Seeking the Roads Less Traveled
HOUSTON-Surrounded by cheap open land, Houston has long grown out, not up. And the roads have followed, beginning in 1948 with the first segment of its freeway system, the Gulf Freeway, which eventually reached Galveston. Today, Houston is defined by ever widening concentric beltways and crisscrossing freeways, toll ways, and feeder roads. Towering message signs announce delays. Meanwhile, commuters squint at the screens of their BlackBerrys for the latest updates from TranStar, the city's futuristic traffic control center. For decades in this quintessentially Texas city, the answer has been roads, roads, and more roads. At least until now.
Houston's traffic has reflected the city's boom-and-bust cycle; congestion actually diminished during the oil bust of the 1980s and picked up again when oil prices rose and business began to boom again in the late 1990s. Starting in 2000, traffic was Houstonians' top concern for six straight years in an annual poll conducted by Rice University Prof. Stephen Klineberg. By 2004, congestion had grown so bad that it actually inspired Houston's current mayor, Bill White, to run for office. He won, in part, on a promise to get Houston moving.
The area's regional planning body went to work, and the result, in 2005, was the Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation 2025 Plan, which called for a 78 percent increase in lane capacity to cope with the expected addition of 3 million residents to the metropolitan area over the next three decades. The $65 billion price tag was to be paid through state and federal funds, local bond issues, transit fares, tolls, car registration fees, and taxes.
Since then, though, the mood has changed, thanks to public hearings, municipal soul-searching, and Houston's lack of compliance with the Clean Air Act. Mayor White is pushing a multipronged approach-retiming traffic lights, for instance, and instituting a Safe Clear program to move stalled or crashed vehicles immediately. Last year, he enlisted area CEOs in a trial of flextime hours to reduce rush hour. Next year, Houston will add to its fledgling light rail system. And the 2025 plan is now slated to be replaced this summer by a new plan, 2035. It will reflect the broader approach as well, with a focus on more mass transit and redevelopment projects inside the area's major beltway. "It's a case study," says Klineberg, "in a city coming to grips with the 21st century."
This story appears in the May 7, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.