Yesterday the Chronicle posted an interesting article titled: Did street closing bypass fairness? Neighbors inherit wealthy Rivercrest’s traffic problem.
The article considers the plight of the Briargrove Park subdivision, which has seen a significant increase in traffic since the adjacent Rivercrest subdivision succeeded in having their streets made into one-way (exit only) at Westhiemer. The drama of life in Briagrove is illustrated by the story of Brenda Oliviera.
“It’s frightening,” she said. “People pull in and cut through all the time, and now they are coming right in front of my house. We’ve got so many little ones.”
So why is traffic such a problem? Because people are trying to head north from Westhiemer onto Beltway 8, and they’re experiencing major conjestion at the intersection. Let’s take a look at the problem on a map:
You can see in the map above the old cut-through traffic (purple) and the new cut-through traffic (orange). What was Rivercrest’s problem is now Briargrove’s.
The reason I brought this up is that this is a perfect illustration of why the Urban Network matters. This area, along with the vast majority of Houston, is suffering from a significant lack of connectivity. The road network here was designed to force all traffic into as few through streets as possible, so that as many people as possible could live on ‘ideal’ streets with as few cars traveling on them as possible.
Wherever this is done there is signficiant traffic congestion, by design. If it’s done ‘perfectly’ (ie there are no through-streets aside from major thoroughfares) traffic is the worst. Where it is done imperfectly (ie there are a small number of ‘cut-throughs’ that exist), traffic is still bad and some of it diverts through areas that weren’t designed for it.
Let’s look at what’s missing in the Rivercrest area:
For this entire area, the north side of Westchase (one of Houston’s stronger employment centers), there are only three existing access points onto Beltway 8: Briar Forest, Westhiemer, and Richmond. Those are also the only streets that pass through the entire area. This isn’t nearly enough connectivity.
For starters, Westhiemer is too significant of a route, and carries too much traffic to function properly as a generic two-way street. If it were upgraded to a multiway boulevard with direct connectors to the freeways it could work better than it does today.
Secondly, there is no reasonable explanation for why Meadowglen Lane doesn’t cross Beltway 8. This is the city failing to take action on an easy fix that would help improve connectivity in the area siginificantly.
Beyond this, it gets more difficult to say what could be done to improve the situation. I’ve highlighted in green two general areas north of Westhimer where there should be a through street. These missing connectors are a significant contributor to the traffic problems in the area. However, the areas around are well established with valuable property, and any effort to put in a connector now would require significant property takings and would have a major impact on the adjacent neighborhoods. It’s probably too late for anything like that to happen.
This situation: significant traffic congestion and neighborhoods bothered by cut-through traffic, is one of the most common problems facing American cities today. It’s hard to say how the situation could really be made better for Rivercrest and Briargrove, but we can be sure that we don’t create any more of these messes in the future. What Houston (and everyone else) needs is an Urban Network Plan.
In Houston, this would mean replacing the current Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan with a more complete document that defines the entire spectrum of city streets, from freeways to back alleys. The plan should do the following:
How can this benefit Houston moving forward? I mentioned that perhaps Westheimer should be upgraded to a multiway. However, a much cheaper, more effective solution would have been for Westhiemer to have been built as a pair of one-way streets. This would enable the street to handle much more traffic with less total paving, and it would also create twice as many ‘prime’ corner locations for commercial development. This could have been easily done if we’d had appropriate Urban Network standards in place when the area was developed.
Want a historic precedent?
Here’s a quiet residential neighborhood close to major throughfares that lead in and out of a major urban center. This neighborhood has little to no problem with cut-through traffic. The cars that use the neighborhood streets tend to drive slowly and carefully, and the neighborhood is easy to get around and free from the kind of bottlenecks that are plaguing travelers around Westchase, even at the peak of rush hour. I know, because this is where I live.
This is a traditional street network. It’s the organic output of the cumulative city-building experience of Western Civilization prior to the modern movement. If you’re a conservative, this, not the suburban cul-de-sac, is your street pattern. It’s simple, it’s efficient, it doesn’t require ornerous regulation to build, and it doesn’t have to be perfect to work properly.
Most importantly, this pattern distributes traffic evenly by providing an endless number of alternate routes to and from every destination. Major commercial thoroughfares succeed because they are designed to attract (and accomodate) a greater share of through travel. The area is transit-supportive, walkable, and bikeable. And, of course, it’s easy to drive around.
When we build things right in the first place, using simple standards to connect independent private endeavors, everybody wins. That’s what the Virginia Department of Transportation recently realized. Can Houston make a similar move?