Houston: Welcome to Your New Network

NBN-hdrTonight — in the wee hours of August 16, 2015, it all happens.  The complete redesign of Houston's bus networkthe result of a design process that I led and of extraordinary Board and staff effort, goes into effect overnight tonight.  Over a year of planning, months of difficult public debate and revision, and finally months of intense work at implementation, all bears fruit on Sunday, August 16, when practically every bus line in Houston changes.  For the better.

My favorite tweet exchange of this excited Saturday:

Frustrating and obsolete transit networks seem eternal, unchangeable, until one night they change.  Andrew's link is to Dagen-H, the strange day in 1967 when Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right.  Swedes had long been driving on the left with left-hand drive cars, putting the driver at the side of the road, and all their neighbors drove on the right.  And yet still, opposition to such an obvious move took decades to overcome.  Houston's new network was equally obviously needed, equally fiercely debated, and it's a credit to many that we aren't waiting any more decades for it.  

No, not everyone is happy.  Yesterday's Houston Chronicle article led with a photo essay about an unhappy-looking man whose stop is disappearing.  You'd think we'd abandoned him, but in fact his vanishing stop is three blocks from a new light rail station, and within blocks of high-frequency transit in all directions.  As often in ridership-increasing redesigns, he'll have to walk further to better service that will take him many places faster.  

Is this really too high a price to pay for a network that provides seven-day-a-week all-day frequent service linking 1 million people to 1 million jobs, up from less than 1/2 million today?  Fortunately, if you get past the photos, Dug Begley's article is fair; I appreciate the good job Dug has done throughout this long process.  The quality of local reporting makes a huge difference.

There's a happy irony in starting the new network on a Sunday.  The idea behind this routine practice is to start the change on a day when things are quiet, before facing a busy day.  But in Houston, we don't want Sunday to be quiet.  This network's big move is not just a liberating frequent grid over most of the city — designed for everywhere to everywhere travel over this vast and decentralized place —  but also a historic gamble on weekend service.  Weekend daytime service will be largely the same as weekday — every bit as frequent and functional, except of course that it won't have peak-only services.   It's a huge expansion into the weekend, and also into the evening.

Why move into these stereotypically low demand times?  Because ridership on poor service is no indication of demand.  You have to look at the life of the city, and especially at the lives of all the people most likely to find transit useful.  Houston is bustling on weekends, and all kinds of people benefit from access then.  Low-wage workers in particular almost all work a weekend day, because the sectors that employ them (entertainment, restaurants, shopping, port-related industry, etc) don't sleep on weekends, and often have their peak demand then.  But it's not just for them.  A seven-day pattern means that anyone can get anywhere on any day, and probably by pretty much the same path.

As the change happens, there will be confusion, and the first post-implementation feedback may well be negative.   That's normal; people who are negatively affected respond at once, while those who benefit discover the service gradually, even though Houston METRO has done everything you could hope for to get out the word.  (I especially loved this tool for looking up any trip to see how it's routed in the old network vs the new.)

Finally, amid all the short-term excitement and frustration, and all the demands that we be able to pass judgment on the outcomes by next Tuesday, let's remember that this is a long term play about prosperity, sustainability, and affordability by empowering people to choose transit when they choose their location.  A big frequent network means more places where people can choose to locate if they value good public transit — so many places, in fact, that many of them will remain affordable.  That sets off a positive feedback loop that leads to much higher ridership, more affordable lives, and more support for urban redevelopment, and that makes those things more permanent.

This was my baby once, but it's been over a year since I let go of it, and I can't take all that much credit anymore.  The plan itself was the work of a team of consultants, facilitated and sometimes led by me but ultimately managed by the excellent Geoff Carleton of TEI.  The real transformation, though, was the work of a courageous Board, a hard-working and resourceful METRO staff, diligent reporters, and above all many thousands of citizens who cared enough to engage with the plan, understand the tradeoffs, and help to make it better.

