In terms of freeways, the road network of Houston consists of a cobweb structure, with radials and ring roads (hub & spoke). 13 highways radiate from the city, and the city has three ring roads, two of which are toll roads. The underlying road network is more or less built in a grid and has a dense network of urban arterials with separate lanes, or five- to seven-lane roads with a center turn lane. I-10, I-45, and I-69 converge around downtown Houston, forming a type of beltway, but not considered a beltway. Three main Interstate Highways routes run through the Houston metropolitan area, namely Interstate 10, Interstate 45, and Interstate 69. The inner ring is formed by Interstate 610 and is often referred to simply as ‘The Loop’. The motorway network of the agglomeration covers about 900 kilometers. Farm to Market Roads are secondary roads, mainly in the periphery of the conurbation.
The highways are very massive, often exceeding 2×4 lanes and handle huge amounts of traffic, after Los Angeles the busiest points are in Houston. The explosive growth of the suburbs and residential areas puts a lot of pressure on the road network, which must be continuously expanded to meet the traffic demand. Many industrial estates are located on the so-called frontage roads, which are parallel roads to the highways. From the highways, the view of Houston is therefore quite ugly, with industrial estates, strip malls and billboards. Relatively few noise barriers are required due to the industrial estates along the highways. Frontage roads are also often used as phasing for the later construction of motorways.
According to searchforpublicschools, there are several toll roads in the metropolitan area, such as the Sam Houston Tollway (Beltway 8), the Houston center ring, the Grand Parkway (SH 99) which forms the outer ring, and the Hardy Toll Road, which provides an alternative to Interstate 45 in northern Houston. In addition, a toll is also charged on most interchangeable lanes, which were previously also known as ‘transitways’. There are separate toll lanes on the Katy Freeway (I-10) in western Houston. The toll roads are operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) and in part by the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority (FBCTRA). Because the road network is not as tightly gridded as other American cities, traffic is heavily concentrated on the radial highways. In addition to the highway network, there are a number of parkways that are semi-grade, but sub -standard. The toll roads generally have little congestion.
Beneath Downtown Houston is a complex system of pedestrian tunnels, connecting 95 city blocks underground. The system is 11 kilometers long and dates from the 1930s and was later expanded. Together with the skywalks in some parts of the center, it is a large network that connects almost all buildings of the city. The tunnels are air-conditioned and largely only accessible during office hours.
Overview freeways & tollways
The Fred Hartman Bridge from State Highway 146 over the Houston Ship Channel.
|Road name||length*||first opening||last opening||max AADT 2015|
|Katy Freeway||42 km||1961||1968||375.000|
|East Freeway||48 km||1953||1966||185.000|
|Gulf Freeway||77 km||1948||1976||253.000|
|North Freeway||64 km||1959||1963||312.000|
|Southwest Freeway||60 km||1958||1983||333.000|
|Eastex Freeway||55 km||1953||1981||229.000|
|The Loop||61 km||1952||1976||283.000|
|Crosby Freeway||27 km||1991||2011||42.000|
|Northwest Freeway||72 km||1975||2002||234.000|
|Sam Houston Tollway||142 km||1982||2011||201.000|
|Grand Parkway||112 km||2007||2022||71.000|
|Lanier Freeway||19 km||1995||86.000|
|Pasadena Freeway||25 km||1966||2000||139.000|
|Tomball Parkway||31 km||1994||2021||160.000|
|South Freeway||26 km||1980||1984||183.000|
|Decker Freeway||7 km||2001||2004||55.000|
|Southwest Freeway||1 km||1961||1961||56.000|
|Emmett F. Lowry Expressway||9 km||34.000|
|Fort Bend Parkway||12 km||2004||2004||26.000|
|Hardy Toll Road||35 km||1988||1988||83.000|
|West Park Tollway||37 km||2004||2017||54.000|
* length within the Houston metropolitan area
The construction of highways in Houston can be divided into two time periods; during the 1950s and 1960s, and from the mid-1980s onwards. Many highways were also widened from the mid-1980s, a process that continues to this day and is much needed in view of the explosive population growth of the agglomeration. Houston grew from a small city of 600,000 inhabitants at the time of the first highway in 1948, to almost 5.8 million inhabitants in 2010.
