Sunday, November 06, 2005

Commuter rail is the wrong ride

My op-ed on commuter rail in Houston made the front of the Chronicle Sunday Outlook section today, but Chronicle web site links don't stay up very long, so I want to put a permanent copy here. The formatting will be better at the Chronicle, so you might want to read it over there if the link is still up. As always, comments are encouraged (see link at the end of this post).


Commuter rail is the wrong ride

It can't keep up with proven success of express bus


HARRIS County Commissioner Steve Radack has once again advocated for heavy commuter rail in Houston using existing freight rail tracks ("A WAY OUT / Ride rails to safety in disaster," Outlook, Oct. 23). This time, Radack noted commuter rail's potential usefulness in emergency evacuation situations.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has preliminary plans for heavy commuter lines in the northwest corridor alongU.S. 290, the southwest corridor to Fort Bend County along U.S. 90-A, and the southeast corridor to Clear Lake and possibly beyond to Galveston, along I-45. Other corridors are under consideration, including I-45 North/Hardy Tollroad, Westpark and State Highway 288/Almeda.

I have heard support voiced all over the city for commuter rail on existing tracks. It seems like an easy, obvious, and relatively inexpensive solution to our traffic woes. But this is one situation where the citizens of Houston-area residents need a more complete understanding of what they will be getting and giving up before we proceeding down this path. Are we really, really sure this is what we want?

Heavy commuter rail has some appealing qualities. The cars are big and spacious, with comfortable seats and the ability room to walk around — maybe even buy food and drink on-board. They have dedicated right-of-way corridors with no traffic hassles. And of course they have tremendous capacity.

But I find that very few people in Houston understand how rail will fundamentally change their commute, particularly when it comes to door-to-door travel times. This is something Metro needs to be much more up-front about in its public information meetings.

Let's compare the typical HOV bus experience of today with the potential of commuter rail. Park & Ride lots can offer express bus service to multiple job centers, not just downtown (which has only 7 percent of area jobs). Express bus service offers incredible flexibility as jobs continue to disperse among multiple employment centers, a trend that is expected to accelerate according to the newest Houston-Galveston Area Council prediction models. They can jump in the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and zip past traffic at 60 mph, going nonstop point-to-point to their destinations. They can circulate when they arrive at their employment center, getting people close to their final destination building. In the future, this service will get even better as Metro expands the HOV/HOT network and converts much of it to two-way service.

Now let's look at the commuter rail trip. The first thing you notice is that it's not as fast as you thought. Because of stops every couple of miles, it's only able to achieve a net speed of 30 mph to 40mph. OK, so it's a little slower, but it's more comfortable — so maybe the trade-off is worth it.

Until you get to your end station. If you're unfortunate enough to live in Fort Bend County and commute downtown, you're now looking at waiting for a transfer to the 17-mph light rail line, then a full 30 more minutes slogging up Fannin and Main streets to get downtown. Similar transfers and slow travel times face anybody going to job centers other than downtown: Uptown/Galleria, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and Westchase.

But let's say you're one of the lucky commuter-rail patrons headed downtown. Most likely your trip would end at the newly planned intermodal transit center just north of UH Downtown and the bayou. You're still a pretty long walk from almost all downtown buildings. Time for another transfer to light rail, and then probably a multiple-block walk from one of its downtown stops.

Checking your watch, you note that what used to be a reasonable 30-minute express bus trip has become a 50-plus-minute trek of transfers and walks, with sluggish trains that stop frequently. You might even begin to notice, during these transfers and walks, that Houston inconveniently gets a tad warm and rainy five-plus months of the year.

None of this is news to older transit-based cities. Lower Manhattan is struggling to build and fill office space.

Why? Because most of the commuter trains arrive at Penn or Grand Central stations in Midtown, and nobody wants to make the additional subway transfer and slog to downtown.

After doing this a while, the novelty wears off and you decide that, well, trains are neat and all, but "I'll just go back to my plain old HOV express bus service and the shorter commute."

Surprise! That bus service no longer exists. Metro has canceled it, and rightly so. The transit agency has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment into the commuter-rail lines. Metro is obliged to absolutely maximize ridership to justify that expense, and that means canceling any express bus service that might remotely compete with the trains.

The painful new reality is sinking in, but there's no going back once the money is in the ground.

