Houston’s reimagined network: don’t let us make it look easy!


It's great to see the national press about the Houston METRO System Reimagining, a transformative bus network redesign that will newly connect a million people to a million jobs with service running every 15 minutes all day, with almost no increase in operating cost.  Last week, when the Houston METRO Board finally adopted the plan for implementation this August, I was in New Zealand advising Auckland Transport executives on how to roll out a similar plan there, one that MRCagney and I sketched for them back in 2012.  Advising on these kinds of transformations, and often facilitating the design process, is now one of the core parts of my practice.

And here is my most important piece of advice:  Don't let anyone tell you this is easy.

Much of the press about the project is picking up the idea, from my previous post on the subject, that we redesigned Houston's network to create vastly more mobility without increasing operating cost — "without spending a dime," as Matt Yglesias's Vox piece today says.   An unfortunate subtext of this headline could be:  "Sheesh, if it's that easy, why didn't they do it years ago, and why isn't everyone doing it?"

Some cities, like Portland and Vancouver, "did it" long ago.  But for those cities that haven't, the other answer is this:  

Money isn't the only currency.   Pain is another.  These no-new-resources restructurings always involve cutting some low-ridership services to add higher-ridership ones, and these can be incredibly painful decisions for boards, civic leaders, and transit managements.  Civic officials can come out looking better at the ends of these processes, because the result is a transit system that spends resources efficiently in a way that reflects the community's values.   But during the process they have every reason to be horrified at the hostility and negative media they face.

If you're on a transit board, here's what these transformations mean:  Beautiful, sympathetic, earnest people — and large crowds of their friends and associates — are going to stand before you in public meetings and tell you that you are destroying their lives.  Some of them will be exaggerating, but some of them will be right.  So do you retain low-ridership services in response to their stories, and if so, where does that stop?  I'm glad I only have to ask these questions in my work, not answer them.

For a decade now I've been helping transit agencies think through how much of their service they want to devote to the goal of ridership and how much they want to devote to a competing goal that I call coverage.  Ridership service should be judged on its ridership, but coverage service exists to be available.  Coverage service is justified partly by the political need for everyone (every council district, member city or whatever) to have a little service, because "they pay taxes too," even if their ridership is poor.  But it's also justified as a lifeline, by the severity with which small numbers of people need it.  

In the early stages of the Reimagining project, I facilitated a series of METRO Board and stakeholder conversations about the question:  How much of your operating budget do you want to spend pursuing ridership?  I estimated that only about 55-60% of existing service was where it would be if ridership were the only goal, so it wasn't surprising that the agency's ridership was stagnant.  I explained that the way you increase ridership is to increase the percentage of your budget that's aimed at that goal.  And if you're not expanding the total budget, that means cutting coverage service — low ridership service, but service that's absolutely essential to some people's lives.  

In response to a series of scenarios, the Board told us to design a scenario where 80% of the budget would be devoted to ridership.  That meant, of course, that in a plan with no new resources, we'd have to cut low-ridership coverage service by around 50%.  Mostly we did that not by abandoning people but certainly by inconveniencing some of them.  But there was no getting around the fact that some areas — areas that are just geometrically unsuited to high-ridership transit — were going to be losers.

We didn't sugarcoat that.  I always emphasize, from the start of each project, how politically painful coverage cuts will be.  The stakeholder committee for the project actually had to do an exercise that quantified the shift of resources from low-ridership areas to high-ridership ones — which was also a matter of shifting from depopulating neighborhoods to growing ones.  They and the Board could see on the map exactly where the impacted people were.

And exactly as everyone predicted, when the plan went public, those people were furious.  Beyond furious.  There really isn't a word for some of the feelings that came out.

Houston had it much worse than most cities, for some local reasons.  Along the northeast edge of inner Houston, for example, are some neighborhoods where the population has been shrinking for years.   They aren't like the typical abandoned American inner cities of the late 20th century, where at least there is still a good street grid that can be rebuilt upon.  In the northeast we were looking at essentially rural infrastructure, with no sidewalks and often not even a safe place to walk or stand by the road.  Many homes are isolated in maze-like subdivisions that take a long time for a bus, or pedestrian, to get into and out of.  And as the population is falling, the area is becoming more rural every year.

I feel the rage of anyone who is trapped in these inaccessible places without a car.   I also share their desire to love where they live, and hope my description hasn't offended them.  But I can't change the geometric facts that make high-ridership transit impossible there, nor can I change the reality of their declining population.  And that means I can't protect civic leaders, elected officials, and transit managements from the consequences of any decision to increase the focus on ridership.  Increasing your transit agency's focus on ridership, without growing your budget, means facing rage from people in low-ridership areas, who will continue to be part of your community.

Houston's situation is worse than most; less sprawling cities can generally prevent any part of the city from depopulating in the context of overall growth.  But in any city there are going to be less fortunate areas, and the disastrous trend called the "suburbanization of poverty" means that increasing numbers of vulnerable people are forced to live in places that are geometrically hostile to high-ridership transit, and thus demand low-ridership coverage service.

So don't let anyone say this was easy.  What's more, in Houston it was easier for me than for anyone else involved, which is why I'm uncomfortable when Twitterers give me too much credit.  I flew in from afar, facilitated key workshops for the Board and stakeholders, led the core network design process, and got to go home.   It was the the Board, the management, the key stakeholders and the local consultants led by TEI who had to face the anger and try to find ways to ease the hurting.  

Was it worthwhile?  I was very touched by what METRO's head of planning, Kurt Luhrsen, wrote after the Board's decision.

