The Real Answer to Houston's Traffic Congestion

The Houston Chronicle editorial board recently argued that light rail is key to combating Houston's traffic congestion problems. But if you look at the three cities with worse traffic congestion than Houston - DC, Chicago, and LA - they have much more transit, including tons of light rail in LA. Transit clearly hasn't solved the problem in these cities. These people aren't stuck in that traffic because they like it - it's because the transit doesn't go where they need to go or isn't timely. This is especially true with the rise of dispersed job centers in those cities where the trains don't go or don't provide good connectivity to the suburbs where people live.  Let's see, in Houston we have downtown (<7% of jobs), uptown/Galleria, the med center, Greenway, Greenspoint, the Energy Corridor, Ship Channel, and NASA - among others.  If that's not a dispersed set of job centers poorly suited to rail connectivity, then I don't know what is.

It's absurd to argue a light rail network focused inside the 610 Loop is going to do anything to relieve congestion or provide relief to commuters from the vast suburbs outside the loop.  The solution is not doubling down on our multi-billion dollar LRT network, but instead scaling it back (University line only, IMHO) and instead spending the funds on a radical increase in express bus commuter services connecting all suburbs to all job centers with frequent nonstop 60+ mph transit using high-speed HOV/HOT lanes.  Imagine driving to your local suburban transit center (which might just be a mall parking lot) and finding regular, frequent express buses (of all sizes) serving every major job center in Houston.  These buses could have amenities like wifi and laptop trays.  They might even be run by private operators (with subsidized fares) competing on routes, schedule, reliability, service, and amenities.  And after they get to the job center, they can circulate to get you right to your building - no long walks in heat, cold, or rain.  Finally, all of this is a single-seat service without annoying and time-consuming transfers from bus-to-rail or rail-to-bus (or even rail-to-rail).

It's a much more practical solution for a city like Houston, but one that requires innovating 'outside the box' as a transit agency rather than parroting the "more rail" mantra that every other transit agency in the country repeats endlessly.

For more details, see these two previous posts:

This post originally appeared at Houston Strategies.

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Statement on DC not entirely accurate

Yes, DC does have bad traffic... but that VERY generalized statement doesn't reflect where that traffic is found. DC's traffic problems are primarily found in the auto-dependent fringes. The center city actually manages to avoid crippling traffic b/c there are so many people utilizing the Metro system.

Also, I think it is a problem of the Metro lines not serving areas where people want to go. Luckily for the DC metro area, many of the new developments are focused around Metro stations... increasing the options of metro accessible desirable spots AND the new Silver Line will feed Tyson's Corner. Already (and just this week) developers are already announcing plans to retrofit that suburban area to fit the urban densities that Metro will facilitate.

Everything is expensive... roads are expensive, rail is expensive. The question is a matter of what are the local priorities. Both are subsidies to their users. Do they want people to drive to business or have option to walk to businesses. DC, Chicago, New York have made their decision... and it looks like Houston, Dallas, and the like will make theirs.

Decision by city was partly made by history

New York and Chicago made the transit decision back before the Auto. Manhattan was about to choke and die when the subway and electric traction was introduced. If you read about NYC in the 1880s it must have stunk to high heaven with all the horses around. First they tried the elevated railroads, but because they ran steam engines the neighboring businesses got soot coated. NYC then went to the subways, with a lot of the building before the 1930s. (It was the subway that really opened up Queens and the like to development). Chicago having been since almost the begining was a railroad city, and had lots of them, so suburban rails where there. The city again build a lot of its transit before 1930.
The poster catches the problem the transit systems are promoted by the fans of the central city, who love it, (because they can do real estate developments and make a killing). But business and the like would rather locate in suburban areas, either because they are distribution warehouses where a skyscraper won't work, or perhaps manufacturing where low rise is evidently more efficient.