June 02, 2003
We're on the rail to nowhere

Chron Editorial Board member David Langworthy writes about rail to Fort Bend County today, in particular a proposal by several towns' mayors to use an old Union Pacific track to connect their townships to the southern terminus of the Houston light rail line. It's good to see, but there's a bit in here that deserves a closer look:

It will come as a revelation to many Inner Loopers that you can be 34 miles from downtown on U.S. 59 and be backed up in a line of traffic extending for miles during any given rush hour. You can be.

Traffic congestion in the middle of nowhere. That's what has Scarcella and several of his fellow Fort Bend mayors interested in passenger rail.

The reaction of this Inner Looper to those paragraphs is a resounding "Duh!" Frankly, it's one of the many reasons why I wouldn't be caught dead living out in Houston's far-flung suburbia.

Outside a certain radius from downtown, almost every neighborhood/subdivision/whatever was designed in the same fashion: cul-de-sacs off of a main artery or a branch road from that main artery, some varying distance from a highway exit. Just about everything that's not residential is on the main artery or one of the branch roads, often at an intersection or at that highway exit. To get anywhere that's not another house in your little subdivision, you have to drive on one or more branch roads and the main artery. There's no through traffic in the residential areas, which makes them safe for children to play in and attractive to their parents.

As you might imagine, as there's no other way for people to go, the roads that actually lead somewhere can get pretty crowded, even in nominally off-peak hours. The intersections of these roads feature traffic lights with light cycles that can last up to two minutes, thus creating huge tailbacks. It's the same everywhere I've visited - Sugar Land, Willowbrook, the Woodlands, Clear Lake, Kingwood, Katy, you name it.

In short, this "traffic congestion in the middle of nowhere" is a feature, not a bug. I can't believe this isn't stunningly obvious to everyone, but I will admit that unless you've ever driven out there, it's probably not something you've thought about very much.

Here in the big city, there's almost always a choice of routes. I live close to the entrance of two different highways (I-10 and I-45), and any in-town destination for me can also be reached by surface roads. If I get stuck in traffic, or I hear a report of a problem, I can usually engineer an alternate route.

Assuming people are willing to give it a try, there's no reason why this rail proposal from Fort Bend into Houston shouldn't work. It's fundamentally the same as the commuter rail lines from the suburbs to the big city in places like Chicago and New York. They'll need to include commuter parking at each stop, since walking from the sidewalk-deprived cul-de-sacs and across huge main roads like US 90 is not really an option, but that shouldn't be a big deal. This sort of thing has to succeed if rail is ever going to be part of the solution. Let's hope they do it right.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 02, 2003 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

You describe the suburbia Hell design of cul-de-sacs, et al. But I've found that most of Houston is not like that. Little of Inner Loop fits that bill, and lots of Outer Loop isn't that way either. For example, Meyerland is little like that. I agree there is plenty of the bad suburban design around, but my impression is that it's a good deal less than half the city.

Overall, however, this quibble aside, I wish they'd have built commuter rail long before the light rail going from downtown to the Astrodome. Now that's something I might have voted for, assuming for a moment that we'd even get to vote.

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on June 2, 2003 3:05 PM

But I've found that most of Houston is not like that. Little of Inner Loop fits that bill, and lots of Outer Loop isn't that way either.

Yes, which is why I said that this is the case "outside a certain radius from downtown". I agree, almost everything inside Loop 610 and a lot of stuff between 610 and Beltway 8 is unlike this description. That's not what I was focusing on.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 2, 2003 4:10 PM

Single-entrance neighborhoods became fashionable long after Meyerland was built. I should know; I grew up in Westbury, which is right next to Meyerland.

The Meyerland-Westbury ring of West Houston is navigable through semi-main streets, although you can still see the rudiments of non-navigable outside-the-Belt suburban hell there in the layout of the individual streets.

However, having failed to cleverly make the city non-navigable in advance, residents are now retrofitting their neighborhoods with speed bumps to make them *just as impassable* as the newfangled ones in far suburbia. Either that, or they want a use for all those SUVs.

Posted by: Ginger on June 2, 2003 5:48 PM


Assuming people are willing to give it a try, there's no reason why this rail proposal from Fort Bend into Houston shouldn't work.

Except for the fact that it doesn't work in other low-density city with multiple business district, and even in high density cities it doesn't work very so. Accordingly, it's fairly obvious you haven't thought about this at all; rail is clearly a religion, not an example of good public policy. Your faith is not justified.

It's fundamentally the same as the commuter rail lines from the suburbs to the big city in places like Chicago and New York.

No, it's not the same, and you know it. The layout of Houston is NOTHING LIKE THAT OF CHICAGO OR NEW YORK. We have multiple business districts, along with low density housing and commercial development. We have Greenspoint, the Downtown Central Business District, the Ship Channel, etc, etc, all of which have a substantial share of Houston's work force. By assuming that Houston is like New York, where business is centralized, you are making an irrevevant comparison.

Oh, and both Chicago and New York have FAR HIGHER average commuting times than Houston. So if you're thinking this will improve mobility, you're simply wrong. And if you believe that high-density development is more efficient, you're also wrong.

This sort of thing has to succeed if rail is ever going to be part of the solution.

