For some newcomers, driving in Houston can be a little overwhelming. Setting aside the sheer size of the nation's fourth-largest city, many visitors or recent transplants are taken off-guard by Houston's aggressive driving culture and unique vehicular vernacular. Whether you've been in the city for a day or a decade, here are some tips to help you navigate Houston swiftly and safely.
Learn the Highways' Nicknames
If you’re coming from a city or country that refers to roadways by numbers and cardinal directions (ex. I-35 North), you might be in for a rude awakening. Most of the major highways in Houston have nicknames, and sometimes those names differ, depending on what part of the freeway you are referring to. It can get confusing — especially when the name includes a cardinal direction. “Eastbound South Loop West” is a real thing here in Houston.
Here’s a quick reference guide:
- “Katy Freeway” refers to the part of I-10 that is west of I-45. To the east, it is known as the “Baytown East Freeway.”
- “Southwest Freeway” is the part of US 59 that is south of I-45. North of I-45, it is referred to as “Eastex Freeway.”
- I-610 is known as the “610 Loop” or the “Inner Loop,” and it is broken up into stretches depending on the geographic location. “North Loop,” for example, is the part of 610 that is between Highway 290 and Highway 90 just north of downtown, and “North Loop West” is more specifically the stretch between 290 and I-45.
- State Highway Beltway 8, more commonly known as the “Sam Houston Parkway” (if you’re on the feeder) or “Sam Houston Tollway” (if you’re on the toll road) is the “Outer Loop” around the city. Like I-610, it is also broken up into directions depending on where you are geographically “West Belt,” etc.
Know the Deal with Feeders
Most exits off of Houston’s highways will dump you onto what are known as “feeder roads.” These slower-speed side roads parallel the major roadway and provide easy on-off access to the highway, as well as to the smaller cross streets. In other cities they might be called “frontage roads” or “service roads,” but those are typically two-way, two-lane roads, whereas a feeder road is a true one-way thoroughfare with multiple lanes.
Some things to keep in mind about feeders:
- Your GPS might not understand what they are. Even if you exit at the appropriate time, your GPS might think you are still on the highway and try to reroute you. Be sure you look ahead in the directions so that you don’t miss your turn. Because the feeders are one way, a wrong turn because your GPS was “recalculating” could mean a 10-15 minute detour.
- U-Turn lanes are a nice feature. When approaching a stoplight while on the feeder, you might notice 2-3 turn lanes. The far left lane is almost always a U-turn lane and is handy if you need to get back on the feeder going the other direction.
- Exit early as you might need to merge across several lanes. It’s not uncommon for a feeder road in Houston to have four lanes. The exit will leave you in the far left lane, so if you need to make a quick right turn, exit early to give yourself enough time to merge over. Meanwhile, other drivers may be trying to merge in your direction to reach the on-ramp.
Get an EZ Tag
It can be challenging to get anywhere in the city without using one of Houston’s toll roads. Getting an EZ Tag is a good way to ensure you don’t get delayed or left fishing through your cup holders for change.
The EZ Tag is a sticker with a chip embedded that talks with the tolling station every time you pass through. The amount of the toll is then deducted from a pre-paid account.
For a local, the EZ Tag is a must. Not only does it allow you to use the much quicker EZ Tag-only lanes on toll roads, but also some tollways, like the Westpark Tollway and Katy Tollway, only accept payments via EZ Tag.
Some important things to know about EZ Tags:
- You can request an EZ Tag online at the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) website, by phone (281-875-3279) or by going to a brick-and-mortar EZ Tag store. The first three tags are $15 each, and every tag thereafter is $10. A minimum pre-paid deposit of $40 is required.
- You can set your account so that it is linked to a bank or credit card account to be reloaded automatically with a predetermined amount when the balance gets low. Or you can sign up for a BancPass EZ Tag, and rather than automatically reloading, you are notified when the balance is low. If you want to reload, you can do so by going to an H-E-B or CVS, or by going online.
