Sunday, May 02, 2010

Are we setting up commuter rail to fail?

That's the headline of Christof Spieler's recent article in Cite magazine.  For those of you who don't know Christof, he used to write excellent posts about transit over at the Intermodality blog before being recently appointed to the Metro board.  The article was written and published before that appointment.  In it he raises a lot of critical issues regarding Houston's long-term commuter transit solution.  Here are some of the excerpts that jumped out at me:
Houston already has two fixed guideway transit networks. Park-and-ride buses run from the suburbs to Downtown on 100 miles of HOV lanes and light rail traverses 7.5 miles of track due to be expanded to 38. Is commuter rail-a third technology-needed or would Houston be better served by expansion of its existing systems?
Rail has traditionally stirred controversy in Houston. But one thing is clear. There’s a broad political consensus in favor of commuter rail. The clarity ends there. A dozen different corridors are under consideration; out of several possible central station locations, none connects easily to any of those corridors; at least three different agencies are vying to design and operate the system, but nobody knows how to fund it; and it’s not clear how commuter rail will connect to the existing transit system.
Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion of commuter rail shares a widespread misconception of Houston as a city where most people work Downtown and live in the suburbs, and where most traffic is commuter traffic. In reality Houston is a multicentric city. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, Uptown, Westchase, Energy Corridor, and Greenspoint each has as many jobs as other cities’ downtowns.
Serving a multicentric city requires frequent two-way service that connects not just to Downtown but to other activity centers as well. Unfortunately, that’s not what has been proposed.
An infrequently available, rush-hour only, Downtown-focused system will not be very effective. The entire 250-mile [Houston-Galveston Area Council]-proposed line would carry only 36,000 people a day—fewer than the 7.5-mile Main Street light rail line. And it would cost a lot of money—$3 billion in construction costs (compared to a tenth of that spent on the Main Street line) and $35 million a year, which comes to nearly $10 a trip in operating costs (compared to $1.30 on Main Street line), of which maybe 60 percent would be covered by fares.
Other technologies — single-car diesel trains, express buses — could offer similar advantages: more frequent service, fewer transfers, faster acceleration, fewer emissions, and the ability to run outside existing railroad corridors to serve other destinations. But the HGAC and Galveston studies considered only locomotive-hauled commuter rail.

Houston, in fact, already has very successful suburban commuter transit. METRO, Trek, and Woodlands Express buses leave suburban park-and-ride lots every morning, running as often as every three minutes, and provide nonstop trips on free-flowing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes right onto downtown streets, a short walk away from 140,000 jobs. A 2009 Central Houston study found that over half of Downtown employees who live 20 to 70 miles from Downtown use the HOV lane buses. These 33,000 daily transit trips are in addition to 179,000 trips in local buses, vanpools, and carpools that also use the HOV lanes. If those vehicles ran on tracks rather than rubber tires, this would rank among the top ten U.S. commuter rail systems. The current service is more frequent, more convenient, and faster than most commuter rail systems and equally reliable. 
An ineffective, expensive commuter rail system will not improve the region. Rather than rush ahead with a system based on preconceived, often faulty assumptions and driven by political urgency, we need to engage in a discussion about what we want to accomplish and how best to do that. Unfortunately, that discussion is harder to fit into a soundbite than “We need commuter rail.” And while good transit with a high level of service and efficient connectivity will carry more riders, it is often more expensive and takes longer to implement than a more basic service. A few trains a day running from Hempstead to the parking lot of Northwest Mall from which shuttle buses (frequently stuck in freeway traffic) carry a handful of riders on to Downtown and Uptown is not good transit. But the politicians who backed it would still be able to take credit for “improving transit.”
Decisions about transit are also decisions about urban form. People and corporations alike make decisions on where to locate based on available transportation. Job centers that are easier to get to will attract more jobs than those that are difficult to access.
The last page has a nice map of the proposed lines as well as four key questions for evaluating proposed commuter rail routes:
  1. Will the route duplicate services? (Park-and-ride buses extend to near the outer limits of suburban growth in most directions with the exception of Pearland and a few other areas.)
  2. Will the line go where people live?
  3. Will the line go where people work?
  4. Will the line connect well to light rail?
To those, I'd add:
5. Are the total trip times reasonable?
Just because the lines all connect doesn't mean people when endure hour+ commutes each way with connections.  Don't forget the light rail only nets out around 17mph with stops, and commuter rail maybe a little more than twice that.

Even David Crossley has joined in questioning how appropriate commuter rail is for a city like Houston.  His post includes a lot of good stats and maps about where the jobs are in this city.

Of course, my regular readers know this fits with what I've been saying for a long time.  It's good to see more voices raising questions about these plans before billions are spent.  Let's hope the politicians and power brokers are listening.

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At 5:02 PM, May 02, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buses on HOV lanes is the right solution for a city like Houston, with the added benefit of being low-cost and flexible.

Let's hope that there are more voices of reason on the Metro board (in addition to Speiler), who'll strengthen what we have rather than waste billions on a step backward.

At 5:09 PM, May 02, 2010, Blogger kherbert said...

I live in Houston and work in Richmond, Texas. I would love a system going out that way.

At 8:58 PM, May 02, 2010, Anonymous Jessie said...

Will the route duplicate services? (Park-and-ride buses extend to near the outer limits of suburban growth in most directions with the exception of Pearland and a few other areas.)
Will the line go where people live?
Will the line go where people work?


