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We’ll always have bottlenecks

Andrew Burleson points out an ugly fact.

Has anyone else noticed that traffic on I-10 is still not great?

I have a ‘reverse’ commute on I-10 every day. Before the expansion traffic was fine inside the loop outbound in the morning, slow outside the loop. Inbound in the evening it was slow outside the loop, fine inside, except near the 10-45 interchange.

Now things are much smoother outbound, no delay at all. Inbound, however, is a nightmare. Traffic comes to nearly a complete stop approaching the 10-45 interchange, and is usually very slow all the way back to Shepherd / Durham.

Observing the ‘regular’ commuters across the median, things are of course worse. In the mornings the backup to get onto the loop or through the 10-45 interchange is insane, it’s bad in the evenings as well.

The reason for this is pretty simple. The interchange from I-10 to I-45 is one lane for each direction. It’s the exit to I-45 south, which is the way into downtown and points south like the Medical Center (via 288) and Greenway Plaza (via 59), that’s the biggest mess, and with more traffic being brought in thanks to the outside-the-Loop expansion of the freeway, the bottleneck is that much worse at this point. I can confirm Andrew’s observation, because one way I have to get to work after I drop the girls off at preschool is I-10 to I-45 to SH-288. In theory, it’s the fastest way for me to get to where I work by the Astrodome, even though it’s a longer-distance drive. But just about every day as I approach I-10 from Height Blvd, and I can see that traffic is basically at a crawl from before there onward, I say the hell with it, and I take my chances on the surface roads instead. It’s not really any faster, but I find it to be less stressful, and it offers me the chance to take an alternate route if it turns out there’s a real obstruction beyond just the sheer number of vehicles.

That’s kind of the dirty secret of all the highway construction we’ve had in Houston over the past two decades or so. We can spend billions of dollars to improve the drive out to the burbs – and we have! – but driving in town is still hell. This is just one example. The others I have in mind are no doubt familiar to you:

– US 59, northbound from roughly Kirby through downtown. It’s truly amazing just how unutterably horrible traffic is on that stretch of highway. I’ve been southbound on 59 coming from downtown a couple of times in recent weeks at around 2 PM on a weekday, and it’s all clogged up. I can only imagine how much worse it must be during rush hour; actually, I don’t have to imagine it, as I recently experienced it. The reason for this is simple: Five lanes of northbound traffic squeezes down into three lanes that go past the downtown spur, then into only two lanes as one peels off for the ramp to I-45. You do the math.

– I-45 on the Pierce Elevated, both directions. It’s the same problem as above: Multiple lanes of traffic coming in narrow down to two lanes at the interchange with 59 and 288. I’ve hammered on this point many times during the longstanding discussion about widening I-45 north of downtown, because as long as the Pierce is this way, you’ll just be pouring an ever bigger bucket of water into the same size funnel, with predictable results.

I should note that I-10 at the I-45 interchange also slims down to two lanes passing through, with one lane going to 45 South and another going into downtown via Smith Street, but unlike the other two examples above, I don’t think most of the traffic is continuing on – in my experience, things flow a lot better once you get past the exit for 45, despite the paucity of bandwidth. That may change some day, if there’s a reason for more traffic to keep going east at that point, but for now it’s not a big deal.

What all of these choke points have in common is that there’s not a damn thing we can do to add capacity. We can’t widen the Pierce Elevated. We can’t widen 59 entering downtown. Remember, we just spent a chunk of money renovating the Pierce, and redoing 59 in that area, which included putting all of it beneath street level. There’s simply no room to widen them. Because we can’t widen the Pierce, we can’t improve the interchange from I-10, for the same reason: no room to add capacity. If your daily routine includes any of these routes, it will never get any better for you. In all likelihood, it will just get worse. It’s no wonder to me that the plans for the I-69 part of the Trans Texas Corridor bypassed Houston altogether. Why would you want your long-haul truckers getting stuck in this mess when they don’t need to?

So what can we do about this? We can do what I’ve been agitating for over and over again around here, which is to create transportation alternatives for the inside-the-loop traveller that gets them where they need to be without the need for these hot spots. Yes, I’m talking about more light rail. In particular, I say my Kirby Drive route would do a lot to keep the 59/45 problems from getting even worse, since it would provide a north-south alternative for a very dense part of town. I proposed that route mostly because I think it’s the best answer to the increasing congestion on the surface roads, but let’s face it, one reason for that increasing congestion on the surface roads is because of people like me who are turning to them as alternate routes to the highways. It may not be an alternative for that guy who needs to get from Greenway to the Woodlands or Humble, but if it keeps a few Greenway to Heights commuters off the road he’s traveling, it still benefits him.

