houston: help reimagine your transit system!

This year, my firm has been working on the System Reimagining for METRO, the transit agency of greater Houston, which will look at ways to redesign the bus network to better meet the changing city's needs and priorities.  

We've now reached the point where we need to hear from greater Houston residents (living in the METRO service area) about their transit priorities.

If you want some background, here's a video of METRO Board member Christof Spieler (who chairs the Board's Strategic Planning Committee) outlining the goals of the study.  

Then, please take the survey. It asks you to think about the real trade-offs facing Houston's transit planning, and to express your views on those.  Please spread the word among Houston-based friends!  

Deadline?  The sooner the better!  The Board is thinking about these issues now.  The sooner you record your view the more influence it will have.

3 Responses to houston: help reimagine your transit system!

  1. Paul K McGregor September 10, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    I no longer live in Houston but I am always interested in following what is happening in places that I used to work at. So many issues here I don’t know where to start! First, I checked out the survey and the only problem I saw with it was the question on coverage vs ridership. You included a lengthy description about the trade-offs but I am not sure it is too much to digest at one time and then from that to come up with a percentage split. I hope the percentage split that receives the most votes is not the one that you will develop a plan around. If the overall consensus is coverage, then the split is adjusted accordingly. Linking in to a specific split at this point is too premature. Also establishing a lifeline network ia also a good step to defining coverage vs. ridership. Lifeline routes should include service for elderly and disabled populations as well as low income and transit dependents.
    I hope you go back and look at what was included as part of the 2003 referendum. Clearly what happened with rail has been very well documented but the disappointing side was what didn’t happen with bus. There was a list of Signature routes that were presented that was supposed to upgrade existing crosstown routes and create a kind of BRT-type network. I don’t recall exactly how many routes were proposed, but only two have been implemented and they only operate during peak hours, certainly far short of what was initially proposed. These Signature routes could serve as a foundation for developing a Frequent Service Network that could extend from rail stations.
    With regard to that referendum last year regarding how transit sales tax money is used, this whole thing came about as a way to keep suburban communities that don’t get as much bus service as others in the service area. The money was supposed to be spent on projects/streets that serve a transit related function. For example, if a bus tears up a street, that would be eligible for sales tax money. That would then free up other money to spend on non-transit streets. This practice has been used in Dallas and Austin too. In Dallas, once a suburban community got rail, that program ended for them. In Houston, that wouldn’t really work because light rail is limited to Houston. So the vote really became a city versus suburb vote and who had the majority? Houston voters should’ve voted against it.
    I could share more but that has to be kept for offline discussions. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or want any further insights…….

  2. EN57 September 11, 2013 at 6:39 am #

    Given low levels of transit usage, a complete bus network redesign might be a good idea. Because an overwhelming majority of people drive cars, if you make a mistake with this big system intervention, existing riders will be affected, but an overwhelming majority of the population won’t even notice.
    A big question is whether the redesign process is going to give you a network suitable to the unique needs of the city – that is, aligned to the travel needs of real people, or whether this is just about an idealized “network” as an end in itself? The on-line public survey and material seems to be about network attributes – rather than people’s travel needs and preferences.
    Maybe what might be best is a rationalization and re-focus of the current bus network – ie a major tweak without completely breaking the current structure. Is it already known if a frequent interchange network will be a robust and financially sustainable solution for THIS city? If people are already driving to Park and Ride lots, do they want to transfer again, possibly more than once, to get to their destinations? Without high levels of patronage and revenue, frequent interchange networks can be fragile and subject to funding and service cuts, increasing transfer waiting times, and reducing attractiveness of the systems.
    Maybe a modified radial network, focussed on multiple centers in the metro area, and providing mainly single-seat journeys would be a more effective and financially responsible approach, generating a solid ridership and revenue base, from where the system can then gradually evolve into more of a frequent network grid-type system – perhaps when transit mode share percentages start hitting double-figures.
    It seems those in charge may have already made up their minds about the future of the bus network. That’s great if they can demonstrate that the new network will perform much better than the current one. Is it likely that public feedback will trigger a more comprehensive exploration of possible options for Houston?