For the highways
Before the first highway was opened in Houston, the city had about 600,000 inhabitants, and was a relatively large city in the southern United States at the time. Even before the construction of highways, Houston was suburban in character, with sprawling residential areas with detached houses in a grid pattern. At the time, the city measured approximately 15 by 15 kilometers. The center already had a relatively impressive skyline at the time. The city was built up in a relatively dense grid network with mostly single carriageways. Only a few roads had separate lanes in the 1940s, for example Navigation Boulevard, which connects downtown with the oil industry on the Houston Shipping Canal. The grid system has already found its foundation well before the car era, when the city was founded in 1836 it was built directly in a grid pattern. From 1890 the city had a relatively extensive network of electric trams, but their use declined sharply from the late 1920s, having been completely replaced by buses by 1940. In the comparison with Los Angeles it can be concluded that highways and trams in Los Angeles together arranged transport for another twenty years. This has never been the case in Houston, the last streetcar was closed before the first freeway opened.
I-45 (North Freeway) at FM 1960.
After World War II, wealth and car ownership soared, and a high-capacity network of roads was necessary to keep Houston accessible. Not only were highways needed, but important main axes had to be doubled to 2×2 or even 2×3 lanes from the 1940s. In 1942, the Major Street Plan for Houston and Vicinity was published, which first highlighted the need for highways. No corridors have yet been designated in this plan that was to become a motorway. Between 1943 and 1946, the Texas Department of Transportation designated the first highway corridors in Houston.
On August 14, 1945, Japan was defeated and World War II ended. It was possible to focus again on domestic priorities, and the construction of a highway network was high on the list of priorities. Houston was not the first city in the United States to build highways. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, Robert Moses built an extensive network of parkways around New York City, and in 1940 the first freeway opened in Los Angeles. However, these projects have had little impact on the development of Houston’s highway network. In October 1943 the first highway was established, US 75, also known as the Gulf Freeway, which was to run from Houston to the port city of Galveston. The Eastex Freeway (US 59) and a short section of the La Porte Freeway (SH 225) were also established. In October 1946, US 90 as an east-west corridor and the North Freeway (US 75) were added. The planned network then consisted of 5 radial connections. These were far from envisioned as long-distance highways, they were planned up to the then city boundary. On September 30, 1948, the first freeway to traffic, the Gulf Freeway, today Interstate 45, opened between Downtown Houston and the city’s southeastern neighborhoods. The new highway was 4.5 kilometers long. It was also the first highway in its entirety Texas. Until 1952, the highway was extended a few more miles southeast.
In the early 1950s, a better thought-out highway network for Houston was developed. It was clear that a few radial connections that ended on the secondary road network around the center were not sufficient, a network of highways was necessary to handle the traffic to and from and around the center. In the summer of 1953, this plan was presented, which included 12 radial highways, as well as a downtown loop and a larger ring road around the city. In the following year, routes were established and possibly modified, and the central highway network was more or less finalized by the end of 1954. Until about 1957 it was the task of the municipality to determine the right-of-way only then was it transferred to the states. As a result, highway construction costs weighed heavily on Houston’s city budget, which is one reason why relatively few highways have been built up to that time. In the mid-1950s, construction was primarily carried out on the Eastex Freeway, part of US 59. By 1960, Houston really only had two longer stretches of highway; the Gulf Freeway to Galveston and the Eastex Freeway to the northeast.
