December 22, 2012

George Greanias successfully righted the ship at Metro over the last three years, but his recent resignation as well as the general mobility referendum creates an opportunity for a pioneering new era at the transit agency. No decentralized, car-based, post-World War II city - cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and, of course, Houston - has successfully solved the commuter problem, but Houston could be the first.
Unlike older cities with concentrated downtown job centers (think Manhattan or Chicago's Loop), jobs are spread among many centers in these cities, making commuter rail an ineffective solution. In Houston's case, less than 7 percent of our jobs are downtown. Instead, they are spread among centers like Uptown/Galleria, Greenway Plaza, the Texas Medical Center, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint and others. Freeways are reaching their size limits and are only growing more congested. Even if rail could be the answer, Metro's budgetary hands will be tied up for the next decade simply trying to get the University line built, much less dozens of miles of commuter rail. And employers are always evaluating whether to stay in the congested core or move to the outer suburbs - like ExxonMobil is doing with its Woodlands area campus - draining our city's tax base and vitality. So what's the answer?

Imagine this: From any neighborhood in the city, anybody can drive or take a bus to a local park-and-ride lot - which may simply be an underutilized church or mall parking lot - to find an array of express buses serving every major job center with single-seat service (i.e., no transfers required). The buses are run by private operators competing on schedules, routes, service and with amenities like wi-fi and laptop tray tables - and they're sized appropriately to the popularity of their routes, from small shuttles to double-deckers.
Metro uses a small portion of its sales tax money to subsidize these trips in addition to charging modest fares that are far cheaper than driving, but the bulk of the funding comes from employers eager to add an hour of email productivity to their employees every day (the average office worker spends 2.6 hours per day on email). These buses enter a comprehensive network of managed express lanes to go 65 mph nonstop to their job centers, using congestion-priced tolls to maintain freeway speeds. This network is expanded from our current downtown-centric HOV/HOT lanes to include lanes on the 610 Loop and Beltway 8, enabling congestion-free trips to any job center from any neighborhood. Once the buses arrive at the job center, they circulate to get people right to their buildings, minimizing weather exposure, which is essential in Houston's long summers.
In many ways, this is simply like taking the model of Google's very popular San Francisco Bay Area shuttle service for its employees and expanding it to multiple employers, job centers and operators. Although Metro wouldn't directly operate the buses, they would manage and organize the entire system, including a centralized information and payments system, as well as regulating the private bus operators. Employers could be easily organized through the various job center management districts to provide subsidies for their employees and coordinate on routes within the districts, including collecting feedback from their employees on underserved routes and providing that information to Metro and the private bus operators.
Finally, the best feature of this solution is that it can be accomplished relatively quickly and affordably, with the primary expense being managed lane conversions on some of the existing freeways in partnership with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and Texas Department of Transportation.
This is an outside-the-box solution that will require an outside-the-box CEO to champion it. You've probably heard the famous Abraham Maslow quote, "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Well, we've had a similar problem in the past with experienced transit CEOs from old rail-centric cities.
It's time for somebody new who recognizes Houston's unique transit challenges and can build an affordable solution tailored to those challenges.
Gattis writes the Houston Strategies and Opportunity Urbanist blogs.