By Charles Hadlock, NBC News Producer
If you have to navigate the urban jungle of crowded freeways, Houston may be the place to do it while still keeping your sanity. Houston, with a population approaching six million people in the metro area, is notorious for traffic jams. In the early 1980's, the city had the nation's second-worst traffic congestion. But a surge of road building --along with new technology -- helped get the traffic flowing again. Houston is now ranked seventh in the latest Urban Mobility Report. Not perfect, but better than it used to be.
There are several things Houston is doing that other congested cities can only dream about.
At any given time, you can log onto http://traffic.houstontranstar.org/layers/ and instantly see traffic conditions in Houston on a colorful map. Hopefully, you'll see lots of green, which means traffic is moving at posted speeds. Click on a freeway segment and you can learn the actual speed traffic is moving. Click on the camera icons and see images from hundreds of cameras mounted along the freeways.
According to the Urban Mobility Report, Houston is seeing a lot more yellows and reds during rush hour. But at least now you can verify what your commute will be like before you leave home or the office and make decisions about alternate routes or simply stay in place and wait it out.
If you're already on the road, giant electronic message boards keep drivers posted on traffic conditions and travel times ahead. Newer GPS devices tap into this data and alert drivers on their dashboards. The information is also available on cell phones and PDA's. Radio and TV stations broadcast traffic reports, of course, but nothing is as fast and accurate as seeing traffic information in real time.
In 1994, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) began building a network of electronic sensors along busy freeways. Today, the system monitors more than 700 miles of freeway (in each direction). By taking advantage of the of the area's 1.5 million toll tags (transponders), the system determines travel speeds by calculating the time it takes a vehicle equipped with a toll tag to travel the distance between sensors along the roadway.
The technology won't prevent traffic congestion, of course, but at least now you'll instantly know why you're stuck and how long it will take to drive out of it.