In 1945 the study of a highway network to and from downtown Houston was started. The city then had about 400,000 inhabitants. In 1948, the Gulf Freeway opened just outside downtown with several service routes between downtown and the new freeway. In 1954, the freeway plan was worked out and presented, and in 1955 the first freeway opened near downtown Houston, a small stretch of I-45 on the northwest side of downtown that was not yet connected to the Gulf Freeway. The construction of the highways around downtown Houston was fairly easy, the density around the center was very low and consisted mainly of industrial estates that had fallen into disrepair. Only around US 59 south of downtown quite a lot of existing buildings had to be demolished.
US 59. opened in 1966along the east side of the center. This highway ran less close to the actual downtown area than I-45, because the east side was mostly made up of businesses and parking lots. In 1967, the Pierce Viaduct of I-45 opened on the south side of downtown. This was originally planned as a double-decker viaduct, but was eventually constructed as a single-deck viaduct with 2×3 lanes. The last section of the Downtown Loop opened in 1972, when I-10 opened. In 1974, US 59 finally opened south of downtown, completing the downtown plan. The highway network is almost completely built as planned in the 1940s, only the Harrisburg Freeway to the east (SH 225) was never built. Most of the Downtown Loop has not been significantly modified since opening in the 1960s and 1970s, only in 1997 were the I-45 and US 59 overpasses replaced by new overpasses, but only US 59 was widened to 2×4 lanes. The 2×3 I-45 along the south side is clearly the weakest link, as is the lack of connections to the center and to the south.
When the highway network around downtown Houston was built in the 1960s, the skyline was not very impressive, with only a few outdated office buildings of no more than 20 stories. Parking was mostly at ground level, making Houston a very unattractive downtown, two-thirds of the city blocks being parking lots. After the highway network was completed in the early 1970s, the center began to grow. In 1970 Downtown Houston was considered the most accessible center in the United States, but this became less as major spatial developments took place, the skyline of the 80s was already incomparable to that of the 60s, with countless high skyscrapers. The parking lots gradually gave way to parking garages and were filled with buildings. This is less the case on the east side of the center due to a number of very traffic-intensive facilities such as the Toyota Center, the Convention Center and the Minute Maid Park, a baseball stadium. The ten tallest skyscrapers in 2003 were all built between 1971 and 1987.
Large-scale highway construction
From the late 1950s, the speed of highway openings in the Houston metropolitan area increased rapidly, not least because the Interstate Highway system was created in 1956 and its impact increased significantly from the late 1950s as federal funds became available to build highways. even in urban areas, as long as they were an Interstate, and Houston had a few of those. Between 1959 and 1963, the North Freeway was built through Houston, and US 75 was renumbered Interstate 45. The Southwest Freeway was constructed between 1961 and 1969, and was subsequently extended further when spatial developments required it. Construction of the Katy Freeway took a relatively long time, and was largely opened between 1966 and 1968. The construction of Houston’s first ring road, Interstate 610, was quite fragmented, the first part opened in 1952, but the second part only in 1960. In 1975 the ring road was completely completed.
The quiet 70s
The reconstructed Katy Freeway (I-10).
During the 1970s, relatively few highways were opened in the Houston metropolitan area. I-610 was completed, and some shorter sections were opened, primarily on the La Porte Freeway, also known as State Highway 225. Houston’s growth did not stop, however, as the metropolitan area grew from 1.5 million in 1960 to 3 million in 1980, making the congestion on Houston’s highways unsustainable.
Second phase of construction
Beginning in the mid-1980s, a second phase in the development of Houston’s highway network began. This was twofold, not only were new highways built, at least as important was the large-scale renovation, modernization and expansion of the highway network. Almost all nodes were converted into impressive 4 or 5 level stack nodes. Highways were widened to 8 to 10 lanes. Alternating lanes were constructed. Almost all the major highways of the conurbation got such a catch-up, which lasted until the late 1990s. At that time, there was also construction on roughly three new highways, namely the South Freeway between 1980 and 1984, the La Porte Freeway between 1983 and 1996 and perhaps most importantly, the construction of the Sam Houston Beltway, Houston’s second beltway. This was a toll road, the first part of which was opened in 1982 on the east side of the city. The ring was more or less completed in 1997, but the main carriageways on the northeast side were missing for a long time, traffic had to go through the frontage roads. It wasn’t until 2011 that the Sam Houston Beltway became a full-fledged highway.
