Houston commute times quickly increasing

HOUSTON – If you think you're spending more time on your drive to and from work, you're not going crazy. A Local 2 analysis of 200 commute combinations across Houston shows 85 percent of those commutes are taking longer than they did in 2011.

"I'm surprised at how rapid the increase has been," said Tim Lomax, a traffic congestion expert at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. "Naturally, when you see increases like that, you're going to have people make different decisions."

Using 2011-2013 traffic data from Houston Transtar, Local 2's analysis shows drivers on the Katy Freeway are experiencing the largest increases in travel times.

For a driver who leaves at 7 a.m., the average drive time on the Katy Freeway from Pin Oak to Downtown is 13 minutes longer than in 2011. Add on a 19-minute increase in the time it takes the same drivers to make a 5 p.m. commute home, and drivers on the Katy Freeway are spending more than 30 minutes longer in the car every day than they did two years ago.

"I'm not surprised. I'm living it," said Stacy Kohler, a commuter who drives from Katy to near Downtown. "You just have more and more people on the road. I used to get to work in under an hour, and that was a bad day. Now, the average is closer to an hour and 20 minutes."

Other Houston travel time increases include:

From FM 1488 near The Woodlands on I-45 North, you're spending around 18 minutes more in your car driving to and from Downtown.

On the Gulf Freeway, your drive time is now around 12 minutes longer to get in to the city and back home from FM 646.

It's taking 12 minutes longer to make the daily morning and afternoon commute on Highway 288 from Highway 6 to downtown.

It's also taking 12 minutes more to drive into downtown on I-10 East from Crosby-Lynchburg.

On the Eastex Freeway, the data shows it's taking 11 minutes more to make the morning and afternoon drive from Townsen to Downtown.

"Big picture, it shows Houston has a really good economy," Lomax said. "That's what we see as the downside of a lot of people and a lot of jobs."

Lomax says that's one reason why the times are so much longer on the Katy Freeway. Katy is an area experiencing massive population growth since 2011. Lomax says expansion and improvements finished on the Katy Freeway years ago also contributed to the traffic increase. Lomax describes it as an almost "build it and they will come" kind of situation.

"There's no panacea," Lomax said. "There's no secret drug you can take to fix the problem."

Texas Department of Transportation officials say there are major freeway expansion plans for Highway 290 into Houston from Cy-Fair, plus continued improvements planned for I-45 North and the Grand Parkway.

But what can you do now if you're stuck with a longer commute? It's not surprising, but Local 2's analysis found drivers leaving home before 7 a.m. and heading back from work before 5 p.m. have shorter travel times. Lomax predicts there will be travel time increases earlier in the morning and later in the evening as peak travel times grow.

"When you get to having 30 minutes longer each day to get to and from work, you're going to start seeing people head to work earlier," said Lomax. "People who are used to leaving for work at 7 a.m., they're probably going to find they need to start leaving 15 or 20 minutes earlier."

Lomax suggested the best immediate solution may be to ask to work from home for a few days or even a few hours a week, to help avoid all those peak traffic times.

"You're starting to see employers get more comfortable with that," Lomax explained. "I think that's where a lot of our congestion relief might come from."

Notable commute time changes on Houston freeways from 2011 to 2013:

I-10 Katy Freeway    
Pin Oak to Downtown  +13 minutes AM
Downtown to Pin Oak +19 minutes PM

I-45 North
FM 1488 to Downtown +11 minutes AM
Downtown to FM 1488 + 7 minutes PM

I-45 South
FM 646 to Downtown+12 minutes AM

I-10 East Freeway
Crosby Lynchburg to Downtown+12 minutes AM

Hwy 288 South
Highway 6 to Downtown +12 minutes AM

Hwy 59 Eastex
Towsen to Downtown AM+11 minutes AM

Hwy 59 Southwest Freeway
Grand Parkway 99 to Downtown +8 minutes AM

Hwy 290 Northwest
Barker-Cypress to 610+6 minutes AM

Westpark Tollway
610 to Hwy 6+7 minutes PM

Hardy Tollway
Downtown to The Woodlands+ 6 minutes PM

You can see Houston Transtar's entire historical freeway times database by clicking here.