Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A better vision for Metro

I haven't commented much on all of the recent Metro news, but today's article puts the absurdity level over the top.  What the heck were they thinking using short-term debt to pay the cities their quarter-cent mobility payments?  How are they possibly going to balance the budget and build rail without cutbacks?  While I applaud Greanias' appointment as CEO, how could they possibly think they can still build all of these rail lines after the FTA findings/mandates and the huge budget and debt woes?  Not to mention spiraling cost estimates approaching $6 billion, Bill King's well-argued op-ed on the plans flaws, and a soon-to-be-Republican Congress that will be focused on slashing spending and deficits, not increasing them.  The whole situation reminds me of Hitler still thinking he could unify Europe after Stalingrad and D-Day.  At some point, Metro, you have to face reality.

With that in mind, here's my proposal for a new vision for Metro - one that will help many, many more residents and employers of Harris County.  Here are the goals:
  • Dramatically increase overall commuter transit ridership (and thereby reduce freeway congestion)
  • Provide comprehensive single-seat express commuter service from all neighborhoods to all job centers
  • Keep employers and their tax base within the city of Houston (rather than moving to the far suburbs because of intolerable commutes and “hollowing out” the city like Detroit and others)
  • Increase employee commute productivity: laptop/smartphone email, wifi, tray tables for laptops
  • Attract increased employer subsidies/funding because of employee productivity value-added
And the changes they need to make:

FROM: Closed, internal, opaque
TO: Open source, transparent, crowdsourcing, open innovation (some progress already happening here)

FROM: Proprietary data kept in-house
TO: Government 2.0, all data published on the internet (scrubbed for privacy), allow anybody to analyze or mash-up to web site (students, universities, entrepreneurs, etc.)

FROM: Route demand “guesstimates”
TO: Online commuter community to register their commutes in a database to improve route matching (privacy option: replace names with ID numbers, use only zip+4 of address)

FROM: Only Metro-controlled, centralized, large Park-&-Ride lots
TO: Optional private, decentralized, smaller Park-&-Ride lots: underutilized existing lots, churches, groceries/malls looking for evening customers, register their interest in participating

FROM: Only Metro buses
TO: Allow private operators of buses, shuttles, and vans in addition to Metro vehicles:
  • Operators compete on schedule, routes, service, timeliness, and amenities
  • Possibly partially subsidized (Per rider? Per passenger-mile? Hybrid?)
  • Metro controls all money (model: Apple and the iTunes App Store), standard card readers
  • Metro publishes master integrated schedule
FROM: Downtown-centric
TO: All major job centers: Uptown, Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake/NASA, etc.

FROM: Show up, wait in line with weather exposure, hope for a seat
TO: Reserved, pre-paid seat reservations: piece of mind, can show up at the last minute, minimal weather exposure

FROM: Unpredictable bus arrivals, time wasted arriving early and waiting
TO: Real-time bus-status text messages: leave the office right before afternoon bus arrives, no time wasted, minimal weather exposure

FROM: Buses often stuck with regular traffic
TO: Use bus tracking and online community to identify common bottlenecks and implement new HOT/MaX lanes (freeways, left lanes, esp. 610 and BW8) and diamond lanes (key local arterials).  Managed eXpress (MaX) lanes real-time priced to move the maximum possible number of people at maximum speed (improved throughput vs. free).

FROM: Buses often underutilized or run empty
TO: Detailed commuter database and open source approach allow route/stop tweaking to pick-up/drop-off incremental riders

FROM: Stand-alone agencies with separate domains
TO: Partner with other agencies across region, inc. HGAC commute solutions and their vanpools.  Option: create new commuter-oriented regional subsidiary of Metro that can be easily joined by the outer counties (vs. full Metro membership which they are unlikely to be interested in)

These are just a start, but they are all imminently doable and affordable - even with the current budget crunch - assuming that most of the rail lines are converted to signature bus service.  Isn't this better than building a few miles of at-grade rail until budgetary collapse followed by decades of stagnation as debts are repaid, funded by service cutbacks to the poor and transit-dependent?  Please, Mayor Parker and Metro, get real before it's too late.

