Life in the Fast Lane How Houstonians and rush hour traffic coexist

August 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

THE FREEWAY — Napoleon once credited much of his success to arriving 10 minutes early. We must suppose this talent was especially helpful on the battlefield. In Houston, we can credit many of our failures to arriving 10 minutes late, because there is no way to predict how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B.

Our chances of being punctual decrease with distance. If you want to drive to a neighbor’s house on the next block – OK, so you’re lazy or maybe it’s pouring sheets of rain – you know pretty well how long the trip will take. A slight detour due to a massive sinkhole is just that: a slight detour. But if you want to keep a doctor’s appointment in the Texas Medical Center and you live in Spring Branch, your odds of checking in with the nurse at the right time are iffy at best. Doctors don’t like to be kept waiting. They’ve already read all their 1954 Life magazines.

The reasons for not being able to give an accurate estimated time of arrival, or ETA as the airlines laughingly call them (“Sometime Wednesday, maybe.”), are many: construction projects, wrecks, floods, heavy dew, broken-down Safe Clear wrecker and/or a police shoot-out. We never know what obstacles will be in our paths, but whatever they are, they delay us.

This is true in all parts of town and for all trips, but the problem is especially bad on our freeways where we can be stuck for hours — the West Loop is my legal, voting address — and can’t get off.

You are due at work at 9 a.m. and normally it takes 30 minutes to go from your home to your desk. So you leave your house, shed or dugout at 8:30.

There is a 21-car pileup on the freeway and you come limping into the office at 9:30, thus missing the PowerPoint presentation on the new dog food ad campaign. The boss says, “Well, you should have left earlier.” That’s the pat answer to arriving late: leave earlier.

This is good advice for those who have plenty of time on their hands. But do you always want to leave early hoping to be on time for every gathering? When you go to a restaurant, do you want to wait at the bar because your reservation is for 8 p.m. and you arrived at 7?

The movie starts at 6:10. You get to the theater at 6 because you left home early, so you have to wait till 6:10 to start seeing 15 minutes of ads and promotions for upcoming blockbusters. Always leaving early, only to wait, would eat up a big chunk of your life.

Several factors enter into making us early or late. First is the distance around town. The City of Houston covers 639.83 square miles in three counties, and is big enough to contain – get this — the cities of New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami with room left over. So when you say, “It’s just across town,” you are talking about a two-day trip.

In Harris County there are 3,107,456 registered vehicles, including 31,730 heavy trucks which like to jackknife at rush hour. That is an increase of 169,081 vehicles from 2005. So each morning last year when you backed out of your driveway, weekends included, there were 463 more vehicles trying to fit into the same roads. Between 2005 and 2006, Harris County grew by 485,629 people, the second largest growth of any county in the nation. (Maricopa County, Phoenix, was first with 695,974.) All these newcomers have cars, mostly in front of you.

Every motorist in the county, on average, drove 33.1 miles a day every day in 2005, the last year statistics are available. All told, our daily mileage was 134,219,397. That is 39 million miles more than the year before. In 1994, the average afternoon rush hour speed on Houston’s freeways was 49.0 mph. In 1998, the average was 48.0 mph. By 2001, the average freeway speed had slowed to 47.6, then dropping to 47.0 in 2003. While we’re gaining cars, we’re losing speed.

Meantime, a few technical breakthroughs have helped us in our quest for punctuality. The first is the cell phone. It allows us to call the parole officer and explain our tardiness for the regular appointment. Every driver in Houston has at least one cell phone so we can concentrate on our conversation without the annoying hindrance of paying attention to the stalled Peterbilt in the center lane.

The second scientific discovery to help us avoid being stuck in traffic is the radio traffic report. Listening to someone explain that “traffic is moving smoothly on the Gulf Freeway” where you have been stopped dead for 30 minutes is good for the spirits. Of course, you could use your cell phone to call the radio station, but all you would get is a recording because the regular announcer is stuck in traffic on the Gulf Freeway.

The only solution to figuring out how long it takes to get anywhere in Houston is to leave early, arrive early, and take up crocheting, or arrive late and get fired – hence the term, “Waterloo.” Another possibility is just to make your stated ETA vague. “Sometime Wednesday, maybe.”

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