May 18, 2006
Welcome to Houston. Need some directions?

According to a Mapquest survey, Houston is tough to navigate.

Houston's grid is jumbled and inconsistent. In the Heights, streets are numbered, but without reason numbers turn to letters. In downtown, street names change without clear definition. Gray and Alabama turn into West Gray and West Alabama. East Gray is nowhere to be found.

Or try to explain why Elgin turns into Westheimer or the difference between the Southwest Freeway and U.S. 59, or the Gulf Freeway and Interstate 45.

Nitpick time - in the Heights, some streets change from numbers to names, not letters. At least, the places that I know of where start out but don't finish up being numbered, they change to names. It's a problem either way, though these are small side streets we're talking about. Going from Elgin to Westheimer, Wheeler to Richmond, or Hillcroft to Voss, is more confusing in my opinion.

What threw me for a loss when I first moved here was the fact that from downtown to Westpark, US59 runs east-west, despite being a north-south road. It was disorienting to be driving on or parallel to a nominally north-south thoroughfare and having the evening sun directly in my eyes.

As with most things about Houston, though, once you're here for awhile you get the hang of it. Well, some of us do, anyway.

For the survey, 3,000 adults were sampled in the nation's top 20 major cities. Fifty-four percent of Houstonians said they "sometimes or often" get lost in the city, whereas 57 percent said visiting family and friends had no problems navigating here.

Having lived here for almost 20 years now, I never get lost in Houston. I'll consult something like Mapquest before I head out to an unfamiliar part of town, but once I get there I never have a problem. In general, friends and family who visit us get around OK with directions we give them. We live close to both I-10 and I-45, so it's pretty easy to get almost anywhere from our house, and that helps.

For what it's worth, the hardest place I've had to navigate lately was in and around Napa, California. That was because the roads and interchanges were very poorly signed. Say what you want about Houston, you can usually tell what street you're on and what intersection you're approaching. The rest I can put up with.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 18, 2006 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

Add to that Commissioners Courts favorte passtime of re-naming streets and forget about using a map.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on May 18, 2006 11:04 AM

I remember getting lost in Philadelphia driving from my hotel to a restaurant down the street. Seems they have a problem there with allowing left-hand turns. Beyond that, the highway system there made little sense to me. Houston's highway system is, to me at least, incredibly easy to describe to anyone. Starting from that, everything else is easy to understand if you know your major arteries around town. If someone needs instructions on how to get from Phoenix to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Heights, they'd probably be wise to look up directions on Mapquest anyways, though.

Posted by: gregwythe on May 18, 2006 12:43 PM



Harwin-Alief Cemetary-Alief Clodine

Memorial intertwining with Briarforest

My personal Hell is Boston. They only identify cross streets, major streets change name every mile or so, streets stop and restart. Spent an hour one night trying to reach the Cambridge Public Library. I could see it - I just couldn't reach it.

Posted by: Charles M on May 18, 2006 12:58 PM

San Antonio has its fair share of weirdness, too... My favorite detail is how no streets are "New Anything"... It's always "Old Something". Wouldn't it have been easier to avoid renaming the old one, and name the new one "New"?

Favorite intersection: Four-way intersection, and the four streets have three different names... with the two that share a name being a 90-degree turn from each other.

And just for clarity:

North: Grissom
East: Culebra
South: Culebra
West: Tezel

Try explaining THAT one. Heh.

Posted by: Buhallin on May 18, 2006 3:29 PM

Houston's grid is jumbled and inconsistent.

At least you have a grid. Try navigating Dallas sometime! I swear, it must be illegal in this county to build a street that goes more than a mile without a change in direction.

And we have all the weirdness with streets changing names (mostly at boundaries between Dallas and its suburbs, but still) Mapquest describes in Houston, as well as the weirdness of streets making 90-degree turns at intersections, as Buhallin describes in San Antonio.

At least the highways make sense (mostly - I'm still trying to figure out why it's I-45 south of downtown and US 75 north of downtown, and why US highways 67, 77, and 80 have several-mile-long gaps in them).

I'd put Oklahoma City at the other end of the scale. It has its quirks, but for the most part, it's a quite logical grid, with almost none of the out-and-out weirdness Texas city streets seem prone to.