Update: now Metro is considering selling debt bonds with a legal obligation for them to raise fares.  Will the madness never stop?  Hat tip to Barry.

Update 2: Bill King has an excellent op-ed in the Chronicle on Metro's financial situation and the new reality that is starting to dawn over there.

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At 4:26 PM, September 14, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...


Many METRO watchdogs have been pretty much screaming your summary of changes for years. METRO continues to operate in a shroud of secrecy.

I truly think half of the METRO board and the head of METRO should be elected positions with limits and the remaining half be appointed. This would force the agency to be more transparent with elected officials involved.

METRO needs to abandoned all future rail construction until they become fiscally solvent. Houston needs to be paid the $100+ million dollars METRO is required to give them. Get a bus service that actually has ridership to justify moving forward with dedicated rail. Rail doesn't help traffic congestion, just provides a more consistent travel time in congested corridors.

METRO needs to utilized much smaller buses (Washington Wave size) for lower volume routes that often utilized minor neighborhood streets. Within Cottage Grove, a full size METRO bus has to make two turns on old streets with 50' ROW with roadside ditches often having the back wheel go into the ditch. The buses also have to navigate through the many parked cars along the street often having to stop, honk the horn, and hope someone moves a car (the fire dept has to do this too). All this to serve about 15 bus riders in the neighborhood. Makes no sense.

At 5:48 PM, September 14, 2010, Blogger lockmat said...

Yes, I like it. Leave out rail and make the best bus system in the world.

At 9:29 PM, September 14, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I would suggest that we abolish metro and let private bus companies provide mass transit. Why do we prohibit competition with Metro in the first place?

At 9:52 PM, September 14, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The competition prohibition is based on the fact that, overall, transit is a (big) money loser, so if we're going to tax subsidize a public entity to provide it, we don't want private providers skimming the profitable routes away. That said, I totally agree that we should privatize express commuter transit (not to mention jitney service) and let them compete (possibly with a partial subsidy). Metro should focus on the the basic local bus and rail routes.

At 3:24 AM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Does Houston have any frequent service map identifying the main frequent trunk lines? If not, publishing one and branding it specially would be a start.

At 9:48 AM, September 15, 2010, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


It's one thing to listen to what people say, but it's another to watch what people actually do. I was sitting in the Metro board room as a spectator, while George Greanias was "auditioning" for the Metro CEO job via giving his organizational report. One idea that was stated at that board meeting was using the 25 percent GM monies for - drum roll please - transit oriented development. The Smart Growth crowd must have been going into ecstasy.

Now, two weeks later, we hear the news printed in the Houston Chronicle (of all places!) that Metro will stop paying the Cities their GM monies with commercial paper, but will return to surrendering the tax monies instead. I'll believe it when I see next year's CAFR financial reports - not that governmental entities have to actually provide accurate information in their financial reports or be threatened with jail time like privately traded companies do.

I've basically gotten to a point where I don't believe one thing that any politician or agency says. It's only about agendas, more money, and more power.

I really need to organize a Tea Party mob to show up at Metro headquarters. That's the only thing people respect in politics.

At 2:25 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Nathan Gaber said...


If you were nominated to head METRO, would you accept?

At 2:34 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Absolutely. Not going to happen though.

At 3:46 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...


Mass transit is a money loser when, for political reasons, routes are served that are not priced right or little used or traversed by vehicles which are unsuitable to the route. A central agency of political appointees cannot price and plan every single route to be profitable.

A private system would price routes to meet the demand and use vehicles appropriate to the task. Multiple competing private actors, through trial and error, will sort out the routes and prices very thoroughly. Most sectors of the economy are left to market forces and private actors to sort it out. I don't believe that mass transit is any different.

A Houston, with about 100 jitney companies, and no Metro, would probably get more people more places than Metro does currently.

