Tuesday, May 13, 2014

METRO's reimagined bus system a big winner

Last week METRO released their proposed plan to overhaul the bus network, and it is mighty impressive. Atlantic Cities is enthusiastic and has an excellent short article with an overview of the improvements: "Houston's Plan to Get an Amazing New Bus System for No New Money".  It contains 3 very compelling graphs:
  1. A map of how much the frequent network has expanded with service every 15 minutes or better (bigger version here). There is another graph here showing how much bigger it is than Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Denver, and Portland.  Definitely an impressive feat to beat all of those cities.
  2. A graph showing how the new network connects a million people to a million jobs on the high-frequency network, a improvement of 50-100% over the existing network.
  3. A graph showing how many more potential riders are closer to higher frequency service.
Overall, METRO is hoping the new plan, if implemented, will increase ridership 20% over the next two years, something they definitely need after years of declines.  Let me throw a few more stats on the plan at you from Christof's excellent Twitter feed:
  • UH to Greenway Plaza, current system: 65 min. Proposed network: 40 min
  • Analyzed 870 trips across system: 58% are 10 minutes or more faster, including 28% more than 20 minutes faster.
  • Current boardings within 1/4 mile of frequent service — today: 49% weekday, 25% weekend. Reimagined: 73% weekday, 73% weekend.
  • Every route will run on Saturday and Sunday — and "frequent" means every 15 minutes, 15 hours/day, 7 days a week.
I especially like that last point.  If people know it will always be there, 7 days a week, they're more likely to use it.  I also liked that they simplified and straightened the routes.  Even in a world of Google Maps routings, it's better have a simple system people can wrap their heads around so they can easily imagine how they would get from one point to another.  

METRO also deserves kudos for thinking outside of the box, like this solution:
“Another major change is proposed for certain little-used bus routes, notably in the northeast part of the city. Under the plan, rather than running on fixed routes, buses in designated "flex zones" would circulate around the neighborhood and carry passengers to a spot within the zone or to a point of transfer to another bus line. Riders would call in and the bus would collect them. Smaller buses that Metro began operating last year would likely run the flex routes, officials said.”
A few final items:
Kudos to METRO, Christof, and everyone involved over there for putting the needed hard work into this high-value but not-very-flashy project.  Getting the basics right is just as important (if not more so) than the high-profile ribbon cuttings for things like new rail lines.  Now it's time to push this thing past the change-resisters and get it implemented ASAP.

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At 8:05 PM, May 13, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Regarding the proposed changes, although buses will come more frequently under the new plan, presumably their routes will be shorter so we'll have to make more transfers. That can dissuade some from wanting to use Metro. But then again on the other hand, long waits can dissuade use of Metro, as well. Shorter routes but greater bus availability can help reduce such waiting time, at least in theory. That can boost ridership.

Fortunately Metro has a cellphone app. now that enables folks to check online for where buses actually are. But reportedly that doesn't work well from Downtown, where tall buildings apparently block signals, reportedly. This leads to the following proposal:

*** Why not use the far less congested Northline Transit Center (which now has a rail station) as a hub for more routes throughout Houston? It's a challenge having to wait at the Downtown Transit Center or even Downtown, with all its congestion and signal-blocking buildings, to try and board routes heading throughout Houston. So many buses come through Downtown that it's tough sorting through them successfully, amidst all the other commotion. Nowadays, we finally have a Northline Transit Center on the extended rail's red line, which is far less congested. Wouldn't folks prefer to transfer to routes from the >Northline< Transit Center, where congestion's reduced and air pollution likely is too? Downtown can be hectic whereas the Northline rail voyage is scenically intriguing as development emerges. For that matter, businesses up there at the Northline Transit Center need our business so a HUB relocation could make lots of folks happier. Hopefully someday the red line can expand further North but folks need incentives to use the Northline Transit Center to make a further extension more likely. Food for thought, eh?

At 10:07 PM, May 13, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

While I agree the Northline transit center could be a good, uncongested location for a local transfer hub, downtown is a far, far larger destination and origin point for a lot more people. I do think this plan is supposed to reduce redundant bus lines downtown and make them easier to navigate.

At 1:56 AM, May 14, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

You've raised a good point (as usual), Tory. Under the new plan, though, many folks will apparently have to transfer routes more often. The light rail can efficiently get them to the Northline Transit Center, from which folks can theoretically take a direct route to their final destinations. Meanwhile Houston's air can become more breathable.

As the most recent post at the unofficial Houston Metro Rail Development FB page:


documents, the American Lung Association continues to rank Houston in the Top 10 of the USA's most polluted places to live (despite Houston's favorable flatland conditions and Gulf Coast winds which help alleviate air pollution). Soot-laden lungs seem better suited for a Charles Dickens novel than for this former nation's capital city, wouldn't you agree?

