The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.
Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.
I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.
That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.
That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.
One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.