What is the future of transportation in Texas?

In 2014 and 2016, the Texas Transportation Poll asked people across the state to name the mobility issue most affecting their lives. The top response each year: congestion. Drivers in the state’s largest cities lose 52 hours and $1,200 to traffic congestion each year — figures that are substantially above the national average.

With Texas’s urban population predicted to double in the next 40 years, there’s widespread recognition of the need to prevent the congestion problem from escalating. According to Steve Clark, a principal in Arup’s Houston office, proposals for reducing the state’s gridlock too often boil down to one of two ideas: more public transit or more roads — with public transit being very hard to sell to voters. From his perspective, both fall short. Meaningful change, according to Clark, has to take into account a much broader range of factors. “Rather than focusing on just one or two modes of transportation, we should be looking at the entire relationship of development and mobility for all the metropolitan areas in the state, developing multiple complementary modes, and optimizing how they’re connected.”

People like having their own personal space when traveling. Ideas that come across as stridently anti-car risk alienating the people they need to influence, as well as the people these conversations are intended to help

This means careful consideration of everything from technological shifts to more flexible procurement models for mass transit solutions and — critically — public opinion. Texans, like most Americans, tend to like their cars and rely heavily on them. “But who can blame them? People like having their own personal space when traveling. Ideas that come across as stridently anti-car risk alienating the people they need to influence, as well as the people these conversations are intended to help,” Clark said.

Despite the recent growth of alternative modes such as Uber and commuter transit, the Texas Transportation Poll found that reliance on private automobiles actually rose slightly in the last few years, a trend that was, in part, attributed to falling gas prices.

First and last

Clark believes that one concept that emerges naturally from a comprehensive analysis of Texas’s mobility requirements and opportunities is the need for greater focus on the “first mile / last mile” problem — in other words, the very beginning and end of a journey. A common complaint is that riders have no good way to get where they need to go once off a train. Solving this would help motivate more mass transit solutions and help people understand that they won’t be stranded at the end of a commuter or light-rail line.

Automated vehicles (AVs) could be part of the solution. Consider the case of Midtown Houston. This neighborhood has become a popular destination for both work and entertainment, but it’s difficult to access without a car and visitors often struggle to find parking. As a result, drivers tend to circulate repeatedly while looking for an empty spot, contributing to congestion. For those who choose to drive their own cars, AVs could ferry passengers to and from designated nearby parking garages. Such networks can be thoughtfully developed, safe, frequent, and reliable. Additionally, having AV circulator systems in place would make light-rail solutions more feasible for a number of areas, thereby promoting ridership to a point that tips the scales of public opinion in mass transit’s favor.

Houston congestion

From a technical standpoint, this solution could be in place in as little as five years, Clark said. Driverless shuttles are already being tested in Texas: in the city of Arlington, automated pods now transport members of the general public to and from events at the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys stadiums. All the major cities in Texas have areas where such systems would see substantial use and provide great public benefit.

The road ahead

But technology alone can’t fix Texas’s transportation woes. As with other solutions, it requires careful consideration of the broader context: Who would pay for new approaches in a given environment, and how? Who would operate and maintain new systems, infrastructure, and equipment fleets over their lifespans? How will these changes affect human and ecological health? What unforeseen consequences might we try to avoid?

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Share your questions or comments with Steve Clark: steve.clark@arup.com.

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