While we're on the subject of rail, is it more expensive to construct than highways? Here's some interesting recent data:


"Texas spends twice more on new road construction than any other state. Greater Houston spends $330 per capita on roads, most of the ten largest U.S. metros. The granddaddy of recent Houston road projects is the $2.8-billion expansion of the Katy Freeway, Interstate 10 heading towards San Antonio. This 23-mile highway widening cost more than twice the initial estimates for the 73-mile, five-line light rail system. It is Culberson's signature achievement."


A knee-jerk response from rail pundits might be that highways are broader than light rail. But that's part of the beauty of rail: just as many, if not more, folks can be transported using far less space.

Tory, I don't doubt that there are potential weak points in the abovementioned analysis so I submit it for your perusal and expertise-sharing. It's always fun to learn about stuff that matters to us. :-)

At 5:33 PM, May 14, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Fun facts on the cost effectiveness of light rail transit:
"Houston transit agency METRO has spent $587 million in taxpayer cash for 3.3 miles of track on the city's East End, and the route is not even complete. The money spent so far on this single section of rail line comes to $3,000 per inch, records show. That's enough to hire 10 limousines to drive the route every day, 24 hours a day for the next 89 years."

At 2:46 AM, May 15, 2014, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

The reimagining plan isn't actually based on creating more transfers. Connections are, and will always be, part of transit. More than half of current bus riders make a transfer as part of their trip. The new plan does mean transfer for some riders heading downtown who have one-seat rides today, but it means fewer transfers for riders headed elsewhere, and that's the majority of riders. The Greenway to UH trip is one example: 2 transfers to none. The grid network means that most places are one connection apart, rather than 2 or 3 today. Case in point: the frequent bus from Greenspoint to Northline continues on to Studemont and Montrose. If you're headed Downtown or the TMC, you connect to rail at Northline. (The bus goes on to the TMC, but you'll connect because rail is faster.) But if you're going to Uptown, you stay on the bus and connect at Westheimer and Montrose, avoid the slowest part of the system (Downtown) entirely. Look at the plan and you'll see that routes don't end at the rail lines -- they cross the rail lines and keep going. The grid is a powerful idea.

At 8:57 AM, May 15, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks, Christof. Those sound like great improvements. And thanks for being such a passionate and tireless advocate for this overhaul. Best of luck getting it through the public feedback process.

At 1:14 PM, May 15, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

The limousine statistic is revealing, but I suppose that having to dig up existing infrastructure to make way for rail is costly. I've read that rail expansion isn't nearly as costly in Eastern Europe, but perhaps their safety standards aren't up to snuff with ours.
Christof, are you in favor of using more rail stations as transit hubs for those seeking to transfer to or from a bus?

At 8:30 PM, October 09, 2014, Blogger Unknown said...

The more I read about Metro's new plan, the more I think it is a concoction of what used to be called the white upper-middles class establishment and its acolytes to produce a system that passes Transit Planning 101.

Connecting 1 million people with 1 million jobs? So what! The crucial question is "Who are Metro's customers and where do they travel?", customers being a word rarely uttered suring this process. After riding Metro for several decades, off and on, intensely and not, I've concluded they are fipundamentally people who don't drive, can't drive, won't drive, or live in households with one car but more than one person needing to get around, they are largely minority and working class. I have seen nothing to suggest that Metro et al. Recognize this. I occasionally ask such people at stops where I wait if they know Metro will change the system and cancel the route they use. They don.'t.

The last time ?Metro made a massive adjustment in its routes was at the opening of the Main .street streetcar line, the result? Declining ridership. why? My thesis is that Mereo made the changes to benefit itsel f, it its customers. It mafe rising more onerous.

I estimate that in the area where I live in SW Houston, more than 6000 daily riders will have to start changing buses whrer they currently don't. That's one snippet of the system. As a blogger told the Chronicle, it all will depend on whether people will want to change buses. metro tried that once. It flopped.

At 8:48 AM, March 23, 2015, Anonymous patricia najhawan said...

Hi! I ride metro all the time. I am wondering who are the people mentioned above as "the few who will be left out"?..

At 8:52 AM, March 23, 2015, Anonymous patricia najhawan said...

When will the light rail come into all of houston???? Why does all of Houston have to approve of this!!! They dont use it, and should have no say!!!

At 10:21 AM, March 23, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To answer your question, the system is being reconfigured to be more efficient and effective for more people within the same budget, so inevitably service has to be reduced on unpopular routes with low ridership so those buses can be redeployed elsewhere - those people are upset.

And all of Houston's taxes pay for it, so, yes, they definitely get a say.


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