Multiways in Houston

A lot of the recent discussion about transportation in Houston has been focused on light-rail and streetcars. These have been great conversations, and I think they are rightly front-and-center considering where we are with METRO and their current LRT expansion plans to date.

There have been a few other pieces of the transportation discussion that we’ve been talking around that I think are pretty important as well.

One item that Cory from Lose An Eye brought up recently was the role of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, in a Houston transportation program. I think BRT has an important role to play, but I think it serves us best when it’s got the right corridor to run on.

Kuffner has added to the discussion recently, lamenting the difficulty of traversing north-south routes with our packed freeways.

My thoughts on these two issues are that both of them relate to the design of our thoroughfares and local streets and the relationship between the two.

For a long time we’ve had this tension between the importance of automobile thoroughfares, the conflict between accessing local properties and maintaining greater traffic flows, and embracing pedestrians and transit in the same environment. There’s one piece of transportation technology that brings these things together pretty well, and it’s something we need more of in Houston. It’s called a multiway boulevard.

Basically, a multiway is an urban thoroughfare combining express through lanes in the middle with local access lanes on the sides. These local lanes are where the real magic is, they provide parking and a space for pedestrians and cyclists that is separated from the rush of traffic in the middle. They also help keep the main lanes flowing by keeping them clear of turning movements.

One of the world’s best examples of this comes from Barcelona, the Passeig de Gracia.


For even more fun, check out the Passeig de Gracia in Google Streetview.

I’ve spent some time in Barcelona, and from what I observed this street and others like it provide a really positive balance of mobility and local access. There are sidewalk cafes and urban residences facing onto the boulevard’s local access lanes, and traffic in the middle flows pretty smoothly.

Not many of these exist in the US, but there are a few. K Street in Washington DC is a pretty nice multiway. Another more recent example is Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco, which essentially replaced part of their equivalent to ‘the spur’ into downtown.’

Here’s a diagram of how this street type works, from the San Francisco Planning Department:

sf-multiwayThis approach is a great change from the conventional ‘arterial’ design because it separates out conflicting travel needs. It’s really the same design idea as a freeway, if you put the local access on a side road you free up the main lanes. The difference is a multiway operates at lower speeds and is compatible with urban neighborhoods.

The last major point to consider is this, in addition to creating local access lanes that are much more pedestrian friendly while maintaining automobile efficiency in the center lanes, you create the opportunity for vastly improved transit service. How so? The medians between the main lanes and the local lanes become ideal places for a BRT stop. In some areas you wouldn’t even need a dedicated bus lane. Check out the street view of Passeig de Gracia again and you’ll see how this works.

So the question is, where would these work in Houston?

One cool thing is, we kind of have one of these already: Allen Parkway. Allen is one of the nicest roads in Houston, and a lot of this has to do with the way it handles intersections. The main lanes dip down at the biggest intersections, while access lanes intersect with the cross street. That’s the multiway concept taken to the maximum auto-orientation, but it’s still not a bad street to live near. It’s scenic, it’s fun to drive, it stays fairly clear even during rush hour, you can walk or bike on the trails beside it, and it’s not nearly as noisy as a freeway because the speeds are closer to 50 MPH on the road.

Looking across at Allen’s neighbor to the north, Memorial Drive is much more of a freeway from Downtown to Detering St. From Detering outbound it becomes a more typical urban thoroughfare, but from Detering to Westcott you have tremendous potential to create a world-class street by making Memorial a multiway. Where are some others?

  • Kirby Dr., especially between Westhiemer and Bissonnet. Of course, they’re already busy working on something else over there.
  • Westhiemer is a good candidate, especially from 610 to Voss. That’s an area that is already pretty dense, but is totally auto-oriented. A change on Westhiemer would likely spark a change in the properties surrounding it.
  • North Main would be pretty logical in connection with METRO’s plans for the street and the redevelopment they’re expecting surrounding it.
  • Montrose fits the bill thanks to the thriving residential and mixed-use areas surrounding it and the need for better multi-modal north-south transportation in that area.

There are plenty of places that this could be a good idea, but those are some of the most obvious. What are the big things we should look for in deciding candidates for a multiway?

  • The street should be a major transportation corridor, otherwise the investment isn’t justified in the first place.
  • There should be no obvious parallel street to make into a one-way pair. One-way pairs (ala Gray and Webster) can accomplish the same things as a multi-way and require less ROW.
  • The area should either be a dense, mixed-use area already, or should have potential for such uses. The benefits of local access being separated are minimal when the context is a single use area.

The last step is to look at where these streets are in context to regional transportation needs, and prioritize based on the demand for transit in a corridor. BRT Corridors are ideal as connectors between existing transit corridors, as extended circulators for large employment districts, and as primary transit in areas where retrofitting for rail would be impractical. In the map below I’ve highlighted some conceptual BRT corridors and multiways, and also the approximate routes for METRORAIL in 2012.


The goal of these lines is to illustrate connections between areas of medium/high residential density to areas with large commercial centers. Some of the corridors run parallel to a METRO line, and would offer complementary transit, some run perpendicular and would connect corridors, and some run entirely new routes designed to link areas that are currently underserved, like the Heights, and in particular the Heights’ main street area along 19th street.

