Comment of the Day: Navigating Houston’s Heavily Congested Future

COMMENT OF THE DAY: NAVIGATING HOUSTON’S HEAVILY CONGESTED FUTURE Cars in Traffic“I’m for better transit (I won’t be mode-specific here), but it should never be sold as making the streets less congested for you to drive around on. While it may take some cars off the streets, Houston’s congestion is likely to be massive enough that you’d never notice. Do NYC and LA have uncongested streets? Obviously not, even though both cities have much much better transit than Houston — meaning they have better alternatives to being in congestion and having to find parking. Congestion and difficult parking are our future (I wager even with self-driving cars, if they’re all personally owned) — everyone needs to be at peace with that.” [Local Planner, commenting on Killing Any Chance of Later Rail Conversion on the New Post Oak Bus Lanes; The Bedbugs of Beverly Hill] Illustration: Lulu

23 Comment

  • Agree with this completely. The purpose of improving public transportation is not to reduce traffic congestion, but rather to give people a better alternative to sitting in traffic–or a means of transportation at all if they can’t afford a car.

  • That’s like saying, why build flood control retention ponds, it’s going to flood anyway. Look at New Orleans, the Corp spent 4 billion on flood control after Katrina; do you think New Orleans now has no flooding? Of course it still floods in New Orleans; they get 70 inches inches rain a year! The Corp built this to keep the city from becoming a lake, they knew they could never control the flooding. Transportation is the same thing; of course NYC still has traffic, not can you image what it would be without mass transit?! Nobody ever said Light Rail would cure all the traffic issues in Houston; it’s to help ease congestion so we don’t have a future of complete gridlock; it gives people an alternative, that is all. I think you completely misunderstand the primary argument and reasoning for Light Rail.

  • One of the issues that Houston faces is that it has multiple “jobs districts” that people are trying to get to.

    Here’s where people live:
    The Woodlands
    Spring Branch
    Sugar Land
    Clear Lake
    West Univ.
    and more

    And here’s where they need to get to for work:
    The Woodlands
    Greeway Plaza
    Energy Corridor
    Memorial City
    Medical Center
    and more

    So what’s the best way to connect all these multiple areas……heavy rail, light rail, HOV lanes, park & ride buses…..

  • @Shannon actually the primary reason for light rail is economic development for politically connected property owners along the route, and to establish a “sophisticated brand”. For the city.

    If you really wanted to address transporting people, you’d adopt a system like rapid bus transit which costs and order of magnitude less to operate per passenger mile than light rail.

  • Local Planner: I’m for alternative transit, but traffic will still be bad.


  • Agreed. If you add capacity, in whatever form, it will fill up. I would London to your list: a stupendous public transit system, and some of the worst traffic I have ever seen. Of course, the medieval city layout doesn’t help….

  • Is everyone here really comparing Houston to NYC and London for density? Do you think NYC or London would ever get to be the first class cities they are without mass transportation? Mass transportation is not an alternative option, it is a requirement when you have that many people and are that dense. NYC could not function if everyone had to drive to work, there isn’t enough parking. Downtown Houston would not work if everyone drove. The most recent study showed that over 50% of people who work downtown took an alternative method (walk, bike, park and ride, bus, rail). There is not some magic collection of empty garages downtown if everyone wanted to drive. Almost all of the garages are full, and they continue to raise their prices because of that demand. People take the bus and rail to downtown because they cannot drive, not because they choose to take the alternative.

    The sales tax dollars that go to metro subsidize the developers who build large office towers downtown since they do not have to provide the same minimum parking requirements that the rest of the city requires. The developers who build these towers should be taxed for the mass transportation that it requires to get those people to their office buildings. However, we should also be spending our money on mass transportation that can serve the most people, and a highway ring 60 miles around Houston does not serve the majority of Houstonians.

  • I support light rail, not a fan of the buses down Post Oak. I do ride the light rail on Main all the time, I have never rode a Metro Bus and have no intention of doing so in the future. I’m hardly anti transit; calm down.

  • Of course a large reason for Light Rail is to spur growth, but it’s foremost a people mover. The Nain Line connected Downtown with The Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park, people who work in that area use it, it’s obtuse and cynical to assert that it was only built as a development tool; you must support Rep Culbertson.

  • DD, I second that last paragraph.

  • @Shannon part of the reason the red line is so well used is the TMC took the parking shuttles away so everyone parking at smith lands, etc. had to take the rail in instead. It’s not about “growth and development” unless you own a property with in 1,250 feet of a rail stop.

    I’m not anti-transit, I’m anti-wasting taxpayer money. Seriously light rail costs 10x per passenger mile to operate than bus systems do.

    @DD the flaw in your argument is that London and NYC became “world class cities” because of their transit systems. The oldest transit systems are barely 150 years old — both those cities were well established as “world class” by that time.

