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Those road congestion blues

I’m more interested in the methodology used to determine the list of Texas’ most congested roads than I am in the roads themselves, since most of us could have named the roads on that list without doing any work.

Like the Dallas freeway, many of the roads on the list aren’t a surprise. But TxDOT officials believe the rankings will help focus public understanding on the state’s transportation problems.

“This is a good tool for us to use, for the public to use, for our planning organizations and professionals to use — for the Legislature to use — to help us focus on our problems,” says John Barton, the agency’s assistant executive director for engineering services. “This helps us understand the magnitude of the issues and helps all of us as a society to determine if we’re able to and willing to continue to fund solutions for them.”

This is the second year the agency conducted the study, which was managed by Tim Lomax, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute. Last year, the study relied largely on traffic count totals — an incomplete measure, officials say. This year, though, the agency spent $27,500 to purchase state-of-the art traffic speed data from a private company.

The company, Washington-based Inrix, collects massive amounts of real-time traffic data by tracking travel direction and speeds of more than 2.5 million vehicles in its network, which consists of commercial partners — taxis, delivery trucks and tractor-trailer rigs, among others — that have agreed to share global positioning system details on their fleets.

Inrix also uses data collected by traditional freeway traffic sensors and consumers using traffic-related GPS devices and applications. It analyzes all the records while keeping in mind outside variables like weather, sporting events, holidays and other factors.

“We get a very detailed view into what traffic looks like that extends into city streets and arterials, not just major interstates and highways, so you get a more complete picture,” says company spokesman Jim Bak.

The full list is here, which includes non-highways as well. Clever stuff, and I look forward to seeing how they build on it. If it winds up driving sensible policy, so much the better.

Despite the opening paragraph of this piece, I really am interested in the roads themselves, though for the most part not because I have any interest in seeing them get widened. Take a look at the map of the Houston area. Note that the vast majority of congested roads as listed here are inside Beltway 8, with more than half of them inside Loop 610. Every single highway segment inside Loop 610 west of I-45 inclusive is on this list. I trust nobody at all is surprised by this, but it’s still a bit jarring to see it displayed so starkly.

There are two points to be made about this, and neither of them should be a surprise, either. One is that our ability to ameliorate any of this by increasing lane capacity is very limited. We are never going to widen the Pierce Elevated, which is the main bottleneck on I-45. We will never add lanes to 59 at I-45 and through downtown, which is the reason why nobody who has a choice ever takes the Southwest Freeway northbound past Greenbriar. The Katy Freeway west of the Beltway isn’t a Top 100 Most Congested Road any more, but I-10 still narrows to two lanes as it passes I-45, and there’s still only one lane that exits onto I-45, so from my perspective all of that extra far-western throughput has done nothing but make a huge mess in my neighborhood.

And two, the only hope to change any of this dynamic is to recognize that transit is the most viable way to add capacity in the dense inner core. In particular, rail transit, especially rail transit that has its own right of way, can help ease the burden on these overcrowded roads and interchanges. An awful lot of this traffic is from short local trips, people who live in the area doing their home/work/school/lunch/errands thing. More and better local transit options means the choice to do more of that without the car. It also means that the folks who live in the burbs and who commute in to work have non-driving options to get around once they arrive, which in turn may make the park and ride look more appealing. You can still have more capacity even if you can’t build more lanes, and in the end even the folks who stay in their cars can benefit from it.

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One Comment

  1. [...] was the case last year, by far the worst congestion is inside and on Loop 610, with the roads between 610 and Beltway 8 [...]

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