Welcome, Houston, to a totally new transit system.  And for everyone else, remember:  If your bus network is obsolete, you can reimagine it to be more liberating and useful, and also to be more relevant to building the city you want.  My hometown, Portland, did it in 1982, and the starter line of our famous light rail system would have failed without it.  Auckland, New Zealand is doing it now.   Ask us how!  And many other cities, like Los Angeles and Portland again, have networks that are already well-designed but badly underfunded given their potential.

Almost everywhere in the world, buses are most of the transit system, and they are the the only tool that can radically liberate vast numbers of lives, at a manageable cost, while also treating workers well.  Unlike most major infrastructure, bus improvements can also happen soon, and can be spread over most of a city.  It's a crime not to make the most of them.  

15 Responses to Houston: Welcome to Your New Network

  1. Roger Bedell August 17, 2015 at 5:26 am #

    At APTA in Houston last year, I mistakenly took the bus from the airport to town, thinking that “of course they have public transport into town”. Needless to say, I took an Uber back to the airport, after the bone jarring 1.5 hour trip in the bus. I also tried to take the bus to Apta from where I was staying. It wasn’t too wonderful. Very infrequent and confusing service with rock hard seats and no shocks. Guess living in Sweden (Goteborg) has me spoiled. Hopefully at least the service level has improved with this good news. Have they at least implemented a real time app so one can plan one’s trip, and know for sure when the bus will arrive?

  2. Duncan Black August 17, 2015 at 8:20 am #

    Jarret, curious if you ever studied the OCTA
    (orange county) attempt to do something which on paper was similar but was from what I gather incompetently implemented by people who were just trying to save a few bucks and had no idea what transit riders actually needed.

  3. calwatch August 17, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    OCTA Straightlining was not similar in that it did not attempt to add a frequent service network to the system, just straightened bus routes around. Forcing transfers to 30 and 40 minute bus routes are much worse than forcing a transfer to a 15 minute bus route. Deviations to transit centers and the Braille Institute were dropped, and the last thing you want to do is piss off blind people (the institute was on a half mile arterial and the buses were on the major mile arterials). Many of the routes are still on the same alignment as pre-straightlining. Compare http://web.archive.org/web/20000817122421/http://www.octa.net/routes/pdf/system.pdf with http://web.archive.org/web/19980614120440/http://www.octa.net/ocnorth.html, for instance. This is not to defend OCTA as they have always treated their bus system as an afterthought compared to freeway expansion and their brief flirtation with urban rail and Metrolink to midnight; but they have always had a grid-based route structure due to the nature of their road system and still do.

  4. Jarrett August 17, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    Roger. The 102 from IAH is more frequent now, but it’s still a long haul because it’s a long distance. Fly into HOU if you can. Multiple frequent links to light rail for access to many parts of the city.
    Duncan. Vaguely aware of the OCTA process but was never asked to look at it closely.

  5. P August 17, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

    Hope it goes well.
    Having the free transport for 1 week is a good thing. Keeps the people with flaming torches and pitchforks at bay.

  6. asdf2 August 17, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    If I recall, the new 102 from IAH is also about 15 minutes faster than the old route, skipping some of the twists and turns.
    The problem with having a truly fast airport-downtown route is that negative stereotypes against the bus run deep and almost nobody rides it to catch a flight. The people who do ride the bus to the airport today are almost all airport workers who catch the bus at one of the neighborhood stops near the airport. As the bus traverses the neighborhood, the airport workers get off and a completely new crop of people get on – those who are actually headed downtown.
    Houston did experiment with a non-stop airport->downtown bus about 10 years ago, but it failed miserably with just 1-2 passengers on a typical trip. When the recession hit, it was the first thing to go.
    The new 102 route is something of a compromise, keeping the neighborhood stops around the airport that generate the most ridership, and eliminating the stops that generate less ridership. It will be interesting to see if the new route generates more ridership than the old route.
    One thing I can certainly say is that having a frequent network of local routes to connect to the bus that goes to the airport makes riding the bus to the airport a lot easier than it has been before.