    I’d agree that Houston needs to do something to address traffic congestion beyond continue to build roads because many are already at capacity without room to expand. But I think we should stop trying to be NYC or London, focus on what our city is good at, at what is unique to Houston, and adopt a system that meets our needs. I’d prefer some combination of commuter rail or more reversible HOV/Toll lanes with BRT system in the city. We need to think about who needs transit and where they need to go and build that system, not just what was popular at last year’s Planning Association or American Public Transit Association conferences.

  • If you don’t like the LA or NYC comparisons (and indeed these cities’ urbanized areas are much more populous, much more dense, and subject to a greater number of geographic constraints), look at Chicago or Philly or DC or Dallas. Each of these regions has a more extensive fixed-route transit system and serve as better proxies for some aspect about Houston’s future; according to the Texas Transportation Institute at A&M, each of these regions are as congested or more congested than Houston is.

    But of course, the other part of the demand function is that there tends to be an equilibrium between housing prices and people’s willingness to endure a long commute. That was just as true 100 years ago as it is today. If you make somebody’s commute easier, they’re more likely to move further away in order to shift their transportation savings over to housing savings (although as Austin aptly demonstrates, the reverse does not necessarily hold true). In so doing, they tend to normalize the congestion stats over a period of five to fifteen years almost irrespective of the amount of new capacity that is added by any given infrastructure project and regardless of the mode. But here’s the most important thing, is that housing tends to remain affordable both inside the city and beyond the city because there is an essentially unlimited supply of land and few barriers to entry. In addition, the more people (and especially well-educated workforce participants in the middle and later part of their careers) that a region can bring within a reasonable commuting time of its urban core, the more competitive the urban core will be for attracting major private-sector employers; this should be an especially vital consideration for a second-tier city that is competing to draw corporate headquarters away from expensive first-tier cities that have deep labor pools.

    To address the other point about self-driving cars — I actually think that these are a congestion cure, but only to the extent that the legislature or a federal safety agency has the balls to mandate their use in urban areas in all new vehicles and to pay to retrofit or replace older vehicles. If you compound this technology on top of ridesharing that is fully segmented according to consumer demands for luxury or privacy, I would wager that it becomes a congestion-killing parking-lot-relieving combination for perhaps a generation or two.

  • Planners original comment is absolutely true. Traffic won’t magically go away if you build light rail. Walker also hit the nail on he head. Houston is a poly-centric City. It’s no wonder why Houston featured prominently in Joel Garreau’s book “Edge City: life on the Urban Frontier.” In addition to he spider web of links that Walker suggested, we need to link the different neighborhoods where people work. People often go to meetings, and if they can’t do that, many of them won’t view transit as an option. (Granted they can always take cabs).
    I’ve harped on METRO’s stubbornness when it comes to rail, but I really think they are on the right path when it comes to buses, particularly with their Reinvisioning plan, and the Frequent Bus program. A big problem with buses (with any transit really) is that you get to a stop and have to wait. The shorter the wait, the more people will view transit as an option. It’s a lot better to wait five minutes or less, than to have to wait a half hour or more. I hope METRO expands the Frequent Bus program.

  • Shannon, buddy, I’ve got news for you. Your “I’m too white and middle class to ride the bus” attitude is a form of anti-transit animus that’s every bit as much of a factor here in Houston as the “I don’t wanna pay for it with my tax dollars” and “But it will bring poor criminals to my home” varieties.

  • I ride Light Rail all the time; I don’t see how it has anything to do with me being white that I don’t care to ride a bus. I like the idea of Light Rail and I hope it expands out to the airports and the outer suburbs. Buses pollute and certainly developers don’t clammer to build apartments along Bus Routes. I don’t think it’s elitist to prefer Light Rail and not care for Buses. You’re a little quick to judge.

  • @passiveagressivebike
    I will have to say that as far as Metro buses are concerned, I won’t ride one either. After commuting Downtown on one for a year and suffering through late departure from schedules, early departures from schedules, excessively bumpy rides (don’t think these buses are not a big cause of our horrendous roads) and patrons who stink, yell, ask for money etc…let alone a transit time that took triple the time it would it a car, .it did not seem worth the savings not to pay for parking and to regain better control of one’s time and peace of mind. Think of it this way, my not riding it leaves one more free space for you.

  • @JT: I don’t currently ride the bus either. But If they took care of the frequency issues and travel times, I would consider it. Smelly, ghetto passengers can be found on subways and trains in most other cities. They’re not a reason to steer clear. And while it’s true that buses damage some roads: the problem is the roads and not the buses. Particularly, the problem is how they repair roads. Asphalt repairs don’t hold up to heavy traffic. Houston desperately needs to index it’s road repair methods to its road classifications on the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan. Do asphalt patches on local streets and minor collectors, but require concrete patching on major collectors, thoroughfare, and major thoroughfares. This would take care of your bumpy bus rides.