At the end of the day, if we opt for commuter rail, we will have spent billions of dollars rerouting freight trains and developing these lines, only to discover that our new transit service, while stylish, is now less convenient than before we started.

The result? There won't be loud riots or protests, just the quiet sound of people voting with their feet as more and more employers choose to locate in far suburbs because the commutes will have simply gotten too difficult for their employees — slowly draining Houston's commercial tax base and vitality.

Maybe it's time we get past our New York-envy and develop a flexible, regional commuter transit system for our dispersed, multinodal city of the 21st century.

Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog.


At 2:22 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're thankfully movingly slowly away from the Dark Side which favors wasteful, unsafe, unreliable, and underutilized steel-wheel fixed guideway modes.

It would seem the reasoned logic and statistical analysis from esteemed gentlemen such as W. Cox, T. Rubin, and R. O'Toole has enlightened you. The sooner Houstonians can turn away from the path our local bureaucrats have taken as a result of the coercion by the "Smart Growth" N.U.T.S. (New Urban Transit Supporters) the better off taxpayers will be, and then we can focus on rubber-tired solutions to improve mobility.

At 3:39 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that wasn't mentioned that also supports your point is that commuter rail in other cities usually has frequencies of, at best, 2 or 3 times per hour. METRO has HOV buses leaving the busiest park-and-ride lots every 5 minutes, meaning that during rush hour you can literally arrive “randomly” at the lots during rush hour periods and know you’ll be on a bus leaving within a couple minutes. Transportation planners know this is a huge deal in terms of convenience to the transit customer.

At 9:07 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

each corridor is different. Along 290, where no direct shot to downtown exists via highway or HOV/Express bus, commuter rail might actually be a good option.

That bit about walking downtown is over-the-top. When it's too hot or raining, people take the tunnels. Most workers walk a certain distance downtown whether they arrive by bus, car, or rail.

At 9:49 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, you went out of your way to make that trip as long as possible, while simultaneously shortening that bus ride. To begin with, commuter rail won't be stopping every couple of miles. It will be more than a bus, to be sure, but not 15 stops on a 30 mile trip...more like 4 or 5, tops. Secondly, because it shares lane space with automobiles, the bus often times is slowed to a crawl. This is not expected to change significantly with HOT lanes. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier, since when does a park and ride bus drop you at your door? It runs down a north/south street, parallel to the light rail line. Further, it stops at lights, just like autos, unlike the train, which overrides stoplights. Fourth, where did you get this 30 minute bus trip for comparison, anyway? A quick check of METRO's website shows a rush hour trip from Hwy290 takes 40 minutes, a trip from Katy takes 45. Add a 5 minute downtown walk and you are at 45 to 50 minutes. Some savings!

I could go on about why Lower Manhattan REALLY is having trouble filling office space, but I won't spoil your secret, especially since it matters not to Houstonians.

I will conclude with the reason commuter rail (AND park and ride service) will work. There is a saying that you can save time or you can save money, but you cannot save time and money. Riders of mass transit, be it bus or rail, seldom get to their destination quicker. But, they get there cheaper. With gasoline destined to cost between $2.50 and $3.00 a gallon for the forseeable future, and downtown parking at $4.00 (distant lots) to $12.00, plus wear and tear on a vehicle, a suburban commute is very expensive. Those commuters who won't or can't spend that money give up a few minutes twice a day for the savings. Others take mass transit for the stress relief. NO ONE takes it for the time savings. Add the quantifiable train bias and commuter rail is very viable.

I don't know who you wrote that opinion to impress, but it doesn't impress those who can do math.

At 10:36 PM, November 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to answer one of the points Redscare mentioned:

13 stops from Vienna metro station to the heart of DC. I took the orange line several times and then I swore never to take it again! I rather be doing 30 miles/hour in the luxury of my car vs. be on a 50MPH train with that many stops! Check out this link to see what I am talking about:

they never built an express line and they will never do!


At 6:12 AM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oz -

that's not commuter rail.

At 7:07 AM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, I found your opinion piece quite easily in the searchable archives on the Chronicle's Web site.

At 8:19 AM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the uninitiated, commuter rail refers to passenger trains on an existing railroad track, and the trains are pulled by a locomotive. It's more of a regional service, and station distances are several miles apart. Examples of commuter rail service include the Trinity Railway Express in DFW, Metra in Chicago, MARC in DC/Baltimore, Caltrain in SF, Metrolink in LA, and the Long Island Railroad in NY. The "Orange Line" mentioned a few posts ago is not a commuter rail line.

