I keep trying not to say “DUH!!!” as I read this story about suburban traffic woes, but it’s hard not to react that way.
Traffic congestion, long the bane of downtown workers and residents living near the city center, afflicts nearly all Houston area suburbs.
Many city residents lured to suburbs by spacious homes, good schools and the prospect of less stress are increasingly finding themselves on clogged streets linking highways to new subdivisions.
The congestion’s causes are many: soaring numbers of residents, a lack of a traffic grid giving them options to get to highways and stores, funding shortfalls to carry out all needed road projects and simple neglect.
“We have focused on the congestion on our freeways. But, really, we have congestion everywhere,” said Pat Wascowiak, planning and program manager at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which seeks solutions to transportation and other issues facing 13 area counties. “We don’t have good local mechanisms for responding to problems on these other roads.”
Dreadfully congested suburban roads include FM 529, Louetta, Spring Cypress and FM 2920 in northwest and north Harris County; Bay Area Boulevard and NASA Parkway in the Clear Lake area; Texas 36, FM 762 and FM 359 in formerly rural and semi-rural areas west of Sugar Land; and Woodlands Parkway and Lake Woodlands Drive in The Woodlands.
Texas 6 serves as a wide main street for fast-growing areas in west Harris County. Packed with vehicles, traffic often moves fitfully along a 20-mile stretch from FM 529 to Bellaire Boulevard.
Commuters use it to circle the area, locals to reach stores. “The road was designed to handle 30,000 cars a day. It’s handling 60,000,” Wascowiak said.
The design of many subdivisions is contributing to suburban traffic woes, she said. Subdivisions typically feature secluded streets and cul de sacs and no major arteries.
Many areas consequently lack a grid of streets that would allow drivers to find alternate ways to the highway, supermarket, schools and day care.
“If you only have one road coming out of a subdivision going to the highway, you’re going to be sitting in traffic,” said Robin Holzer, chair of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, an area traffic watchdog group.
FM 518 in Pearland and Fry and Mason roads in Katy are good examples of streets being asked to do too much because drivers don’t have other options, Wascowiak said. Long stretches of Fry and Mason are handling more than 46,000 vehicles daily — nearly 20,000 vehicles above the number for which they were designed.
The question I always have is didn’t anyone see this coming at the time these suburbs were being built? If there’s only one way in and out, sooner or later traffic is going to be a problem, and then what are you going to do? It’s hard for me to sympathize with the folks who are afflicted by these problems now, because I feel it should have been obvious from the beginning. I used to attend a weekly meeting out on Westheimer and Highway 6 about ten years ago, and it was obvious then. The interchange from I-10 to Highway 6 was horrible – and that was the reverse-commute direction – and the drive along 6 was almost as bad. It’s got to be a lot worse now; thankfully, I have no reason to be out there seeing it for myself.
It should be noted, too, that widening these roads only helps so much. No matter how many lanes there are, you’re still going to have huge backups at the freeways, where everyone is squeezing into the outer lanes to turn onto the service roads. You’re still going to need to have traffic lights at every cross street, and at some entrances to strip centers. I suppose you could try adding in a limited-access option, either elevated or depressed, as an express route, but that has its own set of problems and is way expensive to do, not to mention disruptive. I think the only truly viable solution is to build a time machine, go back to 1970, and pass laws that would prevent developers from building subdivisions in this myopic manner. Let me know how that goes.