I am overjoyed for the citizens of Houston.  Particularly those who are dependent upon the bus and have been riding METRO for years.  Their trips to the grocery store, the doctor’s offices, work, school, church, etc. take way too long and are usually way more complicated than they need to be.  

Today, with this Board vote, Houston took a giant step toward making these citizens’ lives better.  That simple fact, making people’s lives better, is why I love my job in transit.  It is where I draw my inspiration and today definitely recharged my batteries a bit.  I am also very proud of our Board, METRO employees, our consultants, our regional stakeholders and many others who worked tirelessly to make this action today possible.  These types of projects are difficult, that’s why so few transit agencies really want to do them.  But today we did it.  This plan will improve people’s lives, and I am so thankful that I got to play even a small role in it.     

I, too, am thankful for my small role in guiding the policy and design phases of the process.  I listed, here, some of the key people who really drove the process, all of whom worked much harder than I, and who faced much more ferocious public feedback than I did, to bring the plan to success. 

Transit in Houston is about to become a completely different thing, vastly more useful to vastly more people's lives.  But don't let anyone imply this was easy.  It was brutally hard, especially for the Board and staff.  Nobody would have done it if it didn't have to be done.

11 Responses to Houston’s reimagined network: don’t let us make it look easy!

  1. Josh Poe February 23, 2015 at 6:06 am #

    Thanks Jarrett. How did Houston conduct the requried Title VI service equity analysis in light of the coverage/ridership goals? Could you provide a link to the copy of the service equity analysis for this project?

  2. Christof Spieler February 23, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    Josh- Not a specific answer to your question but a general observation: when a system moves towards a ridership goal, low-income and minority populations are often the biggest beneficiaries. The majority of low-income Houston residents live in apartments, which have the population densities to support high quality transit. The areas with the highest concentrations of low-income residents in Houston (like Gulfton) actually see significant service improvement, especially increases in frequency and better connections to employment centers outside Downtown. Low-income residents need frequency as much as (probably more than) anyone else: if you’re working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and can get fired for being late, travel time and reliability matter. Low-income jobs, especially service sector jobs, also tend to be widely dispersed, so a grid is really useful in helping people reach them.

  3. Jarrett February 23, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    Josh. While I do not have access to the title VI report, you can probably request from metro if it is public. The important thing about title VI is that it is about avoiding discrimination based on income or ethnicity. It does not mean that everyone is entitled to the same level of service regardless of where they live. To the extent that the goal of a transit system is ridership, then the transit agency must discriminate on the basis of features of the built environment that determine ridership potential, such as density and walkability. When a transit agency provides service despite those factors being unfavorable, it is investing in a non-ridership purpose.

  4. Josh Poe February 23, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    Jarrett & Chistof,
    I agree with both comments, but transit agencies must demonstrate that either discrimination did not occur, that adverse effects were mitigated, or that alternatives would result in worse outcomes. I am interested in seeing how Houston handled the methodology and visual data displays.

  5. Alyourpalster February 24, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

    Where do we find the voices of dissent from this ‘reimagined’ bus network?
    Public transit agencies dominate the airwaves with their side of these stories.
    I want to hear the other side of the story before jumping to any conclusions

  6. TexasLeftist March 3, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    METRO posts all of its regular board meeting archives online, so they are available to the public. You’d have to go through and watch the meetings to determine speaker concerns. The February 11th meeting is when the system was approved.

  7. Michael March 11, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    It is not a Title VI violation, but this plan is discriminating against people who live in certain developments or areas of the city, which planners have deemed as not being supportive of quality transit service (ignoring the fact that similar areas in other cities support frequent service). Basically, almost 2 million people in Houston are being told that transit should not even try to provide them with any sort of viable transit service, besides maybe a bus every 60 minutes. While 1 million people are being provided with high quality transit service.
    That seems like a pretty big discrimination to me, and it will do nothing towards making transit a viable travel option, when over half your population is being left with poor quality transit service, because planners have decided those residents should be punished for not living in an apartment.
    Until transit becomes a service that everyone uses, then low income residents will also suffer, as they often have to travel to the very areas planners have decided to provide dismal transit service.

  8. Jarrett March 12, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Michael. If we served every needy person no matter how expensive it was to get to them, we would spend thousands of times as much to serve each rural as we do to serve a person who lives downtown. The latter would be equally justified in calling that discrimination. If you want to really liberate people, help them live with the facts of math instead of in denial of them.

  9. Michael March 12, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

    Jarrett, the discrimination is not really against poor people in American cities. It is usually discrimination against middle class areas. Most transit planning in the USA is so focused on only providing transit to poor areas (because the idea is only poor people take transit), that middle class areas actually get poor service. This is also supported by Title VI which basically mandates discrimination against white and middle class areas.
    A viable transit system that is a true alternative to the auto must serve everyone, and provide some sort of attractive service to everyone. A viable transit system is not built when planners pick and choose who gets good service based on population density, income, and other factors.
    Time and again, cities like Toronto, Montreal, and others have shown that people ride transit if a good service is provided.
    What I have issue with in the Houston plan, is that it is telling certain areas that they do not deserve good transit because of their built form or income levels. This plan is telling some areas of Houston they can only support a bus every 60 minutes. While similar areas in Toronto or Montreal support a bus every 5 minutes.
    So I think what should be said, is that there is no money to provide good service. But don’t tell people it is because of how they choose to live. Because countless cities show that sprawling subdivisions can have great ridership, if you provide the service.
    Transit planners should be coming up with ways to provide good transit to everyone, as Paul Mees advocated. Not making excuses to justify poor transit service to over 2 million Houston residents, and telling them it is because they live in a single family house and are middle class.

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