At 4:56 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>While I applaud Greanias' appointment as CEO, how could they possibly think they can still build all of these rail lines after the FTA findings/mandates and the huge budget and debt woes? Not to mention spiraling cost estimates approaching $6 billion, Bill King's well-argued op-ed on the plans flaws, and a soon-to-be-Republican Congress that will be focused on slashing spending and deficits, not increasing them. The whole situation reminds me of Hitler still thinking he could unify Europe after Stalingrad and D-Day

It seems like you are jumping the gun here. Republican Congress? Maybe - but doubtful after last night. Seems like you are nearly 100% certain that Metro will no longer get its $900 million to build out the lines, that Republicans will take both houses of Congress, that the local economy will remain in a slump and local sales tax revenues will stay lower as well, and that Congress will introduce austerity measures. I find all of these assertions unlikely at best.

Back in reality, the economy is slowly but steadily improving. Metro will get its $900 million - but it will have to push back its schedule. Democrats will retain control of the executive and Senate for at least another 2 years - and likely beyond - assuming the economy really starts going again by late 2011. Taxes will be increasing, not decreasing, to help cover deficits.

And Hitler comparisons? Usually only undertaken by the side that is desperate and in the wrong.

I do like the idea of real time bus arrivals, and allowing some jitney competition on some routes. But it is long past time for Houston to have 5-10 rail and commuter lines on its main trunk / commuter locations. Temporary political, mismanagement, and economic turmoil will not affect this basic reality.

Some of your ideas are likely not going to help much- either - for instance I think HGAC / Metro etc. have a pretty good idea of where the jobs are, where the commuters are, etc. I'm guessing they already do targeted research to essentially arrive at what you call a "database of commuters".

I also wouldn't mind some enforcement for Metrorail riders. After football games on Sunday, I'd guess 5% of people actually have tickets - would imagine it is the same for rodeo and other major events. It seems like we should at least make people pay for the ride... if we are going to charge.

And Bill King's article - Not really very compelling - trees, school zones, and 90-degree turns? Really - that's your argument against high quality mass transit? What about stray electrical currents? C'mon.

At 6:16 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Matt Bramanti said...

If, as you rightly point out, transit is a money-loser (and a big one at that), what will bring private competition?

At 7:20 PM, September 15, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not certain about the viability of private competition for local bus transit, but I'm more confident it could be done for express commuter transit (which charges more). A helpful key would be a flat subsidy per passenger mile from Metro's 1 cent sales tax. Then let private companies compete to attract riders.

At 2:09 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Dom said...

So what major city has had a successful all bus mass transit system?

Having bus service running down Richmond instead of rail is simply unacceptable and a waste. We need to connect our densest employment centers together; uptown, greenway plaza, tmc, and downtown are all located in close proximity (in Houston terms). I only care about connecting the Main st. line with the University and Uptown, the other proposed lines could be BRT. Just because METRO has been either incompetent or nefarious doesn't mean LRT is wrong in all situations. I am for rail when it's appropriate.

At 2:17 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Dom said...

Another question: What would y'all estimate the ridership after one year be if the University and Uptown lines

At 9:30 AM, September 16, 2010, Blogger Unknown said...

May I quote Bob Lanier, former METRO chairman concerning all the claims touted by the N.U.T.S. (New Urban Transit Supporters).

Bob Lanier, a developer elected Mayor of Houston for his anti-urban rail stance. He said, "First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You'll see.'"[ii]

[ii] Former Mayor Bob Lanier on rail transit proponents in Houston Metropolitan magazine, November 1990.

At 11:45 AM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...


I never knew of that statement by Mayor Lanier, but it sums up pretty simply the argument every rail supporter ever has used.

Private bus transit does work when it is very targeted.

Take the Wave. They are running at a profit with no subsidy, but they are a very targeted service. Commuter buses utilizing the HOV/HOT lanes are pretty much the same concept.

At 12:03 PM, September 16, 2010, Anonymous Dom said...


Do you think it is smart to generalize all LRT in that way?

At 8:43 AM, September 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how many of the commenters actually ride the bus...

simple comment, I can drive but WILL and do ride the light rail, you can pretty it up all you want but I'm not riding on no dang bus.


