The Future of TransitLast week I attended the GHP State of METRO luncheon and was pleasantly surprised. The running theme is "Back to Basics" which I heartily applaud. They are aggressively focusing on improving the core bus network and reversing the massive bus ridership losses of the last few years (from 90m in 1999 to 60m/year today). Ridership is back on the upswing, and they're working a very promising new initiative to re-imagine the entire bus network. They've completed a great initiative to convert the HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and they're expanding the P&R network.
Of course, rail is still the big issue. The 3 new lines have consumed billions, and readers of this blog know I'm skeptical of their value. To pay off they'll need to lead to a massive redevelopment and revitalization of the north, east, and southeast side neighborhoods they cross. There is excitement about the Uptown BRT plan, although it won't be connected to the rest of the network until the University Line gets built, which is an open question. Gilbert Garcia stated that they're studying doing a first phase shortened version of the U-Line "to Greenway Plaza", although it's unclear to me where that would start. It seems obvious to me that if they're going to do a shortened University Line in the short-term it should connect the new Uptown BRT to the Main St. line - and they can circle back and add the Hillcroft transit center and UH later (UH is already on the SE line, so it would just require some transfers).
One really good idea I heard from an attendee that METRO needs to strongly consider: making the new protected Uptown BRT lanes open to vehicles from the I-10 and 59 HOV/HOT lanes, so a bus could exit directly into those lanes and get their passengers right to their buildings instead of requiring a transfer. Brilliant. I'm guessing the mixing of those buses with the BRT could be a little tricky, but I don't see why it would be impossible.
But what I really want to do here is back up and look at the big picture future for transit. I don't think people truly appreciate how much self-driving vehicles will change things 10 and 20 years from now. Not only will the capacity of the freeways vastly increase (automatic vehicles can travel much closer together and at higher speeds), but imagine this: waves of automated, driverless, small shuttle buses and taxis wandering the city all the time. You tell your smartphone where you want to go, and the network automatically sends the right shuttle your way to pick you up and take you nearly directly to your destination, with the potential for a few stops along the way to pick-up or disembark other passengers. Now imagine the capacity of the freeways if they not only have more vehicles much closer together at higher speeds, but they're also carrying multiple passengers each in this manner. And congestion priced lanes to keep them free-flowing. Rail can't compete with that, either on a travel time or overall cost basis. Investments we make in rail over the coming years may look particularly foolish a decade or two from now as these automated vehicles become more ubiquitous. I'm not sure any transit agency today is really thinking about this in their planning. Houston should be the first.
Ironically, what destroys the viability of rail may actually stimulate higher-density mixed-use/TOD-type development. What really impedes street-level retail is the lack of easy parking. But that's not a problem if you can just step out of your vehicle and it can putter off on its own to remote parking. Later, you just call it up on your phone and have it come right over to pick you up. This could also reinvigorate retail in downtowns, including Houston, which has been trying desperately for years to do so.
There is growing consensus that this technology is coming. We need to start integrating it into our planning instead of wasting money on the next wave of rail assets that will soon be obsolete.