Friday, May 26, 2023

Why is Houston's traffic congestion so bad?

The Chronicle asks the question (as if Houston's traffic was ever "good"):

Every day, Houstonians commute to and from the growing suburbs that surround downtown. It's no secret that traffic congestion will play a significant part in most if not all commutes.

But, as one Chronicle reporter who wrote about her first experiences with Houston traffic wrote, even though every city complains about its traffic, Houston's traffic seems worse.

So why is Houston's traffic so bad?

Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) Senior Research Scientist David Schrank explains that motorist perceptions of traffic are relative: "(w)hat we don't know as motorists is that we are actually going six, seven miles an hour faster than we were a few years ago," he says. 

Schrank identifies three main reasons for Houston's traffic gridlock: construction projects that cause unexpected disruption to motorists' commutes, rapid growth that strains the region's roadway network with new people as well as the goods and services needed to support them, and changes to traffic patterns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery:

Now, as commuters continue to switch to hybrid work environments, not only does traffic congestion increase but the variability of what days commuters go to work causes even more congestion, Schrank said.

"For example, Monday traffic is not nearly as bad as what Monday traffic used to be," Schrank said. "A lot of workers use Mondays as their work-from-home days, and what we're seeing is Tuesday through Thursday have taken more of the brunt of traffic."

Hybrid work also creates a situation where some people work from home in the morning and go into the office later in the day, or are summoned into the office for face-to-face meetings on days when they would normally work from home.

This creates what Schrank called "trip volatility" and it ultimately adds more time to commutes.

On top of that, the pandemic has created a bigger culture of food and package delivery that also creates traffic congestion, Schrank said.

The data on how much pandemic restrictions being lifted has affected traffic is still being built.

To Schrank's three reasons for congestion I'd also add a fourth: the city's legions of poor and/or reckless drivers that cause accidents that routinely snarl the city's freeways; unlike other causes of congestion, accidents have the potential to cause travel to come to a full and complete stop. A recent study has identified Texas as having the worst drivers in the nation, and the number of fatal traffic crashes in Houston has increased since the beginning of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, traffic congestion is simply a part of Houston life. If you can avoid it, by changing the times or routes you drive, teleworking, walking or bicycling, or using public transportation, great. But for most people in this sprawling, automobile-oriented city, that's simply not an option. 

The standard advice to commuters applies: give yourself plenty of time to get there, put on some relaxing music or an interesting podcast to listen to while you drive, and be courteous to your fellow drivers. After all, they're trying to get to work in one piece, just like you.

RIP John Nova Lomax

A local legend, gone too soon.

In a go-go town, Lomax coveted a slower and reflective pace. He told Houston stories that otherwise would have gone untold, a Sig Byrd for the 21st century. Within the state, his work appeared in the Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Houstonia and Texas Highways, offering a perspective that balanced reverence and skepticism.

His connection to the city felt natural, symbiotic and whole. He understood Houston’s history, its eccentricities, its excesses and its deficiencies.

Lomax wrote books on dive bars and crime in Houston. His writing over the past 20 years was an outgrowth of the family business. Lomax was a seventh-generation Texan. He was also a fourth-generation documentarian in a family of famed folklorists, musicologists and writers.

John Nova Lomax died of liver and kidney failure on May 22, according to family. He was 53 years old. 

I have a handful of friends and acquaintances who knew him personally and are mourning his loss. I was unfortunately never lucky enough to meet John Nova Lomax in person; however, through many years of reading his prolific and luminescent writing, I felt like I knew him well. I am very saddened by his passing.

I greatly enjoyed reading his articles in the Houston Press (where I first encountered his talent for words), Texas Monthly and Houstonia, as well as the writings he made available on his Substack (I regret not becoming a subscriber). His takes on crawfish or local Kroger stores or the botched Rita evacuation were inspirations for some of my posts on this blog. I appreciated his passion for music (even if I didn't always agree with his tastes), food, and the idiosyncrasies of Houston. Lomax hiked the city's streets (the Press has reassembled his "Sole of Houston" series) and investigated its dive bars. He wrote an unflinching account of his own mother and her struggles with addiction (a struggle that he, unfortunately, would share). For Lomax, no subject was off limits and no person was unworthy of his writing.

The Press's Margaret Downing says that Lomax "chronicled Houston and its people and Texans across the state with love and compassion balanced by a keen eye for hypocrisy and humor" and that his writings "will last long past their publication dates." Culturemap's Steven Devadanam writes that "Lomax deftly and superbly chronicled the weird gumbo that is life in Houston and Texas at a time when, quite frankly, it just wasn’t that cool to do so." Joe Nick Patoski of Texas Highways remembers that Lomax "enjoyed lifting the rug, observing, and writing about whatever was going on," while Texas Monthly's Mimi Swartz describes Lomax as "one of those writers who, if he was interested in something, could make you interested in it too." Houston Public Media's Michael Hagerty writes that "Lomax's facility with words about the Lone Star state came naturally, as a seventh-generation Texan, and fourth-generation of Lomaxes devoted to writing, music, and folklore" and provides a link to some of Lomax's appearances on the Houston Matters radio show.

Houston is poorer for John Nova Lomax's passing. May he rest in peace.

The NHL and Houston: be careful what you wish for

Apologies for the lack of new posts over the past couple of months; Corinne and I have been busy (finally!) becoming homeowners. I'll have more to say about that in a future post.