The bottom line is simply this: We cannot add capacity to the highways inside the Loop the way we can outside it. Just as we cannot add capacity to the surface roads, our only viable option for ameliorating the greater volume of traffic in Houston’s inner core is to add transit. I’ve made these points before, and I’ll keep making them because it’s everywhere you look. Either we add transit, or we’re doomed to lousy mobility in Houston’s densest areas.

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9 Comments

  1. Jeff N. says:

    Quite right. Isn’t this another case where the public interest in mobility has been sacrificed to lobbyists (the highway contractors) and ideology (the Culbertson crowd)?

  2. Dale says:

    You are right about being doomed to lousy mobility, because mass transit is by definition lousy mobility — just different lousy mobility. A few years ago I crashed a car and had to wait a couple of months to buy a new one. I took the bus to work, which required two transfers — the worst work nightmare of my life. And the trolley-called-rail is so slow that I have literally outrun it between stops on occasion.

  3. Charles,
    I am VERY surprised that you have ignored the i-45 tunnel/parkway concept. I been preaching it since 2004 and included the URL on my comment postings.
    But you have offered me a great opportunity to say – the solutions to your problems is in the i-45 tunnel concept that extends I-45 through downtown connecting I-10, 59 and 288. As you indicate Pierce Elevated cannot be expanded easily but European engineers experts in tunneling have been to Houston and have met with local geotechnical engineers and have concluded that sure, a tunnel can be bored under Houston and under the Pierce Elevated.
    If you need detailed explanation lets get together and will give you a more detailed explanation. We could have a superb conversation plus will help the entire Houston community to understand modern engineering methods and how cities like Madrid can put highways underground and have incredible outcomes like Calle 30 http://www.mc30.es.
    FYI – Two factors that you bring up. 1) Highway traffic and 2) Street traffic.
    50% plus of highway traffic in urban areas is local traffic. i.e. Charles Kuffner taking the girls to school via a state highway because it is easier THAN city streets. But if you could have an alternative route of good CITY streets then you would note even bother with the highway.
    Homework time – check a city of Houston street map and check the roadway network. Follow the street grid in particular major streets. The same observation that you have made on highways (about reduction of lanes) happens on city streets. What else happens on city streets?
    1. bad pavement surface
    2. narrow (unsafe) lane widths
    3. inefficient traffic signals
    4. dead ends
    5. construction at peak hours, etc.
    So, under current conditions of local streets the better alternative for local traffic is to use the highways. The problem is that people that have to use the highways don’t have another option but to stay on the highway.
    Therefore, we have 50% through traffic and 50% local traffic clogging the highways. It is not all the suburb traffic entering the CBD.
    If I remember correctly, more than 60% of traffic on I-10 between Beltway 8 and Loop 610 was/is local traffic. Thus if local traffic (Charles K.) had a good roadway system to access it (Charles K.) would not need to access I-10/59/288. Do check the roadway map of the area again and check for the grid of streets, mainly east-west streets. For us to get south of 288 the best option is to take the highways else we have Montrose Blvd. I normally take Heights/Waugh and then cross over to Montrose Blvd.
    Another point you bring up. Light rail is the solution to traffic congestion. I doubt it very much. In Honk Kong over 80 percent of home-work trips are by mass transit (subways, trains, buses), their streets are congested with traffic during peak hour. Same in New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Kiev, Santiago, etc. I been to all of these cities. If mass transit was the answer to traffic congestion why are all these cities (that have extensive mass transit) congested in particular during peak hours?
    I have also used the Tube in London during peak hours. It was not pleasant. I can appreciate driving a car instead of the tube.
    I have also used the METRO in Kiev during peak hours. If the Tube was bad you should experience Kiev at 5 PM.
    Personally, there must be a balance between the many modes of transportation. Not a single mode is the answer. However, having a good roadway network in the city is the building block to transportation. Also having good transit service is the building block to mass transit. How would you rate both both of them?

  4. Mike Harrington says:

    The only place the light rail line is slow is in the medical center. There are too many left turn lanes, too many traffic lights and crowds of people getting off and on. Other than the mile or so between Braes Bayou and North MacGregor, it is as fast as you can get with a street transit line that stops about every ½ mile.

    You can’t easily build subways in Houston. Even if you could, the price would be stratospheric for more than a mile or so. What’s your alternative?

    Dedicated bus lanes? Check out NYC’s new “rapid bus” implementation. How’s that working out? People are driving and parking in the bus lanes, including the police. Rapid bus is fast, but only in theory. In practice, the expression is an oxymoron. Even if you could enforce the bus-only lane, light rail would still be faster because electric traction motors accelerate far more quickly than internal combustion buses, hybrid or not.

    The only other option is elevated rail. It would be great for suburbanites, but what will the people who live on the streets where the elevated trains run say? And where is the money going to come from to elevate mile after mile of rail?

