October 3, 2013
Traffic studies, ordinances would put brakes on growth
Development thrives in Houston because of its no-zoning laws
By Bill Kroger
Houston's future has rarely looked so bright, especially for those of us who remember the 1980s,
when failed banks, empty buildings and vacant lots littered the city. Today, Houston is the envy of
many cities throughout the United States.
Houston is a leading city for job creation and its unemployment rate is one of the lowest - well
below the national rate. Companies, taking advantage of Houston's favorable business climate,
are relocating, expanding and starting new businesses here. Houston is rated as one of the top
U.S. cities for young people, making it easier for employers to attract top talent. Houston
entrepreneurs are building new restaurants, museums, theaters, parks and other attractions. And
Houstonians in all income brackets have tremendous options for housing; affordable homes,
condos, and apartments are available in new or established neighborhoods, close in or farther
No doubt, traffic in some parts of the city is a downside of this growth. But Jim Blackburn's
suggestion in his recent Houston Chronicle opinion essay ("Development Degrades Our Traffic
Movement," Page B7, Sept. 28) that the city of Houston should use a driveway ordinance and
traffic studies to limit development is misplaced.
In short, the driveway ordinance requires the city to approve new driveways whenever necessary
for reasonable access. The city may deny a permit if the proposed use of a new driveway would
create an extraordinary traffic hazard or excessively interfere with the normal use of a street rightof-way. Traffic studies are used to assess a proposed development's traffic impact. Blackburn
proposes a back-door form of zoning through use of this driveway ordinance and traffic studies.
This proposal would severely curtail development and stunt Houston's economic growth.
Houston has always been a no-zoning city, which is one reason for our past and present good
fortune. Houston's City Charter prohibits the adoption of a zoning ordinance without at least six
months for debate and a binding referendum at a regularly scheduled election. Three different
generations of Houstonians have rejected zoning referendums - in 1948, 1962 and 1993. Use of
the driveway ordinance and traffic studies to block developments violates the spirit, and perhaps
the letter, of the City Charter.
Appropriate traffic studies can be useful. By forecasting the impact of a project on traffic, studies
can assist city planners in prioritizing road and traffic improvements. Traffic studies can guide
cities on whether to add or modify turn lanes or traffic control devices. Regular signal light
assessment and adjustment as a result of such studies can significantly reduce intersection
delays during peak hours.But traffic studies should not be used by city officials to call winners or losers among different
development projects. Traffic studies are based on many assumptions - such as driver behaviors,
changes to road conditions, and other development - that may overstate the actual traffic impact
of a project. Some development may actually improve overall traffic if it shortens the distances
that drivers otherwise have to commute. Development can also change traffic patterns. Twenty
years ago, most drivers on the Katy Freeway headed downtown to work. Today, many drivers on
the Katy Freeway head the opposite direction to new office buildings along the Energy Corridor.
Traffic studies that predict future traffic patterns associated with a single project often do not
reflect this complexity.
Using traffic studies and the driveway ordinance to approve or disapprove of projects would
further politicize development, converting traffic studies into advocacy pieces for different groups.
Furthermore, permit delays can dramatically increase the risk and uncertainty for developers
trying to finance and build projects in Houston. If developers and lenders perceive the risks, costs
and delays from "backdoor zoning" as too great, Houston risks its reputation as a city where
growth is welcomed. Other cities that are starved for jobs and new development would love to get
our projects built in their communities instead.
Blackburn is right that traffic deserves the attention of city, state and federal officials. But their
attention - and city tax dollars - will be most effective if focused on how best to build new
infrastructure to attract and maintain new development, rather than trying to shut it down.
Kroger represents clients in energy and real estate disputes, and is a partner with the law
firm of Baker Botts LLP.