Roads, Rails and Routes

Roads, Rails and Routes October 29, 2019

As Houston’s population continues to grow, so does our time spent in traffic. Approximately three million people make up the Houston-area workforce as of 2017. Whether you are driving from Katy, Clear Lake or The Heights, your commute stinks. So, what’s the solution? Build new roads? Add more lanes to existing freeways? Or, add more mass transit such as rail and busses? Those solutions have been implemented time and time again, but yet the situation doesn’t improve. In fact, it may even be worse.

This issue is very much on the minds of Houstonians with the November election on the horizon. On the city ballot is a $3.5 billion bond from Houston Metro to fund 75 miles of rapid bus service, 16 miles of light rail and $600 million into the bus system. The campaign has been dubbed MetroNext. The plan has three goals – take cars off the road, offer new service and travel options and continue to fund roadway projects. That sounds great, but I’m not sure that when it’s all said and done (which will be 20 years from now) that our traffic woes will be behind us.

The bottom line is that transportation infrastructure in the U.S. was designed for the automobile. When cars drove onto the scene in the 1920’s, it eventually led to a decline in transit ridership and transit companies could not compete. Then, the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, sparked the super highway transportation era and pretty much left mass transit in the rearview mirror.

As mobility continues to evolve in America, cars, busses and rail systems are still very much a part of our transportation culture. Will all three continue to share the road of mobility in the future? Probably.

In Houston, the Uptown Development Authority (Uptown) is building Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and METRO will provide transit service when the project is completed. It will run from Westpark to the Northwest Transit Center (NWTC). Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) is building 1.5 miles of dedicated, elevated bus lanes from Post Oak Boulevard to North Post Oak Road along the West Loop where METRO bus lanes will connect to NWTC. Whether this project will actually increase ridership and take cars off the road remains to be seen, but the dedicated bus lane means that busses will definitely be out of the way of car traffic which should alleviate Galleria congestion.

Houston’s mobility issues will not be solved overnight, especially as the population continues to increase and job growth produces more commuters. However, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact BRT will have on Uptown traffic. BRTs and rail are point to point systems and if people still have to walk a great distance to reach their final destination, MetroNext may have to consider ways to incentivize riders to use the system. Unfortunately, we won’t know how this all plays out before November 5th.

(Rand Stephens is a Principal of Avison Young and Managing Director of the company’s Houston office.)