    Houston only spends that kind of money on highways. Dallas can do it for light rail, but Dallas has always been ahead of Houston when it comes to thinking ahead and putting money where their mouths are. And Dallas didn’t pave over their abandoned ailroads like Houston did. Dallas preserved their abandoned railroads for decades, long before they even knew what kind of vehicles would use them.

    There are more progressive cities in the US for transportation, e.g., Portland and Denver, but Dallas is no slouch. Dallas consistently has been 20 years ahead of Houston, and probably always will be.

  5. Dale – Your experience with the rail line does not match mine at all. I find it to be of comparable speed to my car for the trips I take into places like downtown and the medical center. As for buses, what do you expect? They’re on the same crowded streets as your car, and they have to make more stops.

    Gonzalo – No, I did not mention your I-45 Tunnel concept, which I have praised before in this space. Putting aside questions about whether or not it would ever actually get built, I thought it only extended into downtown, not through it. If it did, then sure, it would be additional capacity for the Pierce. So would a second tier above the Pierce, like I-35 in Austin. I don’t see that happening, either.

    But even if the tunnel were built, and even if it extended through downtown, it still doesn’t solve the problems I identified on I-10 or US-59. Maybe then an extra exit lane could be added to I-10, but 59 remains as it was.

    I’m not sure what your point is regarding the traffic in London and New York. Sure, the streets are more crowded there, but as you yourself have noted, those places are way denser – NYC has 26,000 people per square mile, London 12,000, Houston 3,000. How much worse do you think our traffic would be if Houston were that dense? And how much worse would theirs be if they didn’t have subways? As someone who regularly commuted by subway in Manhattan, I can tell you that my daily commute was pretty darned predictable. I’m saying the same thing you are – we need a mix of solutions. I’m just saying we need to add more to the transit mix, because there just isn’t enough of it.

  6. eiioi says:

    That’s kind of a false dilemma. I’m not arguing against the current LRT line, the 5 planned lines, or even a few streetcar routes like the Gray/Peden pair. However, saying that we can’t add capacity inside the loop isn’t true and isn’t helpful. We can work on freeways AND transit.

    I don’t agree with “We can’t”, “we can’t”.

    I think that something can and will be done through the Pierce elevated area. Whether it’s a tunnel, double-decked (not my preference), or a widened Pierce elevated, yes widened Pierce elevated, something will happen. For some reason, we now have to have the Pierce elevated not actually elevated above Pierce St. at all – it’s the Pierce St. ROW and then the Pierce Elevated ROW. I don’t see why we couldn’t have 5 lanes each way there, if we put Pierce St. completely underneath the Pierce Elevated and got rid of those stupid parking lots. I’m not saying this won’t cost a lot, but I don’t think it’ll be less cost-effective than constructing 20 or so light rail lines (5-6 is okay, beyond that I don’t see much incremental benefit).

    On U.S. 59, in the relatively short term, the elevated portion south of Midtown would only need one extra lane northbound between Main St. and the 288 exit. This is less than one mile. (One lane was done recently on 59 east of downtown EACH WAY relatively easily and this was several miles).

    For the longer term, I don’t see why the 288/59/45 multiplex and interchange is seen as space-constrained. It’s already below grade with sloped sides (read: unused ROW). There could be a few at-grade lanes for exits or even two levels below grade for exits, as these options are seeming to becoming the norm now (SB BW8 to EB exit to Westpark, EB Silber entrance to I-10, Westpark begin/end in Uptown, NB feeder road under U.S. 59, etc.).

    For now, yes, I agree the traffic sucks. We’ve created a better daily ride for maybe 300,000 and a worse one for maybe 100,000. That doesn’t mean we should give up on improving freeways though.

  7. Charles,

    What you brilliantly pointed out is the lane balance. Thus i10 and i45 put vehicles in fewer lanes at Pierce Elevated.

    Is it feasible to add a highway lane next to the existing pierce elevated? Either side will have to take buildings down, federal building on the inside and several others on the outside.

    Is it feasible to add highway lanes at grade? I doubt it.

    What about a second level (third) like Austin? Sure, engineering wise it can be done. Do you think midtown and downtown will like that?

    The Governor of Washington has recently announced that they will tunnel their viaduct and the existing one will be replaced with a transit street. In contrast we talk about the possibility of adding a second level to Pierce Elevated.

    Pick your choice. Your city. Your future. How do you want Houston to look like in 20 or 50 years?