One of the largest upgrade projects in American history was the conversion of the Katy Freeway (I-10) in western Houston. This highway had 2×3 lanes from the start, and was one of the most traffic-prone highways in the country, where there was a traffic jam for 16 hours a day. The highway has been expanded dramatically, with generally 5 to 7 lanes in each direction, including HOT lanes, with additional frontage roads. The nodes were also drastically converted into impressive stacks.
The Northwest Freeway (US 290) widened as Houston’s last major approach road. The highway originally had 2×3 lanes, later a bus lane was built in the middle, which later became an HOV lane. The highway was subsequently widened between 2013 and 2018 to 4 to 6 lanes in each direction and one alternate lane. As part of this project, wickerwork and parallel lanes were also constructed on the short stretch of I-610 between US 290 and I-10 to facilitate weaving. This has since become one of Houston’s widest stretches of highway with 22 lanes.
Freeways never built
Like any city in the United States, Houston has some freeways that never went as planned. It is often argued that the Harrisburg Freeway, the extension of SH 225 downtown, was the only freeway never built. A 9-kilometer section between downtown and I-610 is missing. The need to build this highway was reduced when the Gulf Freeway (I-45) was widened. The distance from downtown to SH 225 via I-45 and I-610 is barely longer than the originally planned route.
Houston’s other highways have been constructed mostly as planned. There are not that many projects that were added to the road plan later, but were never built. One example was the Alvin Freeway, which was to be constructed from I-45 near Downtown to Alvin. What is now the Spur 5 at the University of Houston was once planned as a longer highway to Alvin. In the 1970s, the northernmost part of the Gulf Freeway was therefore widened with a parallel structure between I-69 and Spur 5. However, the Alvin Freeway was never built, making it somewhat redundant afterwards. Around the town of Alvin, SH 35 still forms the frontage roads for the later planned highway.
Other unbuilt highways can also be recognized by frontage roads with empty spaces in between. The most famous example of this is Red Bluff Road southeast of Houston, where a freeway from Pasadena to Seabrook was planned. Here, 11 kilometers of frontage roads have been built. It is striking that these still run through undeveloped areas. Further south, frontage roads have been constructed for a portion of SH 146 north of Texas City.
- In southwest Houston, the Fort Bend Parkway was planned to connect directly to the southwest corner of I-610 via Post Oak Road, which is still a freeway for a small portion. This was never built, nor has space been reserved for it. It is possible to get to I-610 via the US 90 Alternate is further east.
- 12 and more lanes
- 10 lanes
- 8 lanes
- 6 lanes
- 4 lanes
I -610 in Uptown Houston, Texas’ most congested highway.
In Houston, highways are continuously widened. In the past, alternating lanes were built, but these are inefficient nowadays due to the strongly growing rush hour traffic. Most major highways have been widened since the 1990s, with the exception of the Northwest Freeway (US 290). Due to the lack of financial resources, new highways are often constructed as toll roads and widened roads often have toll lanes added. Toll-free alternatives are generally available via the frontage roads, but the travel time is significantly longer.
State Highway 99
Work began on SH 99 to build a new ring road around Houston in early 2000. In 2014, the west ring was completed between US 59/I-69 and US 290, as well as a stretch east of Houston between Interstate 10 and Baytown. The road consists of 11 segments of which 5 have been completed. The total length would be around 270 kilometers. The next under construction sections will be northwest and north of Houston and opened in 2016. The SH 99 is being constructed as a toll road. It is unclear when it will be completed.
