High-impact/low-cost Bus Rapid Transit and why Metro hates itThe New York Times has a good article on increasing bus speeds, which improves service and increases ridership at relatively low cost:
If it's effective for LA, it should be great for Houston. I believe Metro is working on a few of these elements, but it would be nice to see them put more effort into these types of basic improvements rather than a narrow focus on the new light rail lines. Then maybe overall system ridership would actually increase from year to year rather than the steady decreases we've been seeing.
"In early May, a group of New York planners will visit Los Angeles to observe a program that has sped up buses there by 22 to 25 percent. The changes include designated bus lanes, straighter routes, easy-to-board low-floor buses, specially marked stations, far fewer stops, the elimination of schedules, and computerized signaling that gives buses priority at intersections. ...
Los Angeles, seen as an innovator in speedier bus transportation, began a bus rapid transit program in 2000 on two lines and 38 miles. By this June, with federal support, the city will have 28 such lines on 450 miles. The system costs $200,000 a mile, compared with $30 million to $50 million a mile to build light rail and $200 million to $300 million for a new subway, said Rex Gephart, the director of regional transit planning in Los Angeles."
A great application of BRT would be special express buses (maybe in a distinct color) that run along the future rail routes with the same stops and frequency as the rail lines will have. This would build the ridership habit in those corridors and maybe even encourage some of the transit-oriented development to happen earlier. The cynical side of me says this will never happen though, because the next question out of peoples' mouths would be "if the BRT is working so well, then why are we spending $40m a mile to change it to light rail?" It's actually a pretty good question, and the answer is that high-end, high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented developers won't commit or build based on a bus route. But Metro can never say that publicly, because their official mission is to move people cost effectively, not spur land development. It's what just about everybody that supports rail wants, but nobody can say, which certainly made for a bizarre "Metro Solutions" 2003 election campaign.
The sad fact is that Metro has a strong incentive to make bus-riding as absolutely miserable as possible to build political support for rail, which is an awfully unfortunate situation if you're poor and transit-dependent. If Metro doesn't watch out, they may end up with a bus riders union like LA (article). At the very least, it would be nice to see a high-profile "Bus Riders Advocate" appointed outside of the Metro bureaucracy that would hold them accountable for improvements to bus service. A more radical but potentially very interesting solution would be to essentially take bus service away from Metro and privatize it: Metro would offer a simple subsidy per passenger-mile, and private companies would set routes and schedules to compete for riders. It could be tricky to implement, but has the potential of radically improved service, performance, and system ridership - with the added bonus of leaving Metro with a clear, simple, unconflicted focus on rail.