At 8:52 AM, November 07, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think op-eds going into the archives is new. A couple years ago mine weren't there. I corrected the main post.

The "stops every couple of miles" was a mistake on my part. I meant to say "every few miles". But the net speed is correct, typically 30-40mph.

HOV/HOT service is certainly not perfect today, but could be improved to fix the problems mentioned *much* less expensively than building commuter rail.

People will trade time for money, but it's always a weigh-off, right? Save the cost for 20 mins/day - sure - for an extra hour/day - probably not. Metro has experienced a substantial ridership drop since connecting all the bus lines into light rail. The transfers add time, which loses the marginal rider. The same thing will happen when express bus trips get converted to slower commuter rail with more transfers.

At 10:26 AM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer a couple points made above:

1. US 290 DOES have direct HOV access to Downtown (a little messed up with the IH 10 construction at the moment, but it was there previously and will be again). The Northwest Station P&R lot is extremely popular, to the point where it's maxed out. METRO is developing another lot in the Cypress area that will actually have a TOD component (see today's paper). The US 290 bus service also stops at the Northwest Transit Center, which can allow a transfer to Uptown or other bus lines.

2. Right now it looks like the planned intermodal terminal Downtown is north of the Bayou, even north of IH 10. This is 3/4 of a mile from the north end of the main office core, which is roughly Texas Ave. This means that most folks will be a good mile away from where the commuter rail drops them off, meaning they will have to transfer to light rail or something else to get to their office. (There's no tunnels around the intermodal center either.) That's another transfer with even more time traveling and waiting...sounds pretty discouraging to me. Give me a bus that goes right down the office core streets, please, or at least don't take it away.

At 10:37 AM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve -

Sorry, I was unclear. By saying that 290 doesn't have a direct shot downtown, what I meant was that it's not anything close to a straight line. It jogs over to 610 then 10. The rail alternative would be much straighter.

At 11:54 AM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to keep beating up on a fellow Klein grad, but the numbers still don't add up. Currently, there is no service to TMC from 290. The only way to get there is to transfer from a bus to the train.

There is service from Addicks to TMC. That trip, according to the METRO schedule, takes 77 minutes! LRT from UHD to TMC takes 20-24 minutes. Commuter rail probably gets you to TMC 15-20 minutes quicker!

As for downtown, the LRT takes 7 minutes to run from UHD to the Pierce elevated. UHD is .3 miles from the proposed intermodal. Add 1 minute, for 8 minutes total. The buses take 10 minutes to run from North DT to South DT, costing 2 minutes.

Given that a 290 rail line would probably stop at the same places as the bus, but has no turns, stoplights, or other traffic delays that a bus encounters, it is unlikely to be slower than the bus, but likely quicker. And the LRT, slow as it is, is quicker through downtown than a bus, making up for any transfer delay.

HOT lanes, for whatever else they are, add to the cost of commuting. A person that thinks a regular auto commute is expensive, won't use a HOT lane. Those who use HOT lanes would NEVER think of using mass transit. It is a whole other mindset.

Tory, I agree that a person who loses 20-30 extra minutes per trip may not justify the cost savings over the time lost. Where I disagree is your argument that commuter rail is slower than park and ride. I just don't see it.

For those who wonder where my times come from, METRO's website has schedules for all bus and train routes.

At 3:10 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a feeling we won't come to agreement over this, we'll just have to wait for studies to be completed. But I am pretty certain that the commuter rail will not only be slower than a Park and Ride bus using the HOV or HOT lane (assuming the lane is kept free-flowing), but it will be considerably slower. For example, the Northwest Station Park and Ride leaves the Park and Ride lot on the exclusive ramp to the HOV lane, cruises along at 50+ mph, stops at NWTC, then gets back on the HOV ramp (there is a missing piece on IH 10 between 610 and Taylor but it's pretty free flowing through there anyway) with no more stops until Downtown. Once in Downtown, it stops every 2 or 3 blocks so you're quite likely to be close to your office unless you're at the far reaches of Houston Center.

Don't forget to factor in the transfer time at the Intermodal Center to light rail or circulator bus, plus the additional walk time that will likely be needed for most, because there are fewer stops on the Main St. LRT, so you're not likely to be dropped off as close to your destination, especially for office workers.

