Sunday, June 26, 2005

Risks of the new Metro transit plan

David Crossley had his monthly Livable Houston meeting at H-GAC last Wednesday, and a lot of interesting points came out in the discussions about Metro's new transit plan.
  • David made the very good point that elevation and/or tunnels won't really solve the speed problem for transit as long as there are stops every half-mile or less (as there are on the Main St. line). Those stops, including acceleration and deceleration, eat up a lot of time. Being separated from traffic might only save a few minutes off a half-hour end-to-end time, while dramatically escalating costs. And, of course, fewer stops means longer walks and lost riders.
  • It was noted that the new plan lost BRT lines down Westheimer to Westchase and down Bellaire, both high-density residential and commercial corridors. I would suspect the city of Bellaire killed the Bellaire street line, as they've noted a crime problem around their transit center at Bellaire and South Rice.
  • The Metro rep pointed out that the east-west light rail line might change to BRT if it doesn't rate highly with the FTA.
  • The new system seems to have the potential to require a lot of transfers, and, of course, transfers kill travel times and ridership.
  • Nobody seems really sure if the "cover rails with asphalt" plan will really work with the BRT lines (will it be easy to remove without damaging the rails?)
  • Commuter rail will actually provide far worse service than exists today with HOV buses. It will be slower (probably ~30mph overall), with more stops, and require transfers at the new Intermodal hub north of downtown rather than going directly to peoples' destinations. Once people figure this out, there may be a revolt to restore the HOV service Metro takes away when the commuter rail opens.

As I've mentioned before, this is one of the biggest risks of fixed-guidway transit (rail or BRT): Metro will be sorely tempted to force as many people as possible onto the lines to pump up ridership numbers, even if this increases travel times and cuts overall transit ridership. They will do this by eliminating "redundant" HOV bus service and linking all bus routes into the rail/BRT (converting previously straight-thru trips to having 1 or 2 transfers).

The solution is this problem is pretty simple: privatize commuter bus services (with a simple per-passenger-mile Metro subsidy), leaving Metro to run fixed-guideway and local bus service. The private operators will offer express point-to-point service using HOV/HOT/MaX lanes where it is in demand - they have no vested interest in rail/BRT ridership.

On a different note, one of my larger concerns is if Metro decides to run the new east-west line along Richmond instead of Westpark, and it loses as many lanes as Main St. did, that will probably play havoc with east-west traffic flows in those neighborhoods, esp. east of Shepherd. There will be a need for alternate east-west capacity, and I think the easiest solution might be simple entrance and exit ramps on 59 at Montrose. Right now people flow down Richmond to Shepherd to get on 59, but that will become less of an option with the loss of so many lanes. If they can directly get onto 59, that would take a lot of the traffic burden off Richmond.


At 10:58 AM, June 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The traffic from Montrose to Shepherd on Richmond will slack off some when the Spur is finished. They'll be exits to get on outbound at Richmond and exits from inbound to Richmond.

At 3:30 PM, June 27, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Unfortunately, that's a lot of cars still using Richmond to get to/from the freeway - and there will probably only be one lane each direction (maybe two?). If it's one lane, it'll be a mess. If they can keep two each direction, they might be ok.

Maybe they can squeeze a small, two-way, 3 or 4 lane road in the old Westpark right-of-way they would no longer be using, just to give people an alternate east-west route (use all the bridges to go north-south).

At 6:26 PM, June 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the rapid bus lines (not "full" BRT but rather "signature express" bus service akin to that in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oakland, etc.) along Bellaire or Westheimer are truly "lost" forever. This new plan appears to have a ten-year horizon, and the signature express services down Wetheimer and Bellaire weren't programmed to come online under the previous plan until after 2015 anyway. I agree that these are excellent corridors for "better bus" service, and I hope they happen one day. There are some issues that will have to be overcome, especially along lower Westheimer where on-street parking is allowed along the outside lanes. Rapid bus services won't be as effective if these lanes remain blocked and force all traffic to merge into the inside lane, but those antique stores and coffeeshops down there will probably scream bloody murder if their on-street parking is taken away.


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