  • It’s short sighted and colossally obtuse for the Uptown Chairman to insist that this can NEVER be converted to Light Rail. It makes zero sense to prevent a future conversion. So buses are ok but never Light Rail? How does thaw make any sense? I hope Garcia never signs that ridiculous letter. He should tell them to pay for it all and run their own buses down the street and Metro will pull their money from the project. Culbertson is a flat earther. It’s shocking that a district that had Archer and Bush Sr would now be represented by a complete and total fool. They always had pragmatic representation, but now the are being represented by a tea party zealot, not a lucid country club republican like in the past. I can’t believe no one has challenged him, surely that can find someone better; at least someone who doesn’t act like he was raised in a cave.

  • @ Shannon: You’re about as transparent about being too wealthy and too white to ride buses as my cousin from Alabama is about his claim that he isn’t being racist about his preferred immigration policy.

    And FYI, light rail pollutes, too; it just displaces the pollution qualitatively, temporally, and geographically. And if Midtown is any example, developers only clamor to build apartments near light rail when the large contiguous blocks of land two blocks or more west of it have already been used up. To anticipate the counter-argument, we can discern that light rail is not a strong amenity because we can use Discovery Green or Market Square to get an idea of what actually is a strong amenity. In each case, land values increased; but in the case of parks, development thrived in spite of land price increases whereas with light rail, development generally has not tolerated the increased land values and has been chased away. Moreover, if the developers hadn’t (eventually) built apartments near Main Street with or without light rail, they would’ve built them somewhere else because the capital markets perceive demand in Houston to be strong.

    Re: Culberson’s electability in the context of a strong Tea Party election cycle, I would imagine that being anti-light-rail and Republican is a much stronger single-issue voting bloc than being pro-light-rail and Republican. I’d imagine that that is almost always true, actually, and that any Republican that actually is pro-light-rail places it as a very low priority in the pantheon of issues. Likewise, its hard to imagine Democrats sacrificing much political capital to press forward on rail, especially if allocating more money to transit trunklines means that there is less money for neighborhood-level service.

  • The urbanist principle at play is that available auto capacity is always going to be maxed out. The mistake cities make is adding auto infrastructure (more lanes and more parking) in order to reduce automobile congestion. It’s been proven over and over that auto sprawl abhors a vacuum and that the best bet is to maximize the number of ways people can move around town. This represents a real problem for Houston in that properly functioning BRT, bicycle, light rail, streetcar, bus and subway systems typically work best when people can live close (walkable distances) to available routes–which is rough given Houston’s low population density, pretty strictly segregated usage areas, and dearth of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Which are all of course symptoms of designing a city around cars. Cities that assume the human body as the unit of measure (some of our eastern cities, and most cities outside the US) don’t have intractable car problems because they have been better able to integrated various modes of transit–because the city is scaled to permit such. If Houston wants to plan for more than just cars it will take decades of planning for adapting our city to people rather than cars. Up to know the single occupant car is Houston’s unit of measure. Any alternative can, must, and should put a squeeze on that assumption. So far Houston is pretty good for driving, not much good for being on your feet outside.

    The thing about ‘world class cities’ is that they all grew organically around the human body–makes car traffic difficult. Houston grew around the car–makes most other uses less inviting and less manageable. We like being in cities outside the US because you can actually be in the city–as opposed to in your car that’s in the city.

  • Wanted: Apple or Android code writer/programmer who can develop an app that auto-filters any and all posts by this Shannon character. What begins life as semi-reasonable discussion about rapid transit benefits invariably gets highjacked by Shannon and turned into ‘my opinion is correct above all others’ and ‘why are you attacking me’ post.

  • @ Andy: Are ‘global cities’ considered as such because the physical legacy of their past endows them lifestyles that you find aesthetically pleasing, or are ‘global cities’ considered as such because the legacy of the past has endowed them with institutions and pools of highly-specialized labor that persist perhaps even in spite of the constraints posed by the physical legacy of their past? It strikes me as though the things that you find captivating are actually symptoms of a problem. That might be why those cities seem to have big problems with domestic out-migration.

    On a related note, you can use Census data to break out the time that it takes commuters to arrive at work according to the mode of travel. It would probably surprise you that Houston’s travel times are shorter than NYC or Chicago regardless of the mode of transportation used and in spite of Houston’s vast low-density sprawl; in particular, there are fewer extreme commuters in Houston; and we also vastly outperform them for our size in terms of carpooling.

  • Re: TheNiche’s comment from 9:01am stating that apartment development in Midtown happens regardless of the rail line being there is essentially correct. Riding light rail from an apartment in Midtown to employment in downtown or the Medical Center only has the benefit of not having to pay to park in a garage all day while at work. You can drive to your office in either of those places just as fast, if not faster than the light rail will take you there.
    Which leads to what the OP was getting at in the COtD posted at the top of this thread…light rail in and of itself will not really reduce congestion on Houston highways. It might mitigate things a small amount, but only if a larger number of people chose to live within walking distance of LRT stations and use transit, as opposed to buying a home in suburbia and driving in on the freeways. METRO’s light rail system, being developed at grade along existing right of ways is just essentially a streetcar service, and should not be confused with something called “rapid transit”, which needs to operate in a grade-separated environment to offer faster commuting times.