, but everyone else is working. Traffic will increase a bit from lockdown levels, but we won't see the intense, hours-long commutes pre-COVID-19. At least not yet. Too many people will still be off (or out of) work and others will continue to work from home.
And given the polling numbers showing a majority of Americans don't think we are ready to go back to work in full force yet, there will be plenty who either don't go in or coax their employers to keep the status quo for a while longer, until they can truly feel safe.
In some ways, traffic in Houston will be a hopeful sign that life has begun to return to normal. But, you'll forgive us if in the midst of our hoping for a swift end to the pandemic, we don't add a return to freeway congestion of the past to our wish list.