A data-driven look at personal vehicle use in Greater Houston
You’ve probably heard it from visiting relatives who just can’t seem to wrap their heads around how big the city is, asking “is this still Houston?” on the twenty-minute drive to your favorite dinner spot. Houston’s size contributes to its character, but it also makes owning and driving a car a fact of life for most residents.
Historically speaking, Houston is similar to most U.S cities developed post World War II. As people’s ability to make and save money grew, so too did demand for things like spacious homes and personal vehicles, the latter made affordable by the innovations of the Ford assembly line.
Today, the sheer amount of ground to cover is certainly a contributing factor to Houston’s car-centrism, but more philosophical barriers, like Texans’ fierce attitude toward independence, contribute as well. Cars offer freedom and flexibility, all while contributing to personal style and status.
That said, Houston’s reputation as a car city, while grounded both culturally and statistically, is not immutable. In fact, 58.8% of Houstonians believe that a much-improved mass transit system is vital to the success of the city, according to the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey, despite the fact that 80% of Houstonians drive to work alone in a personal vehicle (2019 American Community Survey). However, research has shown that people often choose to commute by car, even when other travel modes like public transportation, walking or biking might save them time and money, making any major shifts in how people choose to get around a foreseeable challenge.
The cost of cars
It may not surprise you to hear that average commute times in Houston’s three county region are higher than the national average, or that they’re generally getting worse. Houston ranks #3 of 15 large metros for worst commuter congestion, and #4 for worst commercial truck congestion. Motorists in Houston spent an average of 49 hours stuck in traffic in 2020, averaging out to $1,097 in fuel and lost time.
According to census data, Houstonians spend an hour a day getting to and from work, which is higher than both the state and national average, according to Census data. This is all despite 80% of the populace choosing the supposed convenience of driving alone in a personal vehicle. More cars on the road means more traffic. It also means more accidents, which also means more traffic. While the pandemic may have given commuters and the environment a short reprieve from congestion and pollution, both accident and roadway fatality reports show that the sojourn is over; from January to September of 2021 Texas roadways saw a 15% jump in crash frequency.
As normalcy ebbs its way back into our lives and our roadways, so do the safety concerns, environmental concerns, and tedium that come with all those people just trying to get somewhere.
Ozone pollution in Houston has abated over the last twenty years, with fewer days in which ozone poses a measurable threat to our residents. Days still exist in which just walking around in urban areas would pose significant risks to your health, often in the dead heat of summer. Despite a national decline, ozone pollution is still very much a threat in Houston, due in part to the number of cars on the road. About 60% of Houston’s ozone pollution is estimated to result from vehicle exhaust alone.
Particle pollution (or PM) are small solid and liquid particles, like soot, released into the air by a variety of industrial processes, that reduce visibility and cause haze. Of particular concern are PM2.5 particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that are easily inhaled. In 2019 the EPA determined that short or long-term exposure to PM2.5 can lead to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and even early death. PM2.5 levels in Metropolitan Houston (10.1 µg/m3) are about as far below national limits (12 µg/m3) as they are above the national average (8 µg/m3).
National standards for acceptable levels of both ozone and particle pollution have seen consistent reductions over the years as we develop a better understanding of the danger posed by these environmental hazards. Because of this, Houston is now within acceptable limits on both ozone and PM, but has lagged behind the national pace of reduction in both categories. The air quality in the city is still of great concern, as the American Lung Association State of the Air Report rates the air in Harris and Montgomery counties an “F,” and the PM2.5 numbers could fall on the wrong side of the new national limit upon the EPA’s imminent reexamination.
So if we’re doing better, and Houston falls within most national guidelines, why is this important? Because pollution doesn’t affect everyone in the same way — some neighborhoods face higher threats than others, and Black and Hispanic residents most acutely suffer the effects of pollution though they produce less of it.
Given the consequences of high solo-commuting rates, why don’t more Houstonians elect for public transit? Why don’t they walk or bike to work?
Simply put, most of the region is just not very walkable. According to the National Walkability Index provided by the EPA, most neighborhoods in all three counties have below-average walkability. This is due in part to the sprawling geography of Houston, but also has a lot to do with the cultural prioritization of cars over pedestrians. Houstonians want walkable urban spaces, but the cultural and infrastructural barriers are high and made of poured concrete.
Cyclists face similar issues in that the city is built to serve motorists. Biking carries the same (if not more) health and environmental benefits as walking. Houston can be a delightful place to bike after all; the city has committed to the creation of 1,800 miles of bike lanes by 2027 through its Bike Plan. Although 345 of those miles currently exist, only 25 miles are protected (just over 7%), a fact that underscores why many might be reluctant to pick up the hobby.
However, cycling is not always a hobby. Many bike commuters choose to cycle not out of respect for its social or cardiovascular benefits, but out of necessity; your average bicycle costs a lot less than a car. And due to Houston’s car-centric streets, bicyclists often endanger themselves getting around, with Harris County drivers striking cyclists 557 times in 2021, killing 23 riders.
What about public transportation? Why is it that Houstonians choose public transit at half of the national rate?
Although national rates for commuters choosing public transportation have gone up since 2010, rates in Houston, and Texas at large, have actually gone down. Part of the problem is the availability of stops in general. Only 5% of households in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are located within a quarter-mile of a public transit stop, while Harris County sits at 38%.
Houstonians in poverty use public transit far more often than others, a finding consistent with national trends. In 2017, more than twice as many Harris County residents in poverty used public transportation as those who live above the poverty line.
These individuals would benefit from more bus and train stops as first steps, in addition to basic amenities (such as benches or roofs), extended service hours, and expanded routes to fully access the vibrant culture, prosperity and opportunity Greater Houston has to offer.
The road ahead
Steps have been taken to make our region less car-reliant and safer for those who do choose to ride bicycles or public transportation when traversing the region. Where there once were no protected bike lanes in the city of Houston, there are now 345 miles of high-comfort bike lanes, with plans for 1,800 more miles currently in progress. Additionally, programs like Houston BCycle are making it easier for residents of all means and backgrounds to choose bikes over cars when traveling within urban areas.
Houston-area cyclists aren’t the only ones enjoying improvements to our transportation infrastructure; thanks to people like Janis Scott and the team at LINK Houston, safe and comfortable public transit options are reaching more parts of our region than ever before.
When armed the right information, we believe our region can continue to take the steps necessary for a less congested, more free-moving Houston that’s safe and accessible for all.