Houston needs better transit if we are going to continue to be an economically competitive city, and we’re falling behind our peers. Cities like Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Los Angeles have been rapidly expanding their transit systems, and they have ambitious plans for more. In Houston, with the current round of light rail complete and Uptown BRT going under construction, we don’t have a plan for the next step.
The new mayor, then, has the opportunity to set the agenda. We have money—federal New Starts, federal formula funds, toll credits, state funds, METRO sales tax, and the city’s Rebuild program—to build something. We have lots of needs. We have broad public support for improved transit. And we know, with one of the most successful light rail lines and one of the most successful suburban commuter bus systems in the country, that Houstonians will ride high quality transit we provide it.
But first let’s talk about goals. Our goal shouldn’t be to build lots of transit; it should be to build transit that serves lots of people. The two aren’t the same thing. Dallas, for example, has 4 times as many miles of light rail as we do, but less than 2 times as many riders.
To make transit useful to lots of people, we need to do three fundamental things.
First, we need to put transit where lots of people are. The potential ridership at a station is determined by what’s around the stations. The more residents and jobs there are within a quarter mile walk of a station, the more ridership we get. Houston has lots of places that are dense enough to fill transit. Single family suburban development has under 3,000 people + jobs per square mile, but large parts of Houston’s core—a zone stretching from Downtown West and Southwest as far as SH 6—have over 15,000. This is also where the majority of Houston’s low income residents live. These are the areas where METRO’s new bus system is dramatically improving service, and those are the areas where new transit will get the most ridership.
Secondly, we have to make sure that the transit is there when people need it. We do not live in a 9 to 5 world. Lots of people work nights and weekends. Moreover, if we want to make transit truly useful to people, we need it to be there for all trips, not just home to work. That’s why the new bus system is dramatically increasing midday, evening, and weekend service.
Finally, we need to make sure the total trip time is reasonably fast and really reliable. A trip has three parts: getting to and from the transit stops, waiting, and riding. To minimize the access time, we need to put transit right into the middle of neighborhoods and activity centers, not somewhere at the edge. To minimize waiting, we need to operate frequently. Come August 16, Houston will have one of thebiggest frequent transit networks in the country, but we need to keep growing it. To minimize riding time, and ensure reliability, we need to get transit out of traffic. That doesn’t require complete grade separation (though that’s a great thing); a dedicated lane—for light rail or for bus—makes transit significantly faster and more reliable, and if we’re willing to convert general traffic lanes, it can be quite inexpensive.
This formula is why the Main Street line carried more riders per mile in its first year than any other modern light rail system in the United States. It’s the core idea behind then new bus network. And it works, because it’s really just simple math.
But there’s also another, harder to measure part of making transit work in Houston. We need to build a city where it’s possible to be a first class citizen without a car.
Today, Houston often feels openly hostile to people trying to go about their daily lives on foot, on a bike, or on transit. They deal with missing sidewalks, with crosswalks spaced so far apart that it can take a 5 minute detour to cross the street, with bus stops that lack shelter or benches, with loose dogs and dark streets, and with public facilities like clinics, colleges, schools, and government offices located far off of sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus routes. At its best, walking, biking, and riding transit in Houston is a wonderful experience—and where we make it a wonderful experience people do it. At its worst, it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unsafe.
This environment is the result of a deliberate set of government policies that favor drivers over all other citizens and taxpayers. If we look at all of those policies, from development ordinances to street standards and funding to traffic enforcement to the location of public facilities, can we build a city where taking transit can be a great experience.
Thus, in the end, transportation isn’t about infrastructure; it’s about people. And if the next mayor keeps people in mind in making transit decisions, we can make Houston an even better place to live.
Christof Spieler will be a part of the panel at the second What Can We Do By 2022 Luncheon on Access & Mobility in the city of Houston. This will be Wednesday, August 5, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm with Geoff Carleton, Dr. Carol Lewis, Kyle Shelton, and Sam Lott joining him on the panel.
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Christof Spieler is a structural engineer and an urban planner. As Director of Technology and Innovation, he leads firmwide initiatives at Morris Architects in green buildings, project process, and Building Information Modeling (BIM). On the board of Houston METRO, he was instrumental in completely reimagining Houston’s local bus service and helped build three light rail lines.
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