If you’re new to Houston, the massive web of highways, interstates, and onramps may have you confused and intimidated. This is normal, but fear not, brave reader, for this blog’s goal is to make you feel more confident navigating the city’s highways and byways. First let’s discuss how the highways themselves work and then we can talk about what to call them and how to use them to get to where you need to be!
As someone who grew up in the Northeast where highway exit and on-ramps just sort of appear, the streets that ran parallel to the highways and onto which I was funneled when I exited were a little overwhelming for me. However, once I figured them out, they became a source of comfort to me. Those parallel streets are called “Frontage Roads” and serve as access roads (on and off-ramps) for the highways. On the diagram below, the Frontage Roads are the outside, vertical lanes.
The curved lanes that connect frontage roads running in opposite directions are called “Texas Turnarounds” and are fantastic little engineering marvels. Texas Turnarounds allow you to take a U-turn or to begin going the opposite way on a highway, often times without stopping at a stoplight. By using the far left hand lane of the frontage road, and turning around beneath the highway, any driving mistake can be easily undone. I became much more calm as a driver in my new city once I realized that I didn’t have to make rash driving decisions if I was about to miss an exit. All I had to do was take the next exit, stay in the left hand lane of the frontage road, use the Texas Turnaround and then head back to where I should have been.
Now that you know how to use the highway system, let’s talk about the highways themselves so that you’ll always know how to get from one place to another, and how to listen to local traffic reports. Quick note to those of you from the West coast, Texans don’t use the word “the” when talking about highway numbers – it’s “Take 10,” not “Take the 10.”
Houston is essentially a bulls-eye created by two loops that can be traversed by a handful of other highways and interstates. Here’s a handy-dandy resource guide that you may want to bookmark for later use. I’ll use the numbers provided above on the maps:
What it Does
In traffic reports, newscasters will report on The Loop in quarters, telling you what is going on at the “South Loop” or the “West Loop”
|Serving as the central circle of Houston’s bulls-eye, 610 is often used to get from one highway to another without having to drive into downtown.|
|8||“The Beltway”; “The Sam Houston Toll Road”
Reports about the Beltway are given in quarters, similar to the Loop. The highway itself is a toll-road but the Frontage Road is free (though it has stop-lights at major intersections).
|Beltway 8 is the outside circle of Houston’s bulls-eye. It is used mostly by suburban commuters.|
|10||“The Katy Freeway” – West of downtown
“The Baytown-East Freeway” – East of downtown
|Interstate 10 runs East-to-West across Houston. Taking it East will bring you to New Orleans and beyond. Taking it West will bring you first to San Antonio, before Phoenix and LA.|
Eastex Freeway” – North of downtown
“The Southwest Freeway” – South of downtown
|59 runs in a backwards L from the northern suburb of Kingwood to the suburb of Sugarland, southwest of Houston.|
|45||“The North Freeway” – North of downtown
Gulf Freeway” – South of downtown
|45 is essentially the mirror image of 59. Taken North, it will bring you to the Woodlands and Dallas. The southbound lane will take you to Kemah and the beaches at Galveston.|
|290||“The Northwest Freeway”||Highway 290 runs from around 10:00 on the loop westward. It can be taken first to the Outlets of Houston before eventually leading you to Austin.|
|288||“The South Freeway“||Highway 288 runs from downtown near the Museum District and Medical Center to the southern suburbs of Houston.|
|225||“The La Porte Freeway“||Highway 225 runs East from about 4:00 on the West Loop|
|5||“The Spur”||Accessible only from the northbound lanes of 59, the spur takes folks from 59 into Midtown.|
Now you have all the information you need to traverse Houston and drive and sound like you grew up here!