Also, in additional to the greater number of stops the commuter train will have to make plus the slower travel speed through the urban neighborhoods - I seriously doubt it will get to travel at 50+ mph through the Heights. Finally, I would personally find it a step down as a transit user to go from arriving randomly at the Park and Ride lot during rush hour knowing I will quickly be on a bus headed into town to having to modify my schedule to be at a train station for what will likely be a twice hourly service at best.

I don't see why P&R / HOV service couldn't be used to transfer to LRT for TMC-bound passengers just as a commuter train would.

By the way, who went to Klein? Not me.

At 3:13 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooops, sorry, I guess it's Tory that went to Klein. My bad...

At 3:23 PM, November 07, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


And the LRT, slow as it is, is quicker through downtown than a bus, making up for any transfer delay.

This isn't true. Transfers cause considerable delays, depending on how often the transit vehicle runs (often far more than is scheduled). Downtown traffic, on the the other hand, causes negligible delays, even for buses.

At 3:29 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" Downtown traffic, on the the other hand, causes negligible delays, even for buses. "

Spoken like someone who doesn't drive downtown during rush hour.

At 6:01 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


METRO made sure that a rubber-tired vehicle would take longer to travel through the CBD towards the TMC.

They blocked a perfectly good street and spent $10+ million of taxpayer resources to create a doomed pedestrian mall.

At 1:55 PM, November 08, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Actually, I do drive downtown during rush hour, and I have taken the bus.

In any event, if buses are slow, you could just give them MIRT devices similar to those that light rail has to switch lights to green. Light rail has no unique advantage over buses in terms of speed.

At 8:57 PM, November 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really only have 2 comments-where I am somewhat knowledgable on this thread.
1. Of course Lower Manhattan is stuggling to rebuild after the mass destruction of 9.11. It's not the "slog"-there's so much less to "slog" to now.
It's the inability of the state, city and developers to overcome their petty disputes. Anyone who knows this area; who lost a loved one due to the unspeakable destruction and senseless loss of life-a "slog" on a subway line? That's the least of their concerns.
As far as Bazen goes, once again his rants against anything Metro-"METRO made sure that a rubber-tired vehicle would take longer to travel through the CBD towards the TMC.

They blocked a perfectly good street and spent $10+ million of taxpayer resources to create a doomed pedestrian mall." has become way too redundant. Perhaps the Red Line didn't afford him the special privileges that come with his status as a realty consulting firm that has-since 1992-been certified as a Minority, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (M/DBE) by the City of Houston.

You do great work, Tory-keep it up.

At 7:24 AM, November 22, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...


At 2:07 PM, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm heading over to houston next week and I'm going to try to stay someplace close to the light rail line because it makes it easier for me to do things in houston. A good light rail and commuter rail system that passes by the most important parts of town will help the economy in the long run. People will start to find it easier to get out of their houses and do things and they'll spend money.

I've been to several major american cities and several major european cities. A city with a light rail/subway or street car system along with a bus system is always easier to get around in as long as it is designed like the light rail system in houston, so that it passes by locations that are nice to visit.

Most people prefer cars over buses and most people prefer trains over cars (if the train can get them where they want to go). After traveling in Europe I found that I much prefered using their mass transit system then renting a car but I only would use the transit system if it involved trains, I will not even bother if they only have buses; however, I'll endure a bus for part of my ride if I can use a train most of the time.

I'd like to see some progress made in Houston. I lived there for 18 years. American cities are a joke. When will americans stop being cavemen and start building proper transit systems that include light rail, commuter rail and intercity rail?

I'm also a young republican. I can't stand seeing tax money being wasted on abused welfare, or things that benefit lazy people in society, or wasting tax money by sending aid to other countries that does not help them, but a good modern rail mass transit system in our cities. We need that.

At 8:28 AM, May 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former heavy rail commuter to Boston, the one thing I feel missing from making Houston a great city is it's lack of rail mass transit to the downtown.

Having initially commuted by auto to downtown Boston, I realized that the stress level (stuck in traffic, near accidents out of frustration) was not a long term solution.

I tried bus service which aside from being dirty, it had questionable characters (these mostly taking the shorter connecting trips -not professionals going to Boston), at times loud/arrogant school children (with train can move away -on bus no place to slide off to); the bus was also far and away the slowest means of travel. The bus made far more frequent stops and by no means did it make a "straight path" from Brockton to Boston. The bus route took advantage of not being on a fixed alignment to accomodate a greater ridership, but in doing so extended the trip for the long haul commuters.