Posted by: Mathwiz on May 18, 2006 9:49 PM

The real news here is:

Mapquest sucks.

Posted by: PDiddie on May 18, 2006 11:40 PM

The problem with signage is ubiquitous in Northern California. I've been in multiple intersections where there are no street name labels anywhere. Exits aren't properly numbered, and in the SF Bay Area, a lot of exits will first be referred to as eg "Cupertino Exit" and then later, with no transition, as their street names (Stevens Creek Blvd.). SF has three completely separate grid systems. The Peninsula artery, Hwy 82, is separately numbered in every city, plus for either E/W or N/S within cities. I could go on and on...

Posted by: Alexis on May 19, 2006 1:38 AM

What's even better is that on the stretch of US 59 by Westpark, the Edloe overpass actually has signs for "Southwest Freeway - East" and "Southwest Freeway - West", which, while technically true, is a bit of a disconnect.

Sure, you can intellectually understand that the freeway is east-west there, but I personally don't think about heading towards Corpus by going west...

Posted by: Souperman on May 19, 2006 1:49 AM

Easiest place I've ever found to navigate is Anchorage, Alaska. Easy-to-understand grid system and intelligently designed downtown area.

We were just in PA on vacation and had some troubles there, due to an almost complete lack of signage in most places. I grew up there, and I still had trouble in some places because it's changed so much since I left and there's still no signs.

As for streets changing names here, doesn't Briar Forest become San Felipe?

Posted by: Sue on May 19, 2006 7:37 AM

Much as I hated living there, Chicago's grid is fantastic. Given almost any address, you know exactly where in the city to find it.

As for the Southwest Freeway, there used to be a sign at the Edloe Overpass (or Mount Edloe as we called it while biking), that indicated access to the frontage road from Westpark. It used the abbreviation for South Service Road, but seeing "Southwest Freeway SSR" made me think that the Sovie Union had annexed the overpass.

Posted by: Joe White on May 19, 2006 10:20 AM

Navigation in the mountain west tends to be pretty straightforward. Lots of space, and streets laid out in a grid. I don't think I ever managed to get lost in Salt Lake City, despite only visiting there every few months.

However, even after living in Pittsburgh for nearly four years, I wouldn't dream of going anywhere new, or even anywhere slightly unfamiliar without out well-worn map book. In addition to the iffy signage mentioned above, the third dimension in the city layout can really mess up navigation.

Posted by: David on May 19, 2006 12:42 PM

People have trouble with Houston?

When I lived in Boston I quickly got used to streets randomly changing names AND directions, the utter lack of a grid, and of course the weird experience of driving on a highway that's simultaneously I-95 North and I-93 South - and runs west.

I'm just stunned. Houston's so easy.

Posted by: John on May 19, 2006 10:56 PM

To the person who commented about why its Interstate 45 south of Houston and its U.S. 75 North of Houston... the reason is because whatever map you are looking at hasn't been updated. U.S. 75 no longer exists in Houston... it is now called and signed as Interstate 45. In places where I-45 did not follow the original U.S. 75, old U.S. 75 has been resigned as Texas 75.. but that is mostly north of Houston where that occurs.

Another problem with maps. Westheimer Rd., which is also Farm to Market Road 1093 (FM 1093) for much of its length is usually labelled as 1093 on maps, but is called and signed as Westheimer at most intersections. The required FM 1093 markers are placed every few miles as required by law, but all the signs at an intersection say Westheimer. Also, to locals its Westheimer. Most locals don't realize that it is a Farm to Market Road too.

Another problem with most maps and signage. U.S. 90 and I-10 and Alt U.S. 90. Before the interstate there was U.S. 90 and Alt U.S. 90. When the interstate came through, U.S. 90 became Interstate 10 except where they decided to route the interstate around a smaller towns (this mostly occurs outside Houston). Within Houston, it is signed as I-10 even though some maps still refer to it as U.S. 90.

I think some of the confusion with freeways in Houston has more to do with the fact that most maps are out-of-date. For example, U.S. 75 hasn't existed in over a decade. In fact it has been officially decommissioned and the remaining parts that are not I-45 were designated as Texas 75. So if you see any map that says there is a U.S. 75 in Houston, beware. It's out-of-date.

Posted by: Scott M. Stolz on June 6, 2006 6:02 PM