After decades of immigration from northern states and foreign lands, there is not much left to the Houston dialect. The old Southern accent that once reigned here — one made famous by the likes of Marvin Zindler, Billy Gibbons, and current Houston mayor Sylvester Turner — is now rare. Other than “doodle-bug” and “po’ boy,” there aren’t many words we use that differentiate Houstonians from other regions of Texas or America.
There’s still one sure-fire way to linguistically out a Houstonian: ask them to tell you what they call the road parallel to the highway.
The answer? Houston is at the epicenter of a region of unique “feeder road” usage that roughly corresponds with the same area of people who are fans of the Texans, Astros, and Rockets — a zone extending roughly down to Corpus Christi, out to Columbus or so, up to Bryan-College Station, and all the way through the Golden Triangle and just over the Sabine to the Lake Charles area. (Some Houstonians will get even more hardcore and barebones: “It’s a feeder, period,” says Linda Crater. “Feeder. Never feeder road,” says Randy Hill, another area native.)
People in central Texas, east of Austin, report calling them “service roads,” and a 2013 dialect quiz on the New York Times’ Upshot blog reveals that in both the Panhandle and South Texas, from San Antonio on down, these thruways are called “access roads.” (Sometimes Mondegreened into “axis roads.”) Amy Ero, a former Houstonian now living in Dallas, reports that Dallasites use the “frontage road” designation, while another Dallasite says they are called “service roads” in the Big D.
Feeder roads in Houston and elsewhere in the dialect zone are never officially labeled as such. The feds, or the municipality that administrates the roads alongside which they are deployed (whether interstate, state highway, or even county or farm-to-market road), label them as “frontage roads” on their highway exit signs.
The term dates back to the railroad days, and was once in much wider usage around the country. In 1869, when the Southern Pacific Railroad was still in the planning stages, a Cincinnati Daily Enquirer article lays out the route — from San Diego east through Arizona, jogging north to Colorado, back south through New Mexico, and into Texas at El Paso, and then ending at “some convenient point near the 32nd parallel of latitude, east of Brazos River, in the state of Texas,” where it would join with pre-established railroads linking it to the Atlantic. This would be the “main trunk” line on the Southern Pacific railroad. Along the way it would be nourished by perpendicular “feeder” lines: “from this main trunk feeder roads should lead from St. Louis, Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans, and other points; all of which feeder roads should have equal rights of connection with said main trunk…”
That definition of a feeder road — a smaller perpendicular roadway that fed into a grander one — survived into the automobile age, and it was once common to see newspapers all over America refer to small roads that fed into larger ones at a right angle as such. Today’s usage — that of a smaller road that runs parallel to a larger one — is relatively new, and only used in that sense by 1.97 percent of the American population, heavily clustered in and around Houston.
But the “feeder road” phrase is persuasive, even if its absence on official signs is confusing at first. For me, it traces back to teenaged drives back from the Gulf.
As a high school freshman in 1984, Houston-to-Galveston beach trips were a big part of my existence. As soon as you could, you’d find a friend with a license and a car and head down the Gulf Freeway to party all day. On the fifty-mile drive back to town, sunburnt and buzzed, I formulated a long-held belief about the nature of “frontage roads.” Right after you cross over the causeway and get back to the Texas mainland, you find yourself in the French-sounding town of LaMarque, where one of the principal exits is for a street called Vauthier, pronounced, in the Cajun way, “Vo-shay.”
There, you see a sign for “Frontage Road.” Since almost nobody in greater Houston calls a feeder road a frontage road, and having seen all those Gallic words on the signs leading up to it, I silently locked it away in my head as being pronounced “Fron-tahj Road,” and chalked its naming up to some prominent and worthy Cajun from the LaMarque area, which I mistakenly chalked up as a Cajun Texan outpost. (That I later learned there were signs for “Frontage Road” all over Greater Houston only made me marvel even more at the feats of this mythical Cajun, one who had so impressed Houstonians that he had streets named after him all over town.) But of course there was no Monsieur Frontage, and no true Houstonian ever calls them “frontage roads.”
“Feeder roads” may be uniquely called such in Houston and environs, but because they tend to attract seedy businesses, many Houstonians wished they did not exist, at least in terms of attracting tourism and making first impressions on visitors. For decades I have been reading laments about how both Interstate 69 and Interstate 45 — the principal routes into town from Intercontinental Airport, and thus most visitors’ introduction to the Bayou City — are lined with little more than a honky-tonkin’, rip-roarin’ miles-long litany of garish billboards, strip clubs, gun shops, wing joints, sports bars, tire barns, strange churches, giant flag-waving car dealerships, gas stations, fry pits, and massage parlors. It’s a testament to free enterprise, if not putting the city’s best foot forward to first-time visitors. Besides, in no-zoning Houston, it has the added benefit of keeping these structures out of neighborhoods.
And these roads are useful. In some parts of the country, lacking secondary roads, missing your exit means a long detour down the highway and then a trek through strange neighborhoods, where you might get lost, or have to zig-zag through a dangerous cloverleaf exchange to get pointed back in the right direction. In most other parts of Texas, the feeder roads are two-way, which is anathema to Houstonians accustomed to multi-laned one-way feeders, with U-turn lanes at every major intersection so that one might correct a mistake or go hit up a barbecue restaurant on the other side of the freeway with a quickness.
For better or worse, no matter what the “Make Houston Beautiful” crowd thinks, Houstonians, and southeast Texans more generally, are stuck with our feeder roads. Enjoy the ease of traffic flow and deplore the tackiness they bring. In the end, they pretty much balance out.