Map Data: Google.
Sometimes it seems like Downtown Houston is the center of the Houston universe.
At least, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on in City Hall.
But, yet, sometimes actually getting into downtown by car can seem like a process designed by Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition.
And, let’s be honest.
Driving a car is still how most of us get into downtown.
There’s lots of reasons to go downtown.
First is work, for many Houstonians.
But, then there’s the Theater District.
There’s also the great parks in Market Square and Discovery Green, along with the myriad events hosted there.
There’s a great bar scene in North Downtown with Market Square as the center.
Then, there’s people you might know who live there.
The current living options primarily include condos and the pricey Rice Lofts, but there’s hundreds of apartment bedrooms coming online in 2017.
Lot’s of those apartment complexes will be offering great discounts if you want to enjoy a year of downtown living at a discount before prices normalize upward.
So, why is it so difficult to actually get into the downtown of the city?
We’re talking about on the way to and from work, of course.
Anyone can drive into downtown at 8 p.m. on a weeknight after rush hour is over, and get to where they’re going pretty quickly. Houston isn’t that big yet, or our downtown isn’t that popular, yet.
But, we’re supposed to have millions more people by 2030.
Downtown traffic is downright rough for the office workers filling up their slots in the cubes and corner suites. At least, those who work during a normal 9 to 5. To beat the rush from the burbs, you need to be downtown at about 5:30 am. No later. Inside the city itself, it gets gridlocked not too much later.
It doesn’t help that construction has knocked two lane streets down to a single lane in many places. And, over-sized trucks navigate alongside the city buses that can’t fit into a single lane. At least the construction will eventually end.
One Torqemadian lane closure around Market Square Park has already ended in December of 2016 after applying waterboarding-like torment to commuters for over a year.
And then there are the delivery vehicles randomly making drop-offs and shutting down entire lanes of traffic once you pass through the construction.
Making things worse are the aforementioned new luxe apartments about to go online that will result in a steady flow of traffic outwards in the morning, further clogging the city streets.
For fun, add in the insane traffic pothole-like cement mutations that take years off the life of your car.
Not to mention the gaping pits in the roads in prime parts of downtown that are simply covered up with seemingly precariously placed metal sheets that could be removed in the pitch black of night by anyone who wanted to play a deadly prank.
If a pothole or weird concrete permeation resembling an abstract art work is actually so big that it has its own gravitational pull, the mayor’s staff probably classified them as not being potholes and thus could claim “Mission Accomplished” on his much vaunted pothole initiative without actually fixing the worst pothole offenders in downtown.
It’s pretty simple. There actually aren’t that many entrances to downtown.
Downtown lacks good entrances to actually access it.
Downtown is roughly 19 city blocks by 12 city blocks.
And most of the east side is pretty difficult to navigate due to the ballpark, basketball arena, convention center and Discovery Green which take the normal street grid and turn it topsy turvy.
Before taking the freeways into account, you’ve got Midtown, Montrose, River Oaks and Washington all feeding in through the same major arteries. These are the bulk of the in-town areas that access downtown on a regular basis.
Only Midtown has numerous access roads under I-45. Montrose and River Oaks commuters must pick their poison taking West Gray or rickety, narrow Westheimer to access Midtown. Or, they access downtown from further north at mostly residential Dallas, Allen Parkway or Memorial. Allen Parkway recently got pedestrian upgrades slowing down traffic. Memorial Drive will deposit commuters on the far north end of downtown, forcing them through the aforementioned traffic hell once they get into Downtown proper.
The Heights commuters determined to stay off the freeway will either feed in through access roads to Washington Avenue or Memorial Drive, adding further pressure to those entry points. Or, they will enter through North Main after driving through rickety 11th which turns into Pecore. Elysian is another option for those living in the Near Northside, but not that many downtown commuters do.
Washington Avenue has low speed-limits, school zones and speed traps, making it an unattractive entrance to the north side of downtown. And, did we mention the train? Oh god, the train. There is one street that goes under the train. Have fun finding it! Kudos if you already have.
So, their aren’t that many good options for city dwellers to access downtown. EaDo and East End do have pretty good traffic times right now, simply because they aren’t as built up as the areas west of downtown.