    When I presented the tunnel to TxDOT they indicated that if they had to put tunnels the Pierce Elevated would be a good candidate. Prior to the I-45 tunnel concept TxDOT’s I-45 expansion went from I-10 north to Beltway 8. I saw the limits yesterday. If not mistaken, the study includes i45 south from i10 through downtown all the way to 59. In my book that is significant change. Now my suggestion is to put the entire Pierce Elevated underground. Now THAT would be something. But if people rather argue about the benefits or disbenefits of a wider Pierce Elevated or a double or triple level, go for it. Why would people want a third level is beyond my understanding but so be it.

    I am with you, mix of transit service is the key but not the answer to traffic congestion. That was my point. People talk about transit as it is the answer to congestion and it is not.

    I think cities with the better transportation systems will be ahead. Houston is way far ahead than LA and I think LA traffic is a good barometer of what people can tolerate. Thus if Houston does not have a long term vision for its transportation system our congestion will increase to match that of LA. In comparison Houston is not as congested.

    If folks want to talk about monorail, sure. In my book the Medical Center, the Galleria and potentially Greenspoint are very good candidates for it and would be a superb addition to Houston. Are those entities willing to have a conversation on the topic? My guess that they are not.

    So, the transportation choices and alternatives get reduced by people’s opinions vs. expanding them. In my book not a good way to look at the future.

    But if I had to weight the importance of the many modes mention in this exchange I would pick local streets as being the most important. But this is not a topic people like to talk about. 🙂

  8. eiioi says:

    I don’t think anyone said anything about a triple-decked Pierce Elevated. Who mentioned this?

    Double-decking the Pierce Elevated is clearly possible but not desirable (as I pointed out that this would not be my first option either if I were in charge). My point was that saying “we can’t” “we can’t” is not helping the creative process of developing tranportation solutions.

    Maybe, just for the sake of illustration, between Dallas St. and I-45, we’ll decide to:
    1. have a single pair of double-decked surface streets (one below ground and invisible, the other above ground where Pierce St. currently is) and
    2. Some freeway lanes elevated where they are now (maybe 3/3, maybe 2/2, maybe 4/4 – whatever) and
    3. A pair of vehicular tunnels below everything.

    Or maybe you replace one of the double-decked streets with below ground transit. In either case, you might technically have FIVE levels, but someone viewing from ground level wouldn’t notice the difference. There are probably many feasible and semi-feasible options one could generate.

    For the record, I think adding only transit in the form of light rail and streetcars is a feasible option. However, it will not be an effective option. Come on… we’ll be adding 3 million people to the Houston area by 2030. How is adding a few light rail lines and adding no freeway capacity going to help? Pierce, 59/288 and I-10 @ 45 are severely congested already. So I’m in agreement with Gonzalo on this.

    I really do hope to see some form of vehicular tunnels (and I guess transit and pedestrian too if they make sense). I really like the idea of bypassing downtown with I-45 tunnels. While we’re at it, why not have an I-610 tunnel from north of I-10 to south of 59?

    However, there are at least two things that worry me about the tunnel proposal:
    1. We don’t seem to be adding total lanes – and in some areas, unless I’m interpreting it incorrectly, we’re decreasing total lanes. Yeah, yeah, I know that 8 collector/distributor lanes can be better than 10 freeway lanes if done correctly, but I just see no reason to decrease lanes if we’re trying to decrease congestion AND prepare for Houston to grow.
    2. While the tunnel concept is great, couldn’t we just target to where it is most needed? Do we need a tunnel all the way from Beltway 8 to south of downtown? What about just AT downtown? If a tunnel were built from BW 8 to south of downtown in order to replace at-grade or elevated I-45 lanes, you would still probably need additional bypass lanes for vehicles at downtown. In this case, would there be 4 tunnels downtown?

    I’m all for local street improvements. You could probably improve 10 streets for the cost of all the things we’ve been talking about here.

  9. If you check i45parkway.com you will see the rendering with light rail on the surface. The design follows Dallas Central Express where the highway was depressed and light rail was added along the east edge. People get off the highway and park and ride. One of the most successful multi modal corridors I had the pleasure to work on and a national example of how to do light rail. The i-45 tunnel borrows from it and improves it.

    Idea to go all the way to Beltway 8 because of the potential to park at Greenspoint and ride light rail into downtown, express. Long term it extends to the Woodlands or airport.

    Also new highway lanes can be tolled, cannot toll existing lanes – by law. New tunnel is a toll tunnel vs. reconstructing i-45 cannot generate tolls (only new lanes).

    Cost between TxDOT’s and the tunnel are about the same. It has to do with time value of money. TxDOT’s highway planning takes 10 years. Tunnel takes less than 5.

    Hot and rainy and maybe frozen; these can be the conditions of surface highways. Inside the tunnel always dry and clear and free of accidents. Will people be willing to go home quickly and safe in a tunnel or a surface highway with accidents, rain, heat, etc?