There are long-term plans to extend Interstate 69 from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Laredo. These plans are most advanced in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and parts of Mississippi. In September 2012, the Eastex Freeway was first numbered as I-69. In 2013, the Southwest Freeway followed and in 2015 the part around downtown (within I-610). This completes I-69 in the Houston area.
Hardy Toll Road
The Hardy Toll Road is a north-south toll road parallel to Interstate 45 in northern Houston, north of I-610. Discussions are ongoing as to whether the Hardy Toll Road should be extended into downtown Houston to relieve the very busy I-45.
For more information, see Southwest Freeway, East Freeway, Gulf Freeway & North Freeway.
It is planned to adapt I-45 around Downtown Houston. The section along the south side of downtown that runs on an overpass is to be demolished, after which traffic on I-45 will be directed along the east and north sides of Houston. These parts (Southwest Freeway and East Freeway) will be drastically widened for this purpose. It is also planned to provide the North Freeway with managed lanes.
Houston is also referred to as Stack City because of its many impressive stack nodes. All highway interchanges in the Houston area are stacked, with 3 to 5 levels, depending on the road network configuration. Typical are the Texas-style stacks, with 5 levels. This is because the frontage roads add an extra level. It is most common for one main route to deepen at level -1, the frontage roads to level 0, the second main route to level +1, and then two left turns at levels +2 and +3. From the lowest level you then pass under 4 stacked viaducts. Some stacks are due to HOV facilities even higher, some 6-level stacks occur in Houston. These are as high as a 12-storey apartment building and offer impressive views of the city. Many highways also have interchangeable lanes, which sometimes makes the interchanges even more complex. It is estimated that Houston, Austin and Dallas account for 50% of the world’s stack nodes. Houston alone has more than 25 stack nodes. Houston’s first 4-level stack was the interchange between the Southwest Freeway (I-69) and ‘The Loop’ (I-610) in southwest Houston that opened in July 1962. This was also Texas’s first modern stack node.
There are several toll roads and express lanes in the Houston area that require toll payment. Houston’s outer beltways are a toll road, the Sam Houston Beltway and the Grand Parkway. In addition, there are tolled radial connections such as the Hardy Toll Road to the north, the Westpark Tollway to the west and the Fort Bend Parkway to the southwest. In addition, there are HOT lanes, also known as express lanes or ‘managed lanes’ on some freeways. These are mostly alternating lanes that were originally intended for carpoolers, but where the residual capacity has been ‘sold’ to solo drivers since 2012. The only specifically constructed toll lanes for the time being are on the Katy Freeway (I-10), where there are two toll lanes in each direction.
Toll road authorities
The toll roads have various road authorities. Traditionally, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) has been the most important, but there is also the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority (FBCTRA) and some toll lanes are also managed by METRO, the public transport authority. of Harris County. However, the toll lanes on the Katy Freeway are managed by HCTRA. The Grand Parkway is under TxDOT.
HCTRA has its own transponder for the Houston area, the EZ Tag. It is compatible with the other toll systems in Texas, including TxDOT ‘s TxTag and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) TollTag.
Open road tolling
Most toll roads in the Houston area have switched to open road tolling, which means there are no more physical toll gates where cash or credit cards can be paid. One of the Texan transponders is required to drive on a toll road; EZ TAG, TxTAG and TollTag. Originally, drivers without a transponder were automatically in violation and the bill was sent home with a fine. Houston’s electronic toll roads are somewhat infamous for not having a separate license plate toll program and is immediately subject to a penalty that is much higher than the administrative fee charged by many license plate-toll programs elsewhere in the United States. $358 million in unpaid toll bills accumulated between 2000 and 2015, but this amount includes dunning fees and fines, bringing the total much higher than the lost toll revenue alone, which made up only 7% of the $358 million. 96 percent of drivers pay the toll on time. In 2016, the option to pay the toll afterwards was introduced. Although this did not come down to license plate toll whereby the bill is sent home, it did give drivers the option to pay the toll afterwards without a fine. Between 2000 and 2015, HCTRA’s total toll revenue was $6.9 billion.