The biggest non-freeway access road into downtown from the West side is Memorial Drive which gets increasingly backlogged since pedestrian friendly traffic lights were installed on Allen Parkway which no longer counts as a major car artery.
Buffalo Bayou park at Allen Parkway has been revitalized and more people can use it. It’s a good park and solid venue. But there’s been trade-offs. And, those decisions were made by urban planners focusing on pedestrians, not accessibility to the downtown core by car.
Freeway access is even worse.
All I-10 traffic coming west must generally be jammed into Smith Smith in the far north western reach of downtown to slowly disperse through all the aforementioned hurdles to mobility.
Folks coming from 59 north get deposited up by the jail district and must navigate through the legions of people reporting for jury duty if they have any business west of LaBranch.
Let’s not even get started with I-45 which is commuter hell on a typical day.
And, in every freeway, all it takes is one fender bender and literally everything stops and turns into a mind numbing crawl.
Also, did we mention that Smith Street floods? It goes completely under water.
The Smith Street entrance servicing everyone entering downtown from I-10 west is basically a death trap when the city gets slammed with high waters, which apparently happens now on an annual basis.
The freeways and entry points plop people downtown in random points and drivers must cover numerous city blocks to get where they want, and avoid getting stuck in the major streets like Louisiana and Smith.
So, it’s basically a mess? Can’t we live in town and walk / ride bikes?
Well, in theory, making downtown pedestrian friendly will encourage people to live downtown where they work. However, whether younger workers inclined to give tiny-box downtown living a chance can afford the luxe new apartments is a major question mark.
Downtown living as a base for more affluent reverse commuters wouldn’t seem to dent the traffic problem, only exacerbate it by putting a lot of cars onto the already overburdened city streets.
Also, there’s the problem of getting people out of their cars even if they live downtown and work downtown.
With free or subsidized company parking garages at work, will people put feet to pavement, or start inflating their bike tires?
Or, will they simply drive from one parking garage to another to avoid getting panhandled or sweating through their clothes to and from the office? Remember, downtown is a very large place with no subway system for getting around, like major parts of the world.
It is hot.
It is humid.
Their are underground tunnels connecting office buildings, but those tunnels are primarily for office buildings west of main street. A small tunnel system does exists in the NE to connect Harris County court employees to their parking garage.
New apartments in east downtown have no pedestrian connect to the tunnels except the far south side tunnels connecting to the Shops at Houston Center (basically a food court for office workers) to give egress to the western tunnels in the main skyscraper district in west downtown. These tunnels are really only pedestrian friendly for folks living in the very pricey south side in condos near Discovery Green.
To put it bluntly, downtown is not really made for pedestrians commuting to and from work. The Downtown Living initiative, while admirable, will likely just end up catering to reverse commuters who want to live near amenities like Discovery Green and Market Square Park as well as young workers who are single and without families. It’s unlikely to take a large volume of cars off the road.
Speaking of cars.
Downtown needs to accommodate them better. That’s all there is to it.
That means bigger entrance and exit ramps, more entrances, wider lanes where needed and better signage showing people how to enter and exit to the freeways.
But, we also need to work smart – not just spend lots of money.
Signage needs to improve to direct traffic out of the downtown area, especially to 59 and 288 where signage is virtually non-existent.
This means cracking down on illegal parking during the morning rush. Illegal parking can shunt already snarled traffic in nightmarish ways. Deliveries must use a back entrance or deliver after or before the morning rush.
The planners at 901 Bagby can also explore options like creating thoroughfares through downtown which can move cars east to west and north to south more efficiently to reduce constant traffic lights across long distances inside the city core. This can be done rather inexpensively by closing some intersections and very clearly marking with signage what is happening.
Houston is growing by leaps and bounds.
By all means, the downtown needs inhabitants so it isn’t a ghost town after 5 p.m. But, the downtown district will always be an employment center and a special events center that needs to move cars efficiently.
Those temporary populations here for events at night and work during the day will always far surpass a permanent population base from apartments and condos.
This means cars, cars, cars.
And, it means we’ve got to accommodate those cars as the city population increases. By getting smart, we can create better traffic flow.
Last month was December. If you got comfy with the reduced traffic burden, get ready for a rude awakening.
This is January and people are coming back from their vacations.
Traffic gridlock, here we come!
This has been a Microscope Houston report.
Don’t forget The Local News, Curated.