Last week, voters in Tempe, Arizona rejected a proposal to build a new arena for the National Hockey League's Arizona Coyotes. The hockey team, which relocated to Arizona from Winnipeg in 1996 and has previously played in Phoenix and Glendale but now plays in a 5,000-seat facility on the Arizona State University campus, is now left without any good options for a new arena in Arizona and may be looking to relocate to another city. Speculation has flourished that Houston could become the team's new home. 

At first glance it makes sense. Houston is the largest city in the nation without an NHL franchise, and hasn't had a hockey team of any kind since the AHL's Aeros, as well-supported as they were, relocated to Iowa in 2013. The Toyota Center can easily accommodate hockey, and local billionaire and Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta, who holds the lease to Toyota Center, has expressed interest in becoming an NHL owner. The Coyotes are also a geographic fit; they play in the NHL's Central Division along with the Dallas Stars, which sets up the potential for a Houston-Dallas rivalry.

However, there are also some hurdles to be overcome. For one thing, Houston's not the only city looking for a major league hockey team. Salt Lake City and Kansas City (but probably not Quebec City) have also been mentioned as potential future homes for the Coyotes. There's the question as to whether Houston, as big as it is, is really a "hockey town" that can support an NHL franchise. There's also the question as to whether the NHL will accept whatever Fertitta might be willing to pay for the Coyotes. And that's if the Coyotes move at all; the NHL prefers to keep the team in the Phoenix area and will continue looking for new arena options there.

All of which leads to two points I want to make about this topic:

1. I'll believe it when it happens. Houston has been named as a potential home for an NHL franchise, either through expansion or relocation, since the 1990s. It hasn't happened. Over the past thirtysomething years cities like Columbus and Raleigh and Nashville and Las Vegas have received new or relocated teams, but the NHL, for whatever reason, has passed Houston over. 

There was last discussion about Tillman Fertitta bringing NHL hockey to Houston in 2017. Nothing came of it. Maybe this time things will be different, but I'm not holding my breath. Houston just doesn't seem like a priority for the NHL.

2. Be careful what you wish for. Houston getting an NHL franchise is one thing; Houston getting a *good* NHL franchise is something altogether different. Relocation doesn’t necessarily change a sports franchise’s culture, especially if that culture is one of mediocrity. And the Coyotes are, unfortunately, the paragon of mediocrity.

The Coyotes joined the NHL in 1979 as the Winnipeg Jets. They are the league's oldest NHL franchise to have never (!) played in the Stanley Cup Finals. The franchise had a 506-660-172 record in Winnipeg, and only advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs twice in 17 seasons. That mediocrity has carried over to Phoenix, where the Coyotes' all-time record is 882-892-94 and where they’ve only advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs twice in 25 seasons (not including the canceled 2004-05 season). The Coyotes have only one playoff appearance over the past 11 seasons and last won a postseason series during their run to the 2012 Western Conference finals. As a result, attendance has suffered: in 2021-22, their last season at the Glendale arena, Arizona averaged only 11,601 fans, which ranked 30th out of 32 NHL teams.

Given that Houston is a fair-weather, front-runner sports town, a poorly-performing Coyotes team would likely see a similar fate at the ticket office here in Houston, after the initial novelty of an NHL franchise in the city wears off. The Coyotes could become just another chapter in Houston's long history of underachieving sports teams, and the NHL could come to regret its decision to move a team into Houston.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to hockey, either. The Vancouver Grizzlies of the NBA had an abysmal .220 winning percentage in Vancouver; since moving to Memphis their all-time record is better but still below .500 (.480), and the franchise has only advanced past the first round of the NBA playoffs four times in 22 seasons. The original Charlotte Hornets were, likewise, mediocre, with a .486 record. After moving to New Orleans and becoming what are now known as the Pelicans, their record stands at .461. 

MLB's Montreal Expos had an all-time record of .484; their record since moving to Washington and becoming the Nationals is now .487, their 2019 World Series championship notwithstanding.

The NFL’s Cardinals had a 186-248-25 record in Chicago and a 186-202-14 record in St. Louis. Since they moved to Phoenix their record is 230-330-2 (although they have appeared in one Super Bowl since moving to Arizona). And let’s not forget that star-crossed football team originally known as the Houston Oilers; they had an all-time winning percentage of .494 here in Houston, along with multiple playoff heartbreaks that traumatize me to this day. They’ve only done marginally better since moving to Tennessee and becoming the Titans, with a .524 record and one gut-wrenching loss in Super Bowl XXXIV. 

This is not to say that franchises never improve when they relocate; there are a couple of examples of this happening in the NHL. The Hartford Whalers had an all-time record of 534-709-177 and only advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs once in 18 seasons in Connecticut; they have done better in Carolina, with a current record of 933-957-86 and ten playoff appearances (their nine-year playoff drought from 2009-10 through 2017-18 notwithstanding), including the 2006 Stanley Cup. The Quebec Nordiques, likewise were mediocre in Quebec City with a 497-599-16 record over 16 seasons, but have a 1114-771-101 record (and three Stanley Cup Championships) since relocating to Denver. 

My point is simply that, on average, relocating a franchise doesn't automatically change that team's fortunes on the field or the ice or the hardwood. If a team without a winning culture is relocated to Houston, they might not be the draw we want them to be. And that would disappoint both local fans and the NHL alike.

The Coyotes will likely stay in Arizona for the 2023-24 season, but could be on the move afterwards.
Kuff and Jeff Balke have more.