At 2:49 PM, September 17, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Really? From the suburbs outside 610 (or BW8 for that matter), you'd rather ride a rail netting 20-30mph with stops that lets you off far from your building (or, worse, requires a transfer), rather than a comfortable HOV express bus with tray tables and wifi going 65mph nonstop and circulating to within a block or two of your building? Or, if you're talking about my proposal to replace the near-in rail lines with signature bus: FTA stats show most people will ride them just fine. See the link in my post.

At 4:14 PM, September 17, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>FTA stats show most people will ride them just fine. See the link in my post.

What stat are you referring to? The link to "signature bus service" in your link includes this statement by the FTA's Rogoff:

>>But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.”

This is hardly a stat. And if you think that a fresh coat of paint on the 82 Westheimer for instance is going to make a difference, I think you are sadly mistaken. A fresh coat of paint on a bus will not make one iota of difference to riders.

The Quickline is a better and more realistic effort, but even that required some significant investment in stops and MIRT technology, and it does not run frequently enough to make a difference for many commuters or non-commuting users of the system. And, I really have no idea if the Quickline is even considered successful - does anyone know what the ridership is, if Metro wants to expand it to other routes, etc?

At 4:51 PM, September 17, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes sorry, it's not a stat. But his statement is based on real studies. The Quickline is the example I mean, yes, although I understand there are better examples nationally, like the LA Orange line: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_Line_(Los_Angeles_Metro)

At 5:20 PM, September 17, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...

The Orange Line in Los Angeles is successful because it has its own right-of-way.

My understanding is that the "Quickline" does not have its own right-of-way (I have never ridden it because I have no reason to go out there). It has some fancy new paint, a new name, and claims to have the ability to control lights. But, it is still stuck in traffic with the rest of the drivers on the road because it doesn't have its own right-of-way. Anything that doesn't have its own right-of-way, despite the marketing, is when you get down to it simply the same old bus.

Whenever I hear people who are generally not supportive of public transit talk about their support for BRT or "Signature Bus" without explicitly stating that such service should/will have its own right-of-way, I suspect that the proposal is simply another way for transit foes to shift more money toward highways and away from a real, comprehensive transit system.

At 5:39 PM, September 17, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Quickline also stops much less often to provide a faster ride (like LRT also does).

If you look at the proposed LRT routes, "stuck in traffic" is not really an issue on any of these surface streets. Signature bus provides 80% of LRT service for a micro-fraction of the cost. Any "real, comprehensive transit system" would want to offer the most possible service (total network) for a give pool of money, right? How does dozens of miles of signature bus sound vs. 1 mile of LRT? We could build a far larger, far more comprehensive transit network, far faster and far cheaper.

At 5:41 PM, September 17, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, and if it absolutely needs its own right-of-way to provide the right level of service, then do it. It'll still be 10x cheaper than LRT.

At 12:40 PM, September 18, 2010, Anonymous Dom said...

Tory says
"Really? From the suburbs outside 610 (or BW8 for that matter), you'd rather ride a rail netting 20-30mph with stops that lets you off far from your building (or, worse, requires a transfer), rather than a comfortable HOV express bus with tray tables and wifi going 65mph nonstop and circulating to within a block or two of your building?"

Why can't we have both?

Why can't we scale back the LRT plans? We nix the East End, SE, and North lines and do the University and Uptown lines right. That is, we elevate the rail at critical intersections like Sheppard, Westheimer, etc. This LRT would form the backbone of our core which will be connected to park&ride, bus, and quickline services. I'm pro good transit and a mix of options. We need some rail service, we need to expand our park&rides, expand quickline service, and expand regular service. It seems the best systems having many modes working together.

You can't have a bus- only system for a metro of 6 million people and rapidly growing. This just isn't about what we need today, I think some of you are being sort sighted.

At 8:40 PM, September 18, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Tory, the Orange Line to BRT is like MAX to LRT. It's a popular example, but in reality it's an unmitigated failure. Its construction cost per rider was within the same range as the LRT lines, its operating costs are higher, its signal priority is screwy, and its capacity is severely limited. And because it's a special bus, it can't be used as a quickway for express buses that run local away from the ROW, on the model of Brisbane.