In particular, North Main is an interesting option because it could also offer a certain percentage of commuters coming in from I-45 an alternate route into the central and east sides of downtown. The challenge there is METRO’s intermodal terminal, which promises to significantly reconfigure the surface streets north of downtown. Until we know where there will be streets it’s hard to say how a bus would get into downtown. Nonetheless, there will be a good way in.

At the end of the day, though, any transit system has to have a mix of frequent stopping local service for local access and infrequent stopping express service for commuting. The challenge in Houston is how to get anything to work much outside the loop when distances become greater and destinations less compact. I have some ideas… but those will have to wait for another day :)

A mix of investment in multiways and BRT could go a long way to making Houston’s transit system truly world-class. These ideas are just a sketch to help start the discussion, I’m sure there are loads of other corridors worthy of consideration. If you’ve got ideas on the subject, sound off in the comments and let me know!

Posted: Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 11:23 am
Categories: move
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  1. This is a very helpful analysis. The multiway boulevard is an application that could be used extensively in the Houston region. Think about FM 1960 and what an incredible mess that is.

    It’s hard to imagine more of a Complete Streets concept than this, one that serves all users while also giving all users better service than they get now.

    H-GAC has actually studied this concept in the Westheimer Mobility Study ( and scroll down to Corridors, then Westheimer. Go to the Alternatives appendix, and there are 6 versions, some simple, some not. Also note that Alternative 3 has elevated monorail in it.)

    Andrew, maybe you could look at this and explore those alternatives as a follow-up.

    Sadly, this idea is not in the most recent Smart Streets white paper that H-GAC published with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. We need to work on that for the 2040 plan, which is cranking up as we speak.

    This is something that should get the attention of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition and everybody else interested in better access and mobility for everybody.

  2. Thanks for the link, David! Those are great illustrations, very useful for follow up discussion.

    Also, I completely agree about Highway 6 / 1960. That area would benefit tremendously from improvements to reduce the conflict between local access and through traffic… not to mention a visual upgrade…

  3. Nice analysis.

    I will mention that one reason that you see so few of these in the US is that most US cities made the decision decades ago to bisect the city with highways. As a consequence, these types of thoroughfares were never developed and the pedestrian/transit environment of the cities suffered as a consequence. Not surprisingly, since San Francisco and Washington DC are two of the few cities that decided not to ruin their cities with highways, you see multiways in these cities.

    Now, I mention this because in many cases cities like Houston are almost too far gone. Granted, such multiways may be useful in a few isolated instances and I think your idea regarding Allen Parkway is interesting, although as a parkway with much higher speeds, it is more like Rock Creek Parkway. In order to account for this one would require many more pedestrian crossings over the parkway in order to make the road more pedestrian friendly. But in the end, given that the city has so many highways cutting and dividing the city and neighborhoods, the usefulness of such thoroughfares may be limited. Unless of course Houston took steps like Boston to, for example, bury Interstate 45. Sadly, unlike in Boston, our Congressional delegation could/would never go to bat for the city to secure federal funding for such a move.

  4. I actually have a fair amount of sketch CAD linework for Westheimer between the West Loop and BW8. While the “unlimited mobility, unlimited accessibility” flies in the phase of 60 years of traffic engineering orthodoxy, I think Houstonians (and Texans in general) are better set up to “grasp” the concept, since the parking lane/main lane dichotomy is so similar to our feeder/freeway setup.

    In fact we already have a short segment of Multiway in Uptown – Hidalgo, between Sage and Yorktown. Granted, it’s a one-way, but then many of Haussman’s smaller boulevards are too.

    For something the size of Westheimer you really need grade separations, especially at Voss/Hillcroft (which to my understanding is the bottleneck in the current signal timing scheme). Of course these don’t have to look anything like standard TXDOT fare; check DuPont Circle in DC for how a grade separation can actually enhance the pedestrian realm. (Yes, I have linework for this too.)

  5. I’ve seen Barcelona, too, and can confirm there’s much we could learn from that city. To say that it seemed livable would be an understatement.

    Obviously their boulevards – or multiways as I guess we’re calling them – have a lot to do with it. It should be noted, though, that the ROW for Paseo de Gracia is something like 200 feet wide. Avenida Diagonal, which incorporates a tram and bike lanes in addition to the wide sidewalks and medians, is at least 250 feet wide. Most of our urban thoroughfares don’t have the luxury of so much space, so the concept would have to be somewhat pared down.

    Recent happenings in my home state of Connecticut got me to thinking about the widest of thoroughfares, the expressways. New Haven, CT is advancing a project to remove a freeway spur and replace it with an “urban boulevard” which I hope would include many of the aspects of a multiway. In Hartford, where a viaduct on I-84 is nearing the end of its useful life, there is talk of rerouting the interstate on different highways and replacing the viaduct with a boulevard through the city.

    By the way, anyone care to estimate how much tax revenue could be derived from the land presently under freeways in Houston? I remember reading about Spring Valley losing much of it’s tax base to I-10. In Boston, the Turnpike Authority, I believe, has sold rights to build OVER I-90. I can’t help but think what else could exist in the space occupied by Houston’s monstrous freeways.

