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As Traffic Levels Rebound in Texas, Tech Could Aid Efficiency

The annual traffic congestion survey of Texas roadways in 2021 showed a near return to pre-pandemic traffic levels amid strong population growth. Meanwhile, development patterns and transportation systems remain car-focused.

Aerial view of a major conjunction of freeways with overpasses.
Population increases and a car culture keep Texas highways clogged, particularly in its metro regions.

The latest traffic congestion survey showed congestion rebounded in 2021 after a decline of COVID-19 numbers in the state in 2020. The annual survey is conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and lists the 100 most congested roadways in the state. Overall, traffic was slightly down in 2021, compared to pre-pandemic levels, likely a nod to remote work trends the pandemic precipitated.

“There was significant population growth occurring in Texas during the pandemic years,” said David Schrank, senior research scientist at TTI and one of the authors of the report.

“This has never let up,” he added, pointing to companies like Tesla that moved their headquarters from California to Texas because of the state’s more business-friendly posture. It should be noted Tesla cars are still produced in California.

Remote work has changed traffic patterns, said Schrank, relating similar findings from other parts of the country where morning commutes into downtown districts have softened, giving way to more traffic at midday.

“Arterial streets saw increases in travel and some commute-work trip times were adjusted such that we had more congestion toward the middle of the day,” said Schrank in an email. “We also saw more congestion on the weekends as folks needed to run their errands or just get out of the house.”

It should also be noted the state had a number of large highway projects in play during 2021, which tend to exacerbate traffic congestion.

However, trends like population growth follow similar findings from other parts of the state. The Dallas-Fort Worth metro region, home to some 8 million residents, has also seen significant population growth in outlying suburban to rural communities, where housing costs are lower, said Dan Lamers, senior program manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments Transportation Department.

“We’re growing faster than we have the ability to build transportation capacity. That’s just the hard truth of the situation,” said Lamers.

While local communities in Texas cities have taken steps to reduce car dependency in the form of encouraging infill development, growing transit options or developing bike and pedestrian infrastructure, Texas is — at its core — a car culture.

“Lessening traffic is not as much of a priority as providing more reliability to the traffic that we do have, and providing additional options to people for travel,” said Lamers, citing some of the guiding principles in the region’s recently approved Mobility 2045 Update.

The region will turn to technology innovations “to help us squeeze efficiency out of our transportation system,” said Lamers, adding that technology innovations like connected vehicle developments could allow the gaps between vehicles to become tighter, fitting more on the highways and improving safety.

“So you get these almost, like, platoons of vehicles that operate almost like a single unit, for example,” he added.

Schrank also cited the development of more technology and traffic management playing a stronger role in the future.

“There is a great deal of road capacity being added but it is often added with other elements such as managed lanes, incorporating technologies to help with management, etc.,” said Schrank, adding the state is forecast to add 20 million residents in the next 20 to 25 years.

“There is more management of the existing facilities occurring. More incident management occurring. More traffic monitoring and traveler information [gathering] is occurring,” said Schrank.

Fitting more cars on the roads, or expanding roadways, has not necessarily been the policy direction taken by other metro regions. Miami-Dade County in Florida is in the midst of a $10 billion transportation development plan with a strong emphasis on transit.

“I am very optimistic of the fact that the appetite for figuring out better ways to get around, outside of your single-occupancy vehicle, is something that people want to see,” said Eulois Cleckley, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works, speaking on a panel in October at the American Public Transit Association (APTA) TRANSform conference in Seattle.

One of those projects is known as the South Corridor and is one of the longest all-electric bus rapid transit systems in the country, to be operational in 2024.

In Kansas City, Mo. — another region not known for having a deep relationship with transit — Mayor Quinton Lucas has been an advocate for more transit options, fare-free transit and more pedestrian and biking infrastructure, as an answer to reducing the pressures on the region’s road network.

“Transportation is infrastructure,” said Lucas in some of his comments at the APTA conference. “Often, we will say, ‘We need to build an additional lane on an interstate,’ and we all know how expensive that is.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth metro is served by a number of successful public transit options — both bus and rail. However, due the spread-out development of the region, which prioritizes car use, much of the area is not easily accessible by transit.

Just under 50 percent of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro region is covered by public transit.

“More than half of the population of the Dallas area doesn’t have direct access to public transportation,” said Lamers.

“So that’s a big hurdle that we’re going to have to try to overcome,” he added. “The bottom line, again, comes down to funding.”

While the remote work trend remains a potent force for beating traffic congestion in some cities — in Seattle, the September headcount in downtown office buildings was only 36 percent of 2019 levels — the trend toward telework is not as strong in the Dallas region as it might be in other metros.

“The great thing about the Dallas-Fort Worth region is we are very diverse in the type of employment that we have,” said Lamers, adding that remote work only applies to the relatively small portion of the workforce that can really take advantage of it in a meaningful way.

What’s more, many of those employers in the region who do allow for remote work still require workers to come in periodically, he added.

As the Lone Star State becomes the new home for transplants from other large urban areas, attitudes are beginning to shift in areas like land use and biking infrastructure. A 30-mile bike trail to connect downtown Dallas with Fort Worth is nearly complete. A “freeway system for bicycles” is planned for the region with the North Central Texas Council of Governments Transportation Department funding strategic connections between the sections of trail.

“We can create this massive network of bicycle and pedestrian facilities,” said Lamers.

Local governments are beginning to understand the distinct connection between land use and transportation.

“You’re seeing a lot more infill developments … . You’re seeing local governments creating more mixed-use developments intended to provide more efficient transportation options, or you don’t even have to take transportation; you can walk,” said Lamers.

“Thirty years ago we couldn’t get local governments to talk to us about land use. They did not really see the connection between land use and transportation,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.