Roundabouts in the sky

I have three things to say about this.

The words will make you down and out

Imagine driving into downtown Houston on interstates 10 or 45, or U.S. 59, and having to merge with all other incoming traffic onto an elevated, one-way traffic circle around the cluster of skyscrapers.

If downtown isn’t your final destination, you would stay on the circle until you got to the point where your freeway picks back up. Otherwise, you would pick an off-ramp to exit.

For now, the concept – a first-of-its-kind roundabout fed by multiple major highways rather than surface streets – is one of many untested and undeveloped ideas that local transportation entities will entertain as they begin taking a more creative look at how to relieve congestion in the highly developed area inside Loop 610 in an era of declining state funding.


Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, turned heads when he described the concept as both “fascinating” and “feasible” during a breakfast address in Houston in early August.

“Believe that, or not, but that is a recommendation,” Houghton told the Houston Realty Business Coalition. “In other words, if you’re coming north on 59 to downtown and you want to get to 45, you will get on that roundabout and get spit out either north or south onto 45.”

Houghton said the fate of the concept largely would be contingent on public input – “the outcry of the folks who are going to drive that and work downtown.”

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said regardless of whether the roundabout idea is workable, it’s indicative of the creative thinking that’s been sparked by an array of challenges facing transportation leaders.

People like Clark are charged with figuring out how best to reduce crippling congestion in a highly developed area while minimizing the impact on traffic flow and the need for more land – all as the area’s population explodes and funding for transportation dwindles.

Clark also noted that Houston has multiple, major employment centers that are as spread out as its suburbs, meaning rush hour traffic doesn’t flow in just one direction. And since multiple, major freeways converge downtown, travelers headed elsewhere often get stuck in the bottleneck there.

1. I gather from Houghton’s comment that the traffic would be going counterclockwise. That would leave the flow of I-10 West, I-45 South, and US 59 North unaffected, but would mean taking a noon-to-eight equivalent detour around the circle if you’re going the other way. I think I can predict what that outcry is going to sound like.

2. The fact that funding for transportation is “declining” and “dwindling” is not the result of some natural law over which we have no control. It’s entirely the result of policy decisions, beginning with the refusal to increase the gas tax over the past 20 years, that leave us now with population growth and transportation needs that far outstrip our ability to pay for them. Rather than come up with these crazy-sounding solutions to work around our entirely self-inflicted problem of insufficient transportation funding, we could, you know, work to redesign the funding mechanism for transportation in such a way as to make it adequate and sufficient for our needs. Some people in Texas are talking about real solutions to our infrastructure problems, others don’t understand the question. Solving political problems is much harder than solving technological problems, but the former are almost always more foundational.

3. I’ll keep saying this till I’m blue in the face, but we cannot solve this problem if we are not working to provide alternatives to taking crowded freeways through downtown for people who don’t really need to be taking freeways. I speak once again of better and more extensive transit, which would make it easier for people who are just trying to get from one place inside the Loop to another to leave the highways to the suburbanites and long-haul truckers. You don’t want people like me clogging up the Pierce Elevated as I commute from the Heights to the Medical Center. There will thankfully be a transit alternative for me in a couple of years, but there needs to be a lot more of this. Highways should be for long trips, not short trips.

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  1. Pingback: Time for another report on how much traffic sucks – Off the Kuff

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