It isn't, and it can't be. Fondness for rail in Houston cannot be rationally based upon practicality, not with the evidence.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on June 2, 2003 6:17 PM

So nice to know that you're part of the solution, Owen. I'm just curious if you read the bit that says that Fort Bend's traffic will still suck even after all of the proposed highway expansion goes through. Apparently, I'm not the only one who takes things on blind faith.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 2, 2003 7:05 PM


I'm just curious if you read the bit that says that Fort Bend's traffic will still suck even after all of the proposed highway expansion goes through.

I don't necessarily disagree with that; highway expansion usually improves congestion, but it's typically short-term, and nobody should expect a truly drastic improvment. What lowers commuting times substantially is building new highways, not expanding old ones, and the county is, to be fair, looking into that.

However, we KNOW that using freight lines for commuter rail won't be effective. Metro even did transit studies for such a line along I-10, and found that it would be ineffective. And let's not forget the 1983 referendum on a heavy rail line from downtown to southwest Houston -- that was rejected by voters by a 2:1 margin.

The best type of mass transit for Houston is buses, perhaps BRT. So improving bus service and adding HOV lanes as a part of freeway expansion is the best means by which to improve mobility. Anything else has failed before.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on June 2, 2003 9:54 PM

Buses are flexible, trains are not. Buses can be re-allocated as needed when demand shifts. Buses can share HOV lanes with emergency vehicles. Buses can be used for transport to events during non-peak hours. Buses can be rerouted if roadways become unavailable.

Buses have worked extremely well in cities of all types. Trains have worked only in cities that were metropolises before the automobile - New York, Boston, Chicago, and to a lesser extent Philadelphia. Those cities are dense now only because automobiles and trucks weren't available 100 years ago. No post-automobile metropolis has developed the same way.

Posted by: John Dewey on September 10, 2003 4:55 PM

There's much truth in all of these comments. However, as a former resident of New York City and San Francisco, I must inform you that with the recent influx of suburbanites back into the inner city, there will be no other option but high capacity transit. Just in the few short years I've lived here, I've noticed a doubling of traffic inside the loop due largely to a higher concentration of multifamily dwellings replacing former single family lots. This will eventually make driving into the city (from the burbs) or getting around inside the city (for those of us who live inside the inner city) virtually impossible.

Transit solutions:

I am an advocate of BRT (bus rapid transit) and commuter rail in theory, but unfortunately the reality is that Houston, the mayor, and Metro doesn't seem to be as concerned with mobility improvement as with neighborhood redevelopment. And no other transit technology brightens the eyes of developers of the inner city's blighted neighborhoods as well as light rail transit.

Why? Light rail is so expensive to build that developers see those hundreds of millions of dollars being poored into a light rail line and anticipate quickly rising property values (and inexpensive land for the development and sale/lease of apartments and townhomes close to downtown's 100,000 plus jobs). That's what seems to really be happening with Metro's 2025 rail plan. And I'm not opposed to it as long as it's being sold to us that way. But it isn't.

But does light rail improve mobility? Metro's light rail line (downtown to reliant park) isn't "rapid" it's only "high capacity". It will take the same time or longer to ride the light rail line than the busses it will be replacing. That's because it is at grade, crosses existing congested traffic on streets, and makes frequent stops. So, if you work downtown and live in say Sugarland or Missouri City and Metro's commuter rail line extension is built from the terminus of the light rail line, you'll spend 28 minutes on the Main St. light rail line, then get off at the new Hwy. 90A (South Main) rail terminal and wait for the commuter rail train. You'll then arrive at a park and ride type facility (hopefully) close to your home, then walk to your car and drive home. Sounds like a lot of work to just get home. That's why Houstonians are so car crazy. If Houstonians utilized transit, they'd have to: a. walk at least a few blocks to get to their stop and it's almost impossible in my research to find a Houstonian who likes to walk; b.wait for their bus/railcar to arrive; c. be essentially stranded at their destination until time to return home.

The alternative is that they drive their big old SUV's while listening to their favorite music and not smelling the perceived homeless bum urine on the persons/area behind them as they may on a transit vehicle. Ofcourse the alternative is bumper to bumper, 5 mph traffic for 45 minutes or more each way. Then there's parking to contend with. But with your car, you can leave at any time during the day (when traffic is lighter) to run errands.

And furthermore:

Most folks here won't ride the bus unless they have to. Even if it's a disco bus that's all glammed out and seems like a Disney or Vegas ride. They just won't because most Houstonians I've talked with view transit riders as either homeless, handicapped somehow, or unable to afford a car. Not to mention the racism I've encountered when observing non-transit riders in conversations about busses and their riders.

So, I suppose my argument is this:

Yes we need high capicity and rapid transit in order to get the greatest amount of people to their destinations in the shortest amount of time, with the least negative effect on the environment. But just at least have the commter rail lines in question (there's also one along the Hempstead Hwy. heading Northwest on an existingrailroad track that would connect with the proposed Inner Katy light rail segment being studied) go right to downtown and uptown to unload people where they mostly need to be (where their jobs are: 150,000 jobs in Downtown/Med Center; 200,000 jobs Uptown/Westchase; 70,000 jobs Northwest). This will at least get people to work and back and reduce rush hour traffic and pollution.

But there has to be a consciousness shift in Houstonians to make it work. Riding transit shouldn't be a social or economic comment about the persons on board, rather it should be an option to allow quick access to the everyday things that make the city work: jobs, education, recreation.
The tracks are already there. Where are the commuter rail trains and stations?

Posted by: Robert on October 28, 2003 7:35 PM