Houston Provides Lesson For How Fast-Growing Cities Can Relieve Congestion

Contrary to the “induced demand” theory, Houston has relieved congestion by building more roads.

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[This is Part 1 in a 2-part series on the transportation lessons to be learned from Houston. Both pieces were originally published by the blog Houston Strategies.]

Houston is a national model for mobility and congestion relief. The fourth-largest city in the nation, and at the top of most congestion rankings in the early 1980s, it actually reduced traffic congestion during the 1980’s and early 90’s according to Texas Transportation Institute statistics. While congestion has increased in nearly every major U.S. city since then, Houston’s aggressive mitigations have allowed it to increase congestion slower than 37 other cities during the last 20 years, despite being one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation. What lessons can we learn from Houston’s approach to transportation?

First, Houston seems to understand the realities of being a dispersed, multi-polar, car-based city of the last 50 years, and how that affects transportation decisions differently from the older, denser, transit-based cities of the northeast – particularly when it comes to the applicability of fixed rail transit.Houston has over a dozen major job centers, six of which are larger than downtown San Diego or Miami. This makes any kind of efficient or speedy rail network almost impossible, as multiple transfers would be required and employment buildings tend be dispersed – even within the job centers – which would lead to long walks from the stations in pedestrian-hostile hot, humid, and rainy weather.

They understand that suburban sprawl is a reflection of how most people want to live, and that transportation decisions can’t stop it. All transportation can do is determine whether affordable housing is available within a reasonable commute, and whether employers choose to stay in the core or move out to the newer, cheaper, less-congested, ever-expanding suburbs.

Realizing this, Houston has been extremely aggressive in adding new freeway capacity. It has nine major radial freeways, three ring freeways (with a 180-mile fourth one on the way), and 16 major 4 or 5 level interchanges. Houston has almost twice as many freeway lanes per capita as Los Angeles. As state funding has become more limited in recent years, they have embraced toll roads to continue adding capacity.

The results? Houston has kept affordable housing within reach, with the lowest housing costs of any major city in America. While its job centers are dispersed, the vast majority have stayed within the core and the city limits, keeping up the commercial tax base and avoiding a Detroit scenario.Houston’s four inner-core job centers – Downtown, Uptown, Greenway Plaza, and the Texas Medical Center – combine to have more jobs than any other U.S. central business district outside of Manhattan.

To provide contrast, Portland – which essentially stopped freeway and HOV expansion and focused on light rail during the 1990s – had traffic congestion grow three times faster than Houston during that decade and has experienced a far sharper decrease in housing affordability, even with similar population growth rates of about 26% during the decade.

Innovator

Rather than blindly following the models of other cities, Houston has been an ongoing innovator in transportation solutions. Houston was one of the earliest builders of frontage road lanes along the sides of freeways, which eased freeway entry and exit, supported substantial commercial development, and provided a noise and pollution buffer between freeways and residential areas. This buffer has minimized citizen opposition to freeway expansions. In fact, almost all major opposition to Houston freeway expansions over the years have been those occasional segments without commercial frontage roads.

Houston was an early pioneer in High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, and has built one of the largest networks in the nation with over 182 miles of safe barrier-separated lanes. During rush hour, each of these lanes carries the equivalent of four normal lanes of traffic. Houston has found these lanes far superior to rail for flexibility, cost, and speed.

“In a city like Houston, HOV lanes are very effective. It is the best way to get people out of their cars. It’s fast and serves a wide area at low cost.”

– Erik Slotboom, author of “Houston Freeways: A Historical and Visual Journey”

These lanes enable point-to-point express commuter bus and vanpool service at high-speed between many different residential areas and employment centers. By eliminating intermediate stops and transfers, trip times are reduced dramatically, which encourages greater use. And the buses can circulate at employment centers to get commuters closer to their final destination building.

When some HOV lanes got so popular that they had to move from two to a three-person requirement per vehicle, they became underutilized. To tap that unused capacity, Houston innovated with the Quickride program in 1998, allowing 2-person vehicles to pay a toll to use the lanes. This program is evolving towards a near-future of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes across Houston, where congestion pricing will be used to keep the lanes free flowing. The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), which owns the HOV lanes, is converting its entire network to two-way HOT lanes to get better utilization and increase money available for transit at the same time.

The prototype project is the $2 billion reconstruction of I-10 in west Houston. When complete, it will have a 4-lane congestion-priced toll road down the middle, with up to 25% of capacity reserved for Metro buses (a Virtual Exclusive Busway – or VEB). The freeway is being built by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT), but the toll lanes will be run by the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) in contractual partnership with Metro. Although it’s not always easy, Houston strives for cooperation between TXDoT, HCTRA, and Metro. The I-10 agreement was a cooperative breakthrough that is serving as a model for other projects across the city.

Finally, HCTRA has been an innovator itself with the nation’s first EZ-tag-only tolled freeway, the 20-mile Westpark Tollway, which opened in May 2004. The narrow right-of-way precluded normal toll collection plazas, so a 4-lane all-electronic tollway was squeezed into the available space. Camera enforcement with license plate snapshots has driven toll violations below 2%. HCTRA has also been noted for its cost effectiveness, building Westpark for only slightly more than $3 million per lane mile.

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