At 10:11 PM, September 19, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Dom: I agree the University line might be a good one. Uptown I'm not as sure. It might work fine as signature bus or BRT. Total agreement on converting N, SE, E lines to signature bus. The problem is that right now Metro is on track to blow all of its money on the N, SE, and E lines, then go broke and be unable to build either of the U lines - or probably even continue to fully operate the bus network without a big fare increase. A true tragedy.

Alon: Good info on the Orange line. Did not know that. I agree BRT is a disaster if they let costs get anywhere in the ballpark of LRT. That's why I usually mention signature bus instead. I think it's a lot more affordable with most of the benefits if the right diamond lanes and/or signal preemption are included where needed.

At 1:49 AM, September 20, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Tory, I'll go one step further and say that signature bus service suffers from one of the problems of LRT, which is that degrades and deprecates local bus service.

Better would be to focus on converting the entire system to signature buses. Fare collection can and should be POP on every bus. As many vehicles as possible should be low-floor. Stations should be spaced four to a mile on all buses, as is standard in Europe. Signal priority and dedicated lanes should be installed on route segments as demand dictates, without the need for special branding; it may be that the best choice is to install dedicated lanes on the inner segments of many routes, rather than on the full length of just a few.

At 8:28 AM, September 20, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Interesting concept. I think signal preemption may make sense in limited cases, but I think on a mass scale it would destroy the well-timed lights on key routes in Houston which help move a lot of cars very well. I think part of the point of sigbus in Houston is that it stops less often than 4/mile to increase speed. And then I'm not sure if they'd attract the middle-income riders they want if they just adopted it across the whole bus system. I hate to say it, but differentiated branding and presentation matters. Or at least it does right now. Maybe over time Metro could slowly convert everything to something like "sigbus" and end up gaining a lot of new riders in the process. Eventually the branding differentiation would disappear, but by then the middle-income riders would be hooked.

At 2:24 PM, September 20, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The 4/mile spacing was meant as a lower bound, not an upper bound. The main problem with buses is not branding; it's that they're slow. Speed them up from 3 times slower than cars to 1.5 times, and middle-class people will start riding them. For the limited stop buses, stop spacing should be wider, but four to a mile is standard for the slowest local buses in Europe. (In the US, bus agencies prefer eight to a mile for legacy reasons.)

The signal preemption issue really comes down to priorities. Should signals on a street be optimized for car traffic, or buses?

At 2:51 PM, September 20, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On a utility basis, at least in a city like Houston, it will generally have to be car priority. The reality is that buses are something like 2-3% of trips and cars are ~95%.

Maybe if the buses aren't too frequent (like >=10 min headways) and only mess with a single light cycle before it goes back in sync, so as to minimize the disruption to cars.

At 3:24 PM, September 20, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...

Sounds like a chicken and the egg problem to me. Perhaps if the bus system was run more efficiently and provided the level of service expected by patrons to transit systems in other major cities, Houston would see more people using the bus system. That means priority signaling and separate right-of-ways for buses.

I think, ultimately, what this comes down to is whether one thinks that the city should actively support increased transit usage in Houston. For quality of life reasons (and for national security reasons), I think the city should encourage such usage. In many ways, it already does. So, if that means giving buses greater priority over private automobiles and, in certain situations, its own right-of-way, then so be it. That is what it takes to improve service and if your ultimate plan in this "better vision for Metro" is to have a viable bus-based system that will provide comparable service to light rail, then you would support such systems as well.

At 4:22 PM, September 20, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm all for improving transit as long as the degradation to auto-mobility is minimal. Houston is a car dominated city, and, realistically, that will never change.

At 8:35 PM, September 20, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

I know from experience that Monaco has bus signal preemption without causing mayhem for cars. But I don't know the technical details, so I don't know how applicable this is to Houston.

If Houston were a transit-oriented city, I'd tell you that car travel time is based on being able to compete with transit, so bus signal priority would actually make cars faster. The longer waiting at the signals would have a smaller effect than the reduced congestion from people switching from cars to buses. However, as Houston is car-oriented, I again don't know if this effect still holds. It would be an interesting study.


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