  3. asdf September 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    I also used to live in Houston and am fairly familiar with the transit network there. Essentially, the modified radial network that your propose is already there. The three biggest job centers in Houston (of which downtown is only one of them) all have one-seat commuter expresses from park-and-ride lots in the far-out suburbs. These routes generate decent, but not great ridership (a typical bus is something on the order of half-full).
    Local routes tend to form something of a grid, although the cross-town routes tend to be more jaggedy than I would like. While a small number of core routes get good ridership throughout the day, most do ok during the peak and are pretty empty off-peak. Considering that Houston uses 40-foot coaches for almost all service, even a bus that’s half full is not really carrying all that many people. There is also a huge demographic difference between people riding local routes and commuter routes. On commuter routes, most of the riders are White. On local routes, the overwhelming majority of the riders are African American or Hispanic.
    That being said, here is a summary of the good and the bad about the system, as it is now.
    – A high-frequency core network, anchored by the light rail line. Weekday, midday, the light rail runs every 6 minutes, with core connecting routes running every 15 minutes.
    – The light rail seems to get good signal priority and travels through the downtown area much faster than buses.
    – Metro was not afraid to truncate core routes that used to go all the way downtown at light rail stations, forcing a transfer to the train to complete the trip. This decision generated a lot of controversy at the time, but nearly 10 years later, it looks like a no-brainer. The train moves so much faster than a bus, thanks to quicker boarding and signal priority, is very obvious that the average 3-minute wait time for the connection is well worth it.
    – Metro was able to hold fares down, while other agencies were raising them by large amounts. The one-way fare is still only $1.25, remarkably cheap, compared to almost any other big-city transit system.
    – The logistics of managing fares seem better there than in Seattle (which has a much better and more well-used transit system overall). Houston got rid of paper transfers several years ago (although electronic transfers are still free and automatic). They also have machines on board the buses allowing riders to refill their fare cards while the bus is moving, without holding people up.
    – Houston does a pretty good job of making bus routes stick to arterials, rather than having them meander through side streets.
    – The transit centers in Houston are downright awful. Many of them are completely deserted, with nothing around but buses and parking lots. Of course, every bus whose natural route would go within a half-mile of the transit center has to deviate into the bus bays, where little attention is paid towards getting buses in and out of them quickly.
    – Ridership is not good. Pretty much everyone that can possible afford to drive does. Even most long-distance peak-period commuter routes have ridership that would be considered pathetic for almost every other city of Houston’s size. A few years ago, Houston experimented with a non-stop express bus between downtown and the airport, then canned it due to not enough riders. I rode it a few times, when coming in for a visit – a typical trip had between 0 and 5 riders, excluding myself.
    – No real-time arrival information is available, so you’re stuck using the schedule and hoping and praying that the bus will be somewhat close to on-time.
    – Coverage of the outer parts of the city is extremely poor. (although, with limited resources, some would consider this a positive)
    Conclusion: Ridership in Houston sucks, but, ultimately, I don’t think any significant restructuring of service is going to do much to improve it. The real problem is that driving and parking are just too cheap. A couple years ago, I was taking a trip downtown with my parents on a weekday, and we found parking (albeit a half-mile walk from most of the larger buildings) for only $2! (We actually considered parking on the street further back and taking the rail in, but, with parking cheaper than the train fare, it didn’t make sense).
    Rather, I think they should focus more on small tweaks to make things better. For instance, there are a couple of 10-minute-headways routes in my neighborhood in which every 3rd trip or so has a crazy deviation that almost nobody uses – not only does it force you to consult the schedule to avoid the deviation, but it also virtually guarantees that half the route is going to have uneven headway and severe bus bunching. If Houston is going to make changes to their network, getting rid of quirks like that should be a priority.
    Second, Houston is severely lacking in pedestrian mobility, which is critical for transit because transit doesn’t work if you can’t get from your house to a bus stop. The arterial street grid has gridlines that at least a mile apart (any any service that went between those arterials would be horrifically slow, so there’s a good reason why they don’t do that), so unless you live right next to a major intersection, either radial travel or crosstown travel by bus will require either a significant walk or an extra connection.
    There are a lot of streets that should have sidewalks, but don’t. Even the sidewalks that do exist tend to be poorly maintained and overgrown by vegetation. The inner part of the city is ok in this respect, but the further out you get, the worse it gets. Houston also needs a lot more crosswalks. The prevailing frame of mind there is that the only way across an arterial is another arterial. The number of big-street-small-street intersections with traffic lights is small, and after 22 years of living in Houston, I struggle to come up with a single example of any signalized crosswalk that isn’t also a crossing point for cars.

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