Tory, We know that in the past people lived in the city and the moved to the burbs. Now there are some people moving back to the city. With employment centers changing and new ones coming, who's to say they'll remain the same 30-50 years from now? Who's to say people will be living in the same areas and new ones won't be created?

I think buses is the way to go for sure since we can easily change their routes.

At 8:59 PM, May 02, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...over half of Downtown employees who live 20 to 70 miles from Downtown use the HOV lane buses"

70 miles? That's Huntsville! Or Brenham. Or Lake Livingston or almost Columbus! God help them.

At 10:01 PM, May 02, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> I think buses is the way to go for sure since we can easily change their routes.

Absolute and total agreement. For a second there, I thought you were making one of the pro-rail arguments that drives me nuts: "sure, there's not much there now, but people and businesses will move over time to be next to the rail line."

At 8:10 AM, May 03, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Coming from Speiler (who is generally pro-rail), this is a good zap of reality to be thrown into the rail discussion.

Our park-n-ride system is such a great system serving so many transit users, it would be complete lunacy to abandon it for rail

Also, 70 miles commutes are quite common in other METRO such as LA, Silicon Valley, NYC, and Washington D.C. Commuters in these cities want the suburban or rural life and will suffer the commute to get. Also, affordability of living closer and still have a nice home affects this choice. Houston is big and spread out, but we are still small potatoes in the length commuters travel to get to work.

At 4:33 PM, May 04, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The way I read Spieler, he's pro-good transit more than anything, and doesn't mind using non-US transit successes as templates. The argument he's making against commuter rail is not that rail is bad or even that it can't work in the Sunbelt, but that it requires connecting urban transit. This is in line with world practice. The cities that don't have subways or LRT connecting to their commuter rail make their commuter rail work something like urban rail, with frequent stops, interstations that aren't too far apart, etc.

Spieler's actually less vociferously against commuter rail in Houston than I am, and I'm about as pro-rail as one could be. I'd tell you that it'd be insane to run FRA-compliant trains, especially ones hauled by diesel locomotives. Without a change in the FRA's steam-era regulations, it's cheaper to build new track in freeway medians and next to freight lines, on the model of BART or the Washington Metro or the C-Train.

At 5:28 PM, May 04, 2010, Blogger googlegrants said...

"Even David Crossley has joined in questioning how appropriate commuter rail is for a city like Houston."
Just for the record, I've been questioning this for a decade or so and was the only one raising those questions during H-GAC's Regional Commuter Rail Study.

At 8:37 PM, May 04, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A few trains a day running from Hempstead to the parking lot of Northwest Mall from which shuttle buses (frequently stuck in freeway traffic) carry a handful of riders on to Downtown and Uptown"

and I have heard proposals for the same kind of idea for the Houston-Galveston line, running from Galveston to just inside 610 then shuttle buses.

Is it okay that I immediately stop considering anyone who supports these ideas a serious thinker about transportation issues in Houston area?

In what world would these actually improve connectivity or access, and not just end up a white elephant? Even if you plan on eventually connecting them to a job center, what a horrible proof of concept.

At 9:20 PM, May 04, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Total agreement. I think the theory is to build something cheap and half-assed, then when the ridership is low, appeal for the needed big money to extend it where it should have gone in the first place so the original money is not wasted.

At 9:16 PM, May 05, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kind of like your theory on why the University Line is scheduled last?

At 9:24 PM, May 05, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...


At 1:50 PM, May 06, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

To terminate commuter rail at 610 is not transportation; it's Steampunk. It's what London did when it laid out the first railroads, in the 1830s. The first Underground line was built to connect the terminals with the CBD, because taking omnibuses in the city was too inconvenient.

At 11:12 AM, May 09, 2010, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

I'm not pro-rail; I'm pro-good transit. Sometimes that means rail. Sometimes it doesn't. It is unfortunate that so much transit discussion is about technology (bus, light rail, commuter rail) rather than about service (destinations, trip time, frequencies, transfers). Service is what matters.

Like David, I've been asking questions about commuter rail for a few years now. I'm not ruling out the technology. But I think it has to offer an improvement in service over what we have now and over other alternatives.

At 12:04 PM, May 11, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why can't we have both rail and bus? Seems rail from Galveston to Houston would be an ideal first line as it has employment centers at both ends and in between.

It's pointless to have rail if we don't spend the money to connect to downtown, i.e. not stop outside of the loop.

At 6:16 PM, May 14, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Somewhat off-topic: how much did the METRORail line cost? I'm asking because I was always under the impression the cost was off the charts because of street reconstruction, but now I just heard the figure $320 million on another blog. (At current ridership, $320 million for the line means $8,000 per weekday boarding, which would make the line the least expensive in the US.)

At 6:05 PM, May 18, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

P.21 of this report says $434 million:

At 12:59 AM, May 20, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Not sure... I've seen $324 million held up even on independent websites (e.g. here). It's a little less than $400 million in 2010 money. It translates to $434 million only if you take 1998 as the baseline year, which is too early - the construction was in 2001-3.

I'm trying to look for more links on Google. metrorail houston cost 324 gives a lot of results saying LRT cost $324 million. metrorail houston cost 434 gives posts by KJB434 about METRORail; the only result in the top 4 pages of Google for which $434 million is a cost for a rail project talks about a variety of projects and cites $434 million for a project in Washington.


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