Houston transit: Why rail lines may not be enough to eliminate gridlock

By Aaron Wische - Senior Executive Producer, Dawn Jorgenson

HOUSTON - Three of Houston’s biggest freeways moves millions of people every day, but have you ever wondered how freeways ended up where they are today?

Houston’s transportation evolution began after WWII, and to this day, the past shapes our transportation future.

KPRC2 set out to find where we go from here to ease the gridlock, and more light rail lines might not be enough. However, driverless cars and high-speed bus lanes could change our commuting culture.

Houston-area traffic, the gridlock and the congestion cause bumper-to-bumper frustration.

"You just gotta be patient," driver Eija Watson said. "Usually it's pretty bad all over."

It's something Houstonians have learned to deal with, but today's traffic conditions have been a long time in the making.

"Historic infrastructural choices --those are things that last for 50 and 60 years," said Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research Professor Kyle Shelton, who has studied the history of Houston's roadways for years.

He's also the author of the new book "Power moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston."

Shelton said as the city developed into a booming metropolis post-WWII, planning the extensive roadways we use today caused heated debate on where major interchanges would be located.

But the less political voice you had, the less consideration you were given -- like in the third ward, where the I-45/288 interchange wiped out large swaths of that neighborhood.

The same thing happened in the fifth ward for construction of the I-10/59 interchange.

"In some cases I spoke with people who experienced it firsthand, who literally woke up to highway officials driving stakes into their front yards where the frontage road was gonna go," Shelton said.

The multi-billion dollar, decades-long investment was made, though. It was a decision that drove tremendous economic growth, making the Houston area a magnet for industry, trade and millions of newcomers.

But as a by-product years later, our highways have become magnets for the logjam.

"We are confronting those choices that are based on our past decisions, right? And so that means we are constantly confronting traffic congestion," Shelton said.

If the choices we make for our roadways can last 50 or 60 years, and knowing that traffic in Houston can oftentimes be frustrating, what decisions can we make today that might improve the situation for drivers on the road ahead?

"Investing in transit in Houston is investing in a different kind of roadway," said Tory Gattis, the founding senior fellow of the Houston-based think tank, Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Gattis said when he sees Houston's future in transit, he's not talking about railways at all.

"You'll be able to go to your local park and ride lot, get on a bus or a shuttle to go to any job center," Gattis said. "It'll go into autonomous mode when it gets in the lane. They'll be protected lanes, barrier-separated lanes, bigger than we have now. You'll be able to go up to 80, 100 mph, express to your job center in any kind of weather."

Gattis said he believes autonomous, driverless vehicles will become more popular, along with an increase of ride-sharing options, like Uber and Lyft.

Both Gattis and Shelton agree that all future directions will require the entire region to shift the focus of transportation dollars.

"Houston needs to look to the future and future technologies rather than looking to the past, like traditional rail transit, which only works in older cities, not newer sunbelt cities like Houston," Gattis said.

"If we expect to have a functional mass transit system we need to potentially invest the same, if not the exact same level as highways, to a much more significant level," Shelton said.

Shelton, Gattis, and others who study Houston traffic said our suburbs, like Katy, Sugar Land and the Woodlands will continue to develop their own industry and new transit systems to help ease the burden on drivers in the years to come.

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