Texas and certainly Houston are known for the gigantic light poles, which is called ‘high mast lighting’. These are recommended for urban interchanges and highways with a minimum of 70,000 vehicles per day, which is what nearly all highways in Houston meet. Because there are frontage roads along many highways with businesses and retail attached, the light nuisance for residential areas is less. High mast lighting are lighting columns with a minimum height of 100 ft (30 meters), in Houston there are also lighting columns with a height of 175 ft (53 meters). The highways in Houston are much better lit than, say, Los Angeles, where highways are very sparsely lit.
Houston is known for the extensive use of frontage roads. These are parallel roads of the freeways where all entrances and exits end. In urban areas, frontage roads are almost exclusively one-way roads, with all activities and intersecting roads on the frontage roads being opened up. Because of the frontage roads, many highways are surrounded by businesses, with lots of billboards and advertisements. The aesthetic quality of these highways is not very high, but the frontage roads are efficient. Retail and businesses along the frontage roads also act as an acoustic barrier between the highway and residential areas, which is why there are few noise barriers in Houston. necessary. In addition, it is possible to easily divert traffic via frontage roads in the event of incidents or road works. Frontage roads are always toll-free, even if the highway itself is a toll road. What is special is that the Beltway 8, which is entirely a toll road, also has continuous toll-free frontage roads.
Houston’s very first freeways had frontage roads, and they’ve been used much more consistently in Houston since the 1950s than in other Texas cities, where they were often interrupted by rivers, railroads, and interchanges. Partly because of the frontage roads, almost all interchanges in Houston are equipped with 5 levels, because of the extra layer of the frontage roads. Frontage roads usually have two to three lanes in each direction, occasionally four lanes on very busy routes, such as at large shopping malls. Traffic coming from a company can usually only turn right onto the frontage road, if you want to drive in the other direction you have to make a U-turn at the next connection, which is rarely more than a kilometer away in urban areas. Also widely used are the so -called Texas U-turns, where traffic can make a U-turn by going under or over the highway before the intersection, and thus can reach the frontage road in the other direction without traffic lights. This is a significant relief from the actual intersection with the intersecting road. Frontage roads are difficult to fit in in combination with a diverging diamond interchange (DDI), because the frontage road can then no longer be driven through.
Farm to Market Roads
There are numerous Farm to Market Roads around Houston. These are primarily in the periphery outside of Houston’s municipal boundaries. Urban routes have often been given administrative status as ‘Urban Road’, but remain signposted as Farm Road. A number of Farm Roads form important urban arterials in the suburbs.
Houston vs. Dallas
It stacks between US 290 and Beltway 8.
Houston is often compared to the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) region. Both conurbations have a radial system of ring roads, but the DFW region consists of two major cities, Dallas and Fort Worth, while Houston consists of one city. Traditionally, the DFW region has less wide highways compared to Houston, but does have a larger network of highways. The DFW region has more Interstate Highways than Houston.
The Houston area averaged 91% of the DFW region’s population during the period 1950-2010, but only 69% of the freeway length and 89% of the lane mileage. Dallas-Fort Worth is also catching up to widen highways, pushing the DFW region further out from the Houston region in lane miles.
The Houston area does have more frontage roads than the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In DFW, frontage roads are not taken for granted, and moreover they are applied less consistently than in Houston, with many interruptions.
In terms of toll roads, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth are more or less parallel, where Houston has converted many alternate lanes into toll lanes since 2010, Dallas-Fort Worth has built many express lanes. Houston has a full toll road, where Dallas doesn’t. One difference is that the DFW region traditionally has more toll roads. DFW’s first toll road opened as early as 1957, leaving funds available for the construction of more freeways. The first toll roads in Houston were not built until the 1980s.