As the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, Houston is proof that everything really is bigger in Texas.
When it comes to driving in Houston, however, bigger doesn’t always mean better. With its wealth of complicated freeways, millions of aggressive motorists, and seriously daunting traffic conditions, the city is notoriously difficult to get around in — especially for newcomers.
New to driving in Houston? Saddle up, partner. Here are six tips to make sure you don’t get lost in the shuffle:
Get To Know Houston’s Highways
You may think you’re an expert navigator, but one day of driving in Houston will prove you wrong. With over 4,000 miles of highway in the metropolitan area, there are plenty of opportunities for wrong turns and missed exits.
Unsurprisingly, Houston is also home to a portion of the widest freeway in the world, nicknamed the Katy Freeway, which spans a total of 26 lanes. The city’s other highways, while not quite as massive, are equally confounding in terms of layout.
Note that most of these highways have nicknames, which are embedded in the local terminology. Knowing those nicknames ahead of time might prove useful if you end up having to ask someone for directions (or if you just want to brush up on your Houstonian slang.)
Learn How To Navigate Downtown Houston
Driving in downtown Houston also poses somewhat of a challenge for newcomers, especially during poor weather conditions or construction.
Like any major city, downtown Houston is replete with one-way streets, confusing intersections, and stoplights at every turn. It’s important to keep an eye out for signs and make sure you’re actually headed toward your destination.
In addition to other cars, you’ll also be sharing the streets of Houston with pedestrians, bikers, and forms of public transportation such as the 22.7-mile METRORail system, so take special care to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Before you start driving in downtown Houston, take a while to familiarize yourself with the layout of the city. Navigational apps are a great tool to have on hand, but they won’t cut it on their own, especially if you’re driving in Houston at night.
Look Out For Tollways And Feeder Roads
If you’ve driven in a big city before, you’re probably familiar with tollways. In Houston, they’re pretty much impossible to miss. Even if you think you’ve found a way to dodge all 11 of them on your planned route, it’s best to get an EZ Tag (the preferred payment method for Houston tollways) ahead of time — or at least keep some change in your glove compartment.
On the other hand, the term “feeder road” is unique to Houston. Functionally, feeder roads are comparable to frontage or service roads, in that they run parallel and “feed” traffic into major roads from the surrounding metropolis.
What, then, separates feeder roads in Houston? You guessed it: size. Whereas typical service roads are only one or two lanes wide, most Houston feeders consist of three or four lanes all going in the same direction. That means it’s important to make sure you’re in the correct lane to merge on or off the highway when the time comes.
Take A Defensive Driving Class
No other city necessitates defensive driving quite like Houston does. Over the years, the city’s reputation for aggressive road etiquette has inspired countless articles, op-eds, case studies, and social media rants, among other things.
But how bad is driving in Houston, really? Well… it’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure. Houston drivers are known for taking a no holds barred approach to the daily commute, which means you’re more likely to see tailgating on the freeway than turn signals.
As a result, the Bayou City tops the list for the most number of car wrecks in the state of Texas by a wide margin. It also ranks among the top 12 most dangerous metropolitan areas in the country for drivers on federal highways.
Of course, not all Houston drivers are the same, but you’ll run into at least a few that fit the stereotype during any given trip — so it’s best to be prepared.
A defensive driving class can teach you what to expect and how to react to potentially dangerous situations on the road. That alone can make all the difference between a traffic nightmare and a daring metropolitan adventure.
Avoid Rush Times When Possible
Yes, this is true for every city — but it’s especially true in Houston, the 4th largest metropolitan area in the United States. Houston isn’t just big, however, it’s a major hub of industry, meaning it’s home to millions of commuters.
That spells traffic. Fortunately, rush hour in Houston follows the same basic schedule as anywhere else in the U.S. — the only problem is that it tends to last longer. On weekdays, the first wave of the day starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends at around 9:00 a.m., and evening traffic begins at 4:00 p.m. and lasts for about three hours.
You can skip a good bit of rush hour traffic simply by figuring out which roads to avoid, but when possible, you should plan to leave for your destination early to get ahead of the overall congestion and avoid delays.
Follow The Rules Of The Road
Houston’s unusual roadways and culture of aggressive driving is no excuse to throw everything you know about ordinary traffic laws out the window. Quite the opposite: in such an unpredictable environment, it pays to exercise deliberate caution to things you might otherwise take for granted, such as wearing your seatbelt and driving without distraction.
Though it may not seem like it, traffic laws in Houston aren’t all that different from most cities in the U.S., and standard courtesy still applies. If you aren’t sure about the specifics of a rule, go ahead and look it up — just not while you’re driving, of course.
Driving In Houston Soon?
Despite all this, almost everyone will tell you the same time: driving in Houston is worth it to see the city. Guess what? They’re absolutely right. Armed with these tips and your new defensive driving techniques, you’ll be ready to drive safely…but what about driving in style?
If you’re on the market for new wheels before you hit the road in Houston, check out our reviews of the latest car and truck models to help narrow down your search.