Houston Mayor Calls for “Paradigm Shift” Away From Highway Widening

Newly elected Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner gave a remarkable speech yesterday in Austin [PDF], calling on the state to change its transportation priorities and stop pouring billions into widening highways.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the state news a new strategy for managing congestion. Photo: Houston Tomorrow
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says Texas needs a new strategy for managing traffic and growth. Photo: Houston Tomorrow

Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission, the appointed board that leads Texas DOT, that the state needs a totally new transportation paradigm. The speech is phenomenal, and Texas transportation officials badly need to hear it.

Here are some of the highlights from the speech:

We’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth.

The region’s primary transportation strategy in the past has been to add roadway capacity. While the region has increasingly offered greater options for multiple occupant vehicles and other transportation modes, much of the added capacity has been for single occupant vehicles as well.

It’s easy to understand why. TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire.

Turner then points to the Katy Freeway — an astounding example of the futility of freeway widening as a congestion management strategy. After a $2.8 billion TxDOT-led widening project, traffic is now traveling slower than it used to along this massive highway.

Turner says:

The Katy Freeway, or Interstate 10 west of Houston, is the widest freeway in the world, with up to 26 lanes including frontage road lanes. The 2008 widening had a significant impact on the adjacent businesses and communities. Yet, despite all these lanes, in 2015 the section of this freeway near Beltway 8 was identified as the 8th most congested roadway in the state. This was only 7 years after being reconstructed! This example, and many others in Houston and around the state, have clearly demonstrated that the traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.

Saying “there’s a better way,” Turner lays out three recommendations, including:

We need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and densify, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Hap tip: Houston Tomorrow.

  • greenlake101

    If only other cities could be so lucky to have a mayor like this.

  • Jared R

    In the northeast with old, industrial, pre-auto cities, nearly all mayors think like this – it is part of their DNA. This is versus sunbelt cities. Sunbelt cities have a long tradition of antiurbanism, which is the primary reason these cities are today so SOV, auto oriented. I high high highly recommend reading the book Americans Against the City by Steven Conn. Good luck to the mayor of Houston, but he will have to overcome a very powerful myth that pervades the culture there: that urbanism and rail transit are harbingers of socialistic behavior. You will see plenty of middle class homeowners showing up with “Don’t Tread On Me” yellow flags claiming that Houston’s minimum off-street parking requirements are the only true way to ensure that the United States remains a free, democratic and capitalist nation.

  • And yet Texas is the state opposing a privately funded HSR proposal, while supporting taxpayer built and funded highways. Its almost as if the vast majority don’t have the slightest clue what socialism is, or capitalism is.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The most ironic sight in the entire country is the gigantic billboard on I-5 in California that reads simply “High Speed Rail is Socialism”.

  • OutfieldDan

    Agree with Turner. Now get Houston to fix Metro for routes that meet people’s needs. The new system is a catastrophe – It makes riders make more transfers to get from home dense areas to work dense areas. A Grid system doesn’t fit our needs. I live in the Heights and used to take the bus every day. Now the trip requires three busses and two transfers – so I quit. The new bus system artificially increases ridership statistics by making more bus trips necessary.

  • AndreL

    The new system works better for more than 90% of users. Point-to-point single-seat rides are not the way to organize transit systems.

  • OutfieldDan

    Revenue is significantly down. That means less customers. Ridership is statistically up only because riders are counted wrong. More riders on more busses is because the same riders are forced to ride more busses. Point to point is why I quit. Fix it.

  • Guch

    First Texan to know of that makes sense.

  • CPatrick McIlvain

    METRO and walking is most often how I get from Point A to Point B and have for about 12 years. I must fall into the 10% of users that now have reduced number of bus routs available to me and the new METRO has added about 20 minutes in both directions for me. And this being asked (sometimes) 3 times a day to “have your bus card ready is getting very close to harassment to me. I live in First Ward and can walk to downtown (does make me a bit healthier) to get to my next METRO ride before the 44 comes – at times…

  • Jared R

    Guys, seriously read Americans Against the City. It definitely explains all of this that seemingly doesn’t make any sense. It has more to do with conservative identity than anything else.

  • Brad Sloan

    Houston is lucky to have Turner for mayor. It is the state’s loss he is not in the Texas House of Representatives anymore. He helped to defeat a state amendment in the last House session that would limit Texas Transportation funds be spent only on Highways and not on other forms of transportation.

  • Boris

    Do you consider New York an “old, industrial, pre-auto city”? Because Mayor deBlasio certainly would never make a speech like that. He hasn’t led on the issue of street narrowing or highway removal. SUV is his default mode of travel to go to the gym. He hasn’t spoken out against the recent widening of the Staten Island Expressway or the upcoming widening of the Verrazanno. Even his safety-related projects are left to languish at the whim of Community Boards.

  • Jared R

    I agree with you. He’s certainly lacking in most respects. He simply doesn’t fully understand the links between his pet obsessions (social justice) and transportation/development. I think it’s more because he’s ignorant. My point is, however, stand Northeast mayors up against sunbelt city mayors (typically) and you find a very stark contrast in their rhetoric. Take Atlanta or Tampa as examples.

  • Jameika

    Mayor Turner is right: the Texas Department of Transportation should focus on *transportation*, rather than building giant ill-advised subsidies for land developers who are interested in a quick buck.
    Now, put this in terms that people are willing to understand: the people of the state were just duped into voting for freeway funding for the next five years with a constitutional amendment. No one really fully understands or is willing to talk about the huge waste of our money that is spent on building more lanes, when it is different spending that will reduce our congestion. Even if TXDOT started spending on making neighborhood streets easier to walk around on, short-distance trips would be reduced, which would reduce overall congestion.
    Now, Mayor Turner, start getting your city ready for it: remove parking requirements and setbacks!

  • texantimm58

    We need monorail!

  • Oh, I do understand the origins of the beliefs, what bugs me, is they aren’t truthful to themselves about what they believe. If conservatives were honest about what they believe they might be more reasonable about it. But its easier to have a warped view of the world than to deal with internal conflict I guess.

  • Jared R

    They are true to themselves in as much as what they “believe” reinforces their identity and what tribe they belong to. This is exactly why people lie to themselves.

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