- The EZ Tag is compatible with Texas Department of Transportation's TxTag (used in Austin) and the North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA) TollTag (used in Dallas), so if you are traveling to those cities, you can use their tag-only lanes just like here in Houston.
Watch the Weather
Adjusting your speed and heightening your awareness of other drivers is just good practice — regardless of what the weather is like. However, Houston has some particular challenges.
These are some important things to keep in mind:
- Look out for flooding. When it rains a lot in a short period of time, water can pool along the feeders, on on/off ramps, and even on stretches of the freeway itself, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell how deep the water is. If you don’t know, don’t risk it. If you can’t maneuver around the flooded area, turn around (if possible) or pull over, and call for help.
- Be prepared for delays. On the best of days, there are often accidents that hold up traffic, especially on already-clogged roads like Highway 290. When the weather gets rough, however, you can bank on needing extra time for your commute.
- Watch out for drivers who don’t adjust their driving to the conditions. Even in inclement weather, many drivers don’t lower their speed or tone down aggressive driving maneuvers. Give yourself (and them) plenty of room, and be sure to lower your own speed.
Take a Defensive Driving Class
Aggressive driving is certainly not unique to Houstonians, but they do make an art of it. It’s not unusual for individuals to forgo using their turn signals for fear that doing so will only cause other drivers to speed up and block them from merging. Similarly, it’s fairly commonplace to witness drivers force their way into or out of an exit-only lane because they waited until the absolute last second to merge.
Having a little training in defensive driving tactics could help you react more safely to your fellow drivers. Bonus, if you get a traffic ticket in Houston, a defensive driving class could help get it dismissed.
A number of locations throughout the city offer online and in-person courses. You can find one near you by visiting: defensivedriving.org.
A few helpful tips include:
- Plan to get into your exit lane well in advance of the exit. Many high-traffic interchanges throughout the city have near-perpetual quarter-mile gridlock, which can extend back farther than the exit signs. Don’t be “that guy” merging in at the last minute!
- “Eye to mirror, foot to brake.” Try to get into the habit of checking your rear-view for tailgaters before hitting the brakes. Many Houstonians consider half-second following distances to be the norm or will tailgate purely to keep others from merging in front of them.
- Watch out for bored commuters and cell phone texters drifting or weaving in their lanes. Texas has a texting-while-driving ban, but many commuters still take out their phone while in traffic. Be on the lookout for commuters whose attention may be directed down at their phone rather than their surroundings.
Budget Plenty of Time — and Then Double It
Houston is huge. The eight-county metropolitan area covers 8,778 square miles — an area bigger than the state of New Jersey. The 610 Loop alone is 42 miles long, and Beltway 8 is 88 miles long. It’s no surprise then that getting places in Houston takes time.
Some things to consider when calculating how much time you’ll need:
- A few minutes can make a world of difference. Leaving at 4:55 PM could shave 20 minutes off your drive time if it means you can get out onto the freeway before the masses descend. Because of this, many Houstonians opt for alternative work schedules — going in early or leaving late —so that they can avoid the worst of the traffic.
- There’s no such thing as a “reverse commute” in Houston. Even though going against traffic is often less awful, you can still expect delays during rush hour, especially at major interchanges like at I-10 and I-45 or at US-59 and I-45.
- Be conservative with your estimated drive time ... and then add 10-15 minutes to be safe. However long you think it will take to get somewhere, it will probably take longer. Even if you estimate your drive time using a GPS, you never know what delays might pop up en route.
- Beware of side street stop-and-go. You might be able to zip a few miles down the freeway in a matter of minutes, but if you need to venture into the side streets of, say, Montrose or the Heights, be prepared to account for long waiting times at stop lights.
Lastly, Don't Forget "The Wave"
Houstonians might often be aggressive or inpatient on the road, but they aren't rude. If another driver lets you merge in front of them, it is customary to acknowledge their generosity with a friendly wave of the hand and a smile in the rearview mirror.
After all, Houston might be a big city, but Southern Hospitality rules still apply.