Rail on the other hand was cleaner, had mostly professional passengers, and while the auto highway traffic out your window was at a stand still you where chugging along. The tain traveled quickly within walled off and fenced off portions of the corridor (likely 50 mph+), outside of it's dedicated stops.

I took the Stoughton to Boston commuter train and BY FAR found it to be THE BEST mode of transit to the city. If planners and designers can do it in Boston, I have no doubt Houston (with all the land it has; or if not place it in the highway medians like a rail line I saw to DC) can enjoy the same commuting option at a cost acceptable to the taxpayers.

At 1:01 PM, May 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

chatham: In Houston, we have dedicated express buses that use the HOV lanes to get downtown. Same demographics as you describe for Boston rail. And at far lower cost, faster, and more flexibility (to circulate downtown, for instance, and drop people nearer their building).

Boston is a city built up around commuter rail, where employers make sure their offices are near the lines. Houston is far more spread out, making point to point express buses a more effective option.

At 1:31 AM, June 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are all morons. Buses are great when the price of gasoline is kept artificially low, but eventually our sprawling, self-indulgent suburban lifestyle will have to end, and Houston will whither up and blow away , primarily due to it's destruction of what little urbanity it possesses.

At 9:30 AM, June 28, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon: I've said it before and I'll say it again: the personal vehicle is now a permanent part of society. The propulsion technology may go through waves of technological change - like ethanol, hydrogen, electric, plug-in hybrids, etc. - but people are not giving up their cars. And don't forget, society is always getting wealthier, not poorer, making whatever fuel is required ever more affordable on a relative basis.

At 11:48 AM, June 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason Houston is in the high-traffic state it is in is because of rednecks like you. Have you ever travelled to another city and seen how commuter rails actually work? You make the point that they move more slowly than riding in the HOV lane. That may be true. But, there are advantages to using a commuter rail than an HOV.

1. Though you may be riding more slowly, you don't have to focus on driving. During the trip, you can read, get ahead on work or just relax.
2. Unlike using the bus or just riding in the HOV, commuter rails have lower instances of back up. Just because you are in the HOV that does not guarantee you won't encounter an accident, breakdown or stall in your "fast lane." Commuter rails, on the other hand, have designated tracks just for them. There won't be a stalled car sitting on them. They are also faster than buses because they provide direct routes. Buses, in many cities, are for minor diversions from a major route.
3. Transfers (such as to another line or a bus) force people to walk. Houston is fat because our only option is to drive a car.

You also state that a commuter train could lead to the extinction of the Metro bus system. I don't think anything could be further from the truth. If anything, it would enhance the system. Commuters would have more alternatives. They could take the rail to town and then catch a bus. Tons of cities do it.

Maybe you should get your head out of the Houston smog and make some real points.

At 12:54 PM, June 28, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wow. Fiesty. Just to clarify, what we're discussing here are HOV express buses vs. commuter rail, which strikes #1 from relevency.

Commuter rail trains do have reliability problems too, but even if we assume they're more reliable on average than buses in an HOV lane, the real question is at what cost? Is the vastly higher cost of rail (both up front and maintenance) worth the slightly higher reliability? And then there's the flexibility of buses I mention: they can leave the HOV lane and circulate in a business district to get you much closer to your final destination without a transfer.

With #3, let's remember that we're trying to design the best cost-benefit transportation system here, not act as a public health agency. Maybe the state should ban all forms of motorized transport (and fatty foods too, while we're at it), so we're forced to walk or bike everywhere?

>You also state that a commuter train could lead to the extinction of the Metro bus system.

Not true. Just that Metro will not run express buses on routes parallel to commuter rail. Once they've made the mega-money investment in rail, they have to push every possible transit rider onto it, whether or not the existing express bus service better served their needs. Even with our short light rail system that opened in 2004, Metro saw overall system ridership drop noticably because many single-bus trips became dual-transfer trips with light rail in the middle, slowing travel times and driving people out of the system.

I have no doubt commuter rail works great in cities like NYC and Chicago that force most of the jobs and office space downtown. Houston is not built that way, and never will be, so, in our case, and in the case of most more recently-developed, decentralized, multi-polar cities, express buses are a better transit alternative for serving those dispersed job centers.


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