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On riding the North Line

Can we wait until we’ve had at least one non-holiday work week before we start talking about North Line ridership numbers? Thanks.

The changes brought by the rail line, an extension of the Main Street Line now known as the Red Line, might develop more gradually than some residents and businesses hope.

Early signs are that riders are flocking to the train. On opening day, when rides were free, Metro estimated 22,054 total boardings, a 59.8 percent increase over the Saturday average for December 2012. This occurred despite sprinkles of rain and an otherwise dreary start to the day.

Officials estimated about 4,500 of those boardings were along the North Line extension. Bus Route 15, which the light rail extension replaces, averaged 1,637 Saturday boardings in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Ridership was brisk during Christmas week as curious residents hopped aboard and frequent transit riders checked out the extension.

In the documents filed with the FTA in 2009, Metro projected an average weekly ridership of 17,400 daily boardings for the new North Line. That was a projection for 2013, when it was presumed that the line would be operational by then. Let’s assume that’s our projection for 2014. For comparison, the average weekday ridership for the Main Street line was 38,000 daily boardings for the twelve month period running through October. My suspicion is that the 2009 estimate of opening year daily ridership on the North Line will be a bit optimistic due to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines not being operational, but that the totals will rise next year once those lines are up and running. The Southeast line, by the way, had a nearly identical projection of 17,200 average weekday boardings for 2013 back in 2009. The Universities Line, if it ever gets built, has a projection of 32,100 average weekday boardings for an opening year of 2020. The Harrisburg line is funded solely with local money, so there’s no FTA documents for its projected usage, and I couldn’t find anything with some cursory Google searching.

One thing Metro could do a better job of right now is communicating how the “extension” part of the North Line actually works.

Beyond the Northside itself, using the trains takes some adjustment.

Trains run every six minutes during most of the day between the Fannin South station, south of Loop 610, and the Burnett Transit Center north of downtown. North of Burnett, trains run every 12 minutes, meaning half of them turn around at Burnett while half continue northward.

Some riders, unaccustomed to this variation, are finding it difficult to catch the right train.

The schedule is designed to accommodate the line’s ridership without Metro putting too many trains in service, according to David Couch, the transit agency’s vice president for rail construction. As use of the trains increases, he said, wait times will shorten.

The trains rolling through the Northside will pick up more riders when the two lines headed east and southeast of downtown begin service next year. Already on the Northside, riders say they want to see more tracks.

As it happens, Tiffany rode the North Line home from work on Friday, having dropped her car off at the mechanic on the way in. She was on one of the trains that turned around at the Burnett station. Unfortunately, according to her, there was no announcement that passengers needed to disembark – the conductor turned off the lights and exited the train without saying anything – and Metro personnel at the station were uninformed about the situation. She eventually figured it out and caught another train for the remainder of her trip, but it would do Metro and its new riders a lot of good to be very clear about what to expect when you reach the Burnett station. Let’s please not have the next story about the North Line be one whose subject is confused riders who are upset about not having the route properly explained to them, OK?

On another note, the North Line is providing an opportunity to measure the effect of transit on health in Houston.

Now that Metro’s North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse – figuratively, not literally – of the light rail line extension’s impact on physical activity.

“This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center’s School of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents.”

Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn’t seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.

If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations – places to work, shop, worship – that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.

I have no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life in high school, when I was commuting by bus, ferry, and train each day. I didn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at any point, but there were multiple points at which I did have to walk, and several of them involved going up or down stairs. Do that twice a day, five days a week, usually in a rush because you don’t want to miss the next connection, and you’d be in pretty good shape, too. I doubt anyone’s experience will be like that here in Houston, but making daily walks a part of one’s routine surely can’t be bad. I’ll be interested to see if any differences are detected. Of course, the whole idea of any form of transit is to incorporate practical destinations – no one would use it otherwise – but if there’s a measurable health benefit as part of the bargain, that would be nice.

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5 Comments

  1. matx says:

    I honestly haven’t ridden metro rail in several years, and it was only once, and it’s completely out of the question for my daily commute to the SW side (1.5 hours + and two of the three legs on buses). I rode commuter rail daily from the Chicago burbs to downtown and when traveling my family and I take local trains and buses whenever we can to avoid driving so I am well aware that public transportation can be designed to be user friendly. Would it be so difficult to call a train that goes through an “A” train and one that turns around at Burnett a “B” train? Can conductors on the rail make announcements?

  2. PDiddie says:

    We skipped the grand opening weekend due to the weather, but jumped on at Fannin South this past Saturday and rode up to Moody Park, where we strolled over to Fiesta en Guadalajara for a late lunch. We’ve ridden the train since it first opened, a time or two a month, almost strictly for entertainment purposes (ballgames, wining and dining ourselves). The times I have used it to commute was during election season to go to the county admin building at Preston and Main, for which it is perfectly suited.

    Most of the riders (in my experience) are Medical Center employees commuting north from Fannin and Smithlands; or those who have to navigate the mean streets of Houston without benefit of personal transpo. Those folks get on at various stops but mostly disembark at the Transit Centers and Wheeler, in order to hop a bus.

    For the record, there aren’t any conductors. There are recorded announcements but nothing spoken by the engineers save the occasional courtesy ‘hello’ when they walk from one end of the train to the other, switching pilot seats, at the ends of the line. I’ve only encountered Metro cops checking “valid fare items” about twice in ten plus years. (Fare scofflaws, that was for you.)

    I was on the train a couple of years ago when it was hit by a car, but it was a minor accident (to the train, anyway) and there were no injuries to anyone, including the motorist who lost her bumper. Metro moved us quickly off and onto another light rail car within five minutes. I was more amazed by that process than I was when we were struck.

    If you don’t like being in relatively close quarters with working-class folks, if you are uncomfortable around people who aren’t Caucasian and upper-middle class, then you won’t like riding the train.

    Otherwise you’ll probably enjoy it very much, and not just for its utility.

  3. rsb320 says:

    I’ve been riding the Red Line for years. Metro has never done an adequate job in communicating what’s going on if there is an incedent. When they do communicate something, you can’t understand the announcement.

    An automated anouncement needs to be added for the Burnett turnaround.

  4. Metro does the same thing with bus lines. I had to learn in college that there are two #42 bus lines… only 42 Magnolia TC goes by my house and 42 Denver Harbor TC goes to a completely different part of the city, but both 42s go by UH. The 42 runs every 15 minutes by UH, but the 42 Magnolia TC runs every 30 minutes if it would ever show up at all. I’ve caught it deviating from the published route many times.

    The trains are just like the buses and you have to pay attention to the LED display on the front that says what transit center is its final destination. So a train that says Burnett TC will stop at Burnett and turn around, and a train that says Northline TC will travel the full distance to the end of the line. I’ve seen this method used on transit systems all over the world. Sometimes there’s a recording to remind you and sometimes you just learn…

  5. Northsider says:

    I attended some of the Community Advisory Meetings that METRO held for the Northside Light Rail, explaining the progress to civic leaders and stakeholders. At one meeting they mentioned that the Burnet Station would have space for cars to turn around and not go all the way north. At the meeting someone asked if that meant that the Northside would get less service, and a METRO employee indicated that this would only be for special events.

    I was disapointed to find that outside of rush hour, it only passes the Northside Stations every 18 minutes, which is not what they had told folks previously. I wish they had just been honest in the first place, it is a great improvement to the neighborhood and I hope ridership will justify increases in service.

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