  7. Ruediger Herold August 18, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    My hometown, Luebeck, Germany, underwent a re-launch of the bus network (and related things) in 2012. Compared to Houston, we are rather small (210,000+). Their task was not easy: politics wanted them to maintain ridership while REDUCING public spending. But they put a lot of effort into it: interviewing bus riders in the bus and anyone on the phone, hiring experts from somewhere else and inviting everyone to public workshops (and not stopping that after the “optimization” was complete).
    As far as I know, the goal has been reached: improvements for many attracted some to use the bus more often, some “captive riders” were lost, many “captive riders” continue riding busses.
    Surprisingly, quite a lot of the bus lines and routes stayed quite the same: due to history and geography (and, Jarrett would probably say, maths) i.e. many rivers, few bridges, etc. create “chokepoints”, but Jarrett’s grid just does not seem to work here… But i.e. a new straight line connects the main train station to the university while not diverting through the old historic centre, what most busses do – because there is so much interesting stuff in it, not only for tourists (and the centre is – in the centre). Unfortunately the important bridge on this straight line turned out to desperately need repair. It is still in use for pedestrians and bicycles and cars (although one-way now) but closed to lorries as well as busses. So, the potentially most efficient new tool in the new network turned out to be inefficiently maeandering right from the start.
    Anyway, opinion polls right after the relaunch – were a desaster. But it was said in the press recently that the marks now are mostly better than before the changes.
    And there have been adjustments. I attended the first workshop after the changes and had the impression that the majority of people there did not so much want to contribute to make the system better but to voice their discontent, even though this was protocolled, most suggestions were rejected because of financial or other reasons, but some new problems which the “outsiders” or even the “insiders” could not foresee were taken into account.
    If you think my post is too long, read this: (although in German and quite bureaucratic but valuable)

  8. Ruediger Herold August 18, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

    One more thing to add:
    Even more interesting than the link on my previous post are the two links on this site in the right column below the word “download”: 43 and 17 pages – if you have the time (and the language). This is not about the implementation of the new network, but, among others, about the discussion about the newly implemented new network.

  9. Ruediger Herold August 18, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    Yet one more thing (sorry!):
    I appreciate much of the effort been done, but one thing is lacking where I live (but I would not be aware of it without this blog):
    (Although, at least in the short run, I suppose it would make some people feel even more miserable…)

  10. W. K. Lis August 18, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    Good laugh. 15 minutes is considered “frequent”? Groan. Good thing I live in Toronto.

  11. Jeff Wegerson August 19, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    @W.K.Lis Yes it’s borderline but it is borderline, 15 minutes. Coming from Chicago I recently had experience with Denver’s system. On a Saturday 15 min freq light rail was just bearable. Luckily it was fast and downtown where I started and the part I was on was lane dedicated but without signal control.
    15 minutes in a good grid seems to me to be an excellent starting point to grow from. Good luck Houston.

  12. Brian Guy August 21, 2015 at 6:42 am #

    First-tier systems enjoy frequencies greater than 15 minutes because they already have a transit culture. The only way for second-tier systems to grow their utility is to do what Houston did– abandon the radial “spider” network and reinvest those hours into an everyday 15-minute-or-better grid.
    Don’t forget that many medium-sized cities today have inefficient networks, where only a dozen or less routes actually run frequently. This is a huge step in the evolution of cities currently lacking a transit culture.
    Those planners seeking to reform such places lacking a transit culture are the very reformers needed to help more US cities realize their full transit potential. For this reason and more, I truly respect the planners making a difference in any limited-transit city even more than those working in a city with a long transit legacy.

  13. Max Wyss August 21, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    Are there any reports about the first week of the new network?

  14. Jarrett August 21, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    Max. Fares were free for the first week, so of course the buses were full. It will take a few months before we have a clear picture, and over a year to see the real payoff, as enough people discover the new network over time.

  15. Max Wyss August 22, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    Thanks, Jarrett. Well, I was more wondering whether the network actually works…
    It may take a year or even more to really sink in with the users… when they start asking for 12 or 10 minute intervals…