Congestion a constant for Houston commuters
Amount of time, fuel Houston drivers are losing is unlikely to improve as city grows
Updated 11:46 am, Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The good news is that traffic congestion isn't getting much worse in the Houston area. The bad news is it was pretty bad to begin with.
Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.
And it's unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.
"I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.
Planned toll projects on U.S. 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.
Drivers take the congestion in stride and devise their own strategies to deal with the hassle. Roger Wilson, 54, takes a park and ride bus from Katy, but his co-worker Brad Steele, 39, drives in from Spring. Over lunch Monday, both claimed their method was best.
"Yeah, you get to read or sleep," Steele told Wilson, "but I would rather have my car."
But as long as Houston attracts jobs, and those jobs attract workers, commuting hassles will persist, said Tim Lomax, a co-author of the mobility report.
With 4 million people in Harris County, and another 1 million coming in the next 20 years, the region will embrace new development patterns that reduce the need for driving - but on its own terms and without abandoning the car, Klineberg said.
"Suburban areas are developing town centers and walkable urbanist developments," Klineberg said, pointing to developments in The Woodlands, Sugar Land and Pearland.
The new patterns follow years of steady outward growth, leading to greater distances between homes and workplaces.
Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.
But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they've become more adept at saving themselves time.
"People are adjusting when they leave," Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.
Thus, even though they have the sixth-worst commute in the country based on hours of delay, the region's drivers rank 21st on a new calculation that determines how much extra time drivers have to build into their trips. The new measure, called the freeway planning time index, shows drivers don't have to build in as much extra time as others, because planning and good freeway clearance rates by tow trucks keep roads moving, Lomax said.
Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it's hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.
Still, drivers and elected officials said traffic congestion is spreading farther from the urban core and growing.
"I think within the next two years it is going to get worse," said Liberty County Commissioner Norman Brown, who said traffic is already worsening for some Dayton-area drivers.
Some congestion on the region's fringes is the result of trucking and manufacturing, Brown said. The mobility report found congestion accounted for $646 million in cost to businesses reliant on trucking in 2011, up from $490 million in 2007.
Emmett said the shipping growth demonstrates the need for investment in rail and other methods to move goods.
Lomax said congestion caused by flourishing truck business can be a good problem to have.
"Economic recession seems to be the one foolproof way of controlling congestion," Lomax said. "But nobody's saying that is a solution."