  6. “I actually have a fair amount of sketch CAD linework for Westheimer between the West Loop and BW8.”

    Oh yeah, KHH? Prove it! ;-) Right now, Andrew is kicking your @ss when it comes to blog postings. . .especially ones with fancy pictures and maps.

  7. KHH, do you have a name?

    I agree about grade separations at major intersections, that would facilitate a significant improvement in traffic flow. Also, you’re spot on about DC having great examples of this.

    It’s funny, there’s plenty of space for this kind of improvement, but it seems to get overlooked in favor of mega-highway projects like I-10. I think that’s sad, we need more Allen Parkways and fewer Katy Freeways. I-10 certainly has a role, but to be the one and only road is not the right one.

  8. Actually, grade separations are not needed at major intersections unless the transit line carries over 15,000 persons per hour per direction. All is needed is to integrate LRT and auto signaling.

    Grade separation drives up costs and has the tendency of planning bureaucrats to plan for much more expensive light-metro than LRT.

  9. Andrew,

    Great to read your blog. Lots of interesting info. Will have to post something related to your comments.

    The quote from common_sense I live very much:

    “Unless of course Houston took steps like Boston to, for example, bury Interstate 45. Sadly, unlike in Boston, our Congressional delegation could/would never go to bat for the city to secure federal funding for such a move.”

    Reminds me about the katy Coalition’s alternative to grade separate I-10 and TxDOT’s report on this alternative indicating that technically it was feasible but the estimated cost was an increase of $500 million (that is equivalent to the property TxDOT had to buy to expand I-10) which goes along the comment made by James:

    “I remember reading about Spring Valley losing much of it’s tax base to I-10.”

    Then we have the comment from the previous TxDOT Houston District Engineer when meeting with CM Adrian Garcia and folks from the Downtown Management District and Hines (spell?). His statement was something like “If this is what you want (to tunnel I-45)… TxDOT can do it but cannot do it alone.” and added that we should get Mayor White on board. But so far Mayor White has not been interested but the i45 tunnel will outlast him.

    The point goes to indicate that over time Houston has had superb opportunities to do some superb work but it is people like us that do not support those opportunities when they come along.

    Regardless, in reading your blog I notice the name “keephoustonhouston.” I love it. I am of the opinion that we are often looking at other cities to “loook like” and we forget that Houston is just Houston and the best we have is to keep Houston Houston.

    So, the Katy Coalition lost a huge opportunity to do a wonderful grade separated highway perhaps like Central Expressway in Dallas but better.

    Now Houston has the opportunity to have a much greater transportation corridor that parallels that of Calle 30 in Spain ( but much better. It even offers to clean the air of 15 miles of one of the most congested highways in Houston; but organizations like Mothers for Clean Air and GHASP do not support it or at least don’t want to risk it stating that they support the I-45 Tunnel/Parkway alternative. I can name dozens of other organizations that are familiar with the i45 tunnel but fail to speak in favor of it, even David Crossley but he must have his reasons which I respect.

    However, it goes beyond my understanding why people supporting an improvement to our quality of life and transportation system do not support projects like the I-45 tunnel/parkway but leave that to you, the younger generation of urbanists concerned about the future of your quality of life.

    This leads back to the comment from common_sense:

    “Unless of course Houston took steps like Boston to, for example, bury Interstate 45. Sadly, unlike in Boston, our Congressional delegation could/would never go to bat for the city to secure federal funding for such a move.”

    The reason why Houston elected officials don’t go to bat for Houston is because its constituents don’t go to bat for each other. Thus congressional delegates don’t know who to support among the divided masses.

    …last thought, Keep Houston Houston. Don’t try to redesign the urban core and copy San Francisco or Barcelona. Identify the number of streets that are boulevards with the characteristic ‘Houston like’ center median, i.e. Heights Blvd. Do this on a map for the area inside the 610 loop. Add few more that have the available right of way. These are your garden boulevards. Don’t worry about densities or major/minor arterials. Do this well and you might get a glimpse of what Houston has to offer. It is so common sense that is not common sense :)

3 Trackbacks

  1. Multiways « Off the Kuff -- February 15, 2009 at 8:13 am

    [...] Andrew continues the ongoing discussion of transit options in Houston with a look at multiway boulevards. Basically, a multiway is an urban thoroughfare combining express through lanes in the middle with local access lanes on the sides. These local lanes are where the real magic is, they provide parking and a space for pedestrians and cyclists that is separated from the rush of traffic in the middle. They also help keep the main lanes flowing by keeping them clear of turning movements. [...]

  2. Hidalgo Street « neoHOUSTON -- February 24, 2009 at 8:55 am

    [...] a comment » Following up on some of the comments received in my earlier post about Multiways in Houston, I took a trip over to Hidalgo street yesterday to see what it was like. Keep Houston Houston [...]

  3. [...] and carries too much traffic to function properly as a two-way street. If it were upgraded to a multiway boulevard with direct connectors to the freeways it could work better than it does [...]

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