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New arrivals in Houston who are accustomed to using public transport will have to make quite an adjustment when it comes to getting around. Though Houston has made significant improvements to its public transportation networks, the city is sprawled over over a large area, which makes travelling between destinations long and complicated. Most Houstonians own cars and find driving to be the best way to get around the city.
Driving in Houston
Most residents find it necessary to have a car to get around Houston. This allows them greater freedom and often saves time. A number of freeways make getting around by car fairly easy. Roads and signage in Houston are of an excellent standard, and drivers are usually courteous.
There are downsides to driving in Houston. Construction projects are seemingly always taking place and result in delays and road closures. Rush hours last from 7am to 9am in the mornings and 4pm to 7pm in the evenings. During these times, highway traffic almost comes to a standstill, so drivers need to have a high level of patience. The average commute time is 27 minutes, which is around average for a city in the US, but the commute time can vary considerably depending on the distance from home to the office, and whether toll roads are used.
The legal driving age in Texas in 16.
The Sam Houston Tollway is the main tollway around the Houston area, but there are plenty of others too. Some stretches of freeway include high-occupancy toll lanes for vehicles carrying at least two people. The toll fee is calculated using sensors at onramps, checkpoints and offramps and is worked out based on the distance and type of vehicle. Some tollways accept cash, but it is always cheaper to have a pre-paid electronic tag like the TxTag, the state’s electronic toll tag, or EZ Tag, Houston’s toll tag. Those who wish to avoid toll fees can turn on the 'avoid toll feature' on their chosen map app.
Getting a driver's licence in Houston
Newcomers to Texas over the age of 18 can drive on a foreign licence for up to a year or until they become a Texan resident, whichever happens first. Once a driver has officially become resident in Texas, they will usually be granted a 90-day grace period during which a local licence must be acquired to continue driving.
The US has bilateral agreements with a number of countries, including France, Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. Nationals of these countries over the age of 18 can surrender their licence from home in exchange for a Texan licence. Bilateral agreements with other countries do not apply to anyone under the age of 18, meaning that under-18s moving to Texas can only exchange their licence if it is from Canada or the US.
Expats from countries without a bilateral agreement (including under-18s from outside the US and Canada) and expats who refuse to hand in their foreign licence will have to undergo practical and theoretical testing to obtain a local licence.
To apply for a local licence, the following documentation is required:
- Proof of identity
- Proof of residency and lawful presence in the country
- Social security number
- Evidence of insurance and vehicle registration for all vehicles owned
Learn more about applying for a Texas driving license on the Texas Department of Public Safety website.
Cycling in Houston
Due to Houston’s hot climate and the fact that the city is so spread out, bikes are best used for recreational purposes rather than daily commutes. The city has several great cycle paths and a number of bike trails that run through its parks.
Houston has a bike-share system, BCycle, which has over 130 stations throughout central Houston. These stations are mainly found downtown, in the Museum District and the Med Center. The system has a pay-as-you-go option. Cyclists can also sign up for monthly or annual memberships.
Public transport in Houston
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, or METRO as it's more commonly known, is in charge of public transport in Houston. METRO operates various local and express services as well as the METRORail light rail line.
METRO has an integrated ticketing system where fares can be paid for either in cash or by using a reloadable METRO Q Card.
Houston’s METRORail network is relatively small, consisting of just three lines: green, purple and red. During the day, trains arrive every six to 12 minutes, beginning in the early morning, either 4.30am or 5.30am depending on the day of the week, and ending at midnight during the week or 2.20am on weekends.
Buses in Houston are a relatively comfortable way to travel. They arrive at regular intervals and generally run on time in the city centre. They operate seven days a week and nearly 24 hours a day. That said, the network is limited and many suburbs in Houston aren't adequately serviced by METRO buses. There are park-and-ride services, which allow commuters to drive to a bus station where they can leave their car and take the bus into the city.
To get around in the downtown area, new arrivals can catch a Greenlink Bus. Though the network is limited in scope, these buses provide localised transport free of charge.
Taxis in Houston
Taxis are readily available at designated ranks or along busy streets in the city centre. It's hard to catch a taxi on the street outside of the downtown core, so it may be necessary to book one ahead of time. As destinations in Houston are often quite spread out, travelling by taxi can become expensive.
Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are another option for getting around Houston and are accessible via their respective mobile apps.
►Areas and Suburbs of Houston provides a great overview of popular neighbourhoods in the city.
"You most definitely need at least one car per household given the size of Houston and the likely day-to-day distance you will travel. Uber is definitely the next best option, and depending on where you live, you can take the METRORail." Learn more about Vicky's expat experiences in Houston.
"Everyone drives, and drives fast! Teenagers need cars the moment they turn 16." Read more about Janice's expat experiences in Houston.
Are you an expat living in Houston?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Houston. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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