Tonight — in the wee hours of August 16, 2015, it all happens. The complete redesign of Houston's bus network, the 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:
sort of surreal that one day it just… changes. Reminds me of https://t.co/5iH2FHZtnr
— Andrew Owen (@owenam) August 15, 2015
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.