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Christof Spieler: On reimagining the bus network

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

At METRO, we’re proposing to redesign every bus route in Houston. We call it Reimagining, and I think that it will be one of the most important improvements in the modern history of Houston transit — alongside the park-and-ride system, the light rail lines, and the creation of METRO itself.

We started this process because our riders told us that the current bus system isn’t working well. We saw this in comments we got at public meetings, and we saw it in a 20% drop in ridership from 1999 to 2012 — a drop that occurred even as the amount of service METRO operates increased. I can say from personal experience that our riders are right. I ride the bus often; for several years, before I got a new job on the rail line, it was my daily commute. Too many of our routes are infrequent and circuitous. Too many connections are unreliable and out-of-the-way. The system as a whole is too hard to understand. Weekend and evening service is minimal.

We knew we could do better. But until we engaged a team of local and international consultants, assembled a task force of stakeholders representing the people who use the system, and worked through the process of designing a new system from scratch based on all the data we have of where people live, where people work, and where people are riding transit today, we had not idea of how much better.

It turns out that we can do a lot better.

We can make frequent service available to more people. Frequency is the most important component of high-quality transit. If a bus comes every 15 minutes, you can just show up at the stop without consulting a schedule. You don’t have to plan your life around the bus; it is there for you when you need it. Today, 534,000 people live within 1/2 mile of 7-day-a-week frequent bus service; under the reimagined system 1,126,000 do. Of our 207,000 current riders, 99,000 will see their trips upgraded from infrequent service to frequent service. Within that zone of frequent service, they have access to 998,000 jobs, to colleges and universities, to retail centers, to parks, to places of worship, and to medical care.

We can dramatically increase weekend service. If someone depends on transit, they need to get to the store on Sunday, not just to work on Monday, and the people who work at that store need to get to work on Sunday. Today, METRO operates only 40% as much local bus service on Sunday as on a weekday. 20 of METRO’s local routes don’t run at all on Sunday. In the reimagined system, every route will run seven days a week, and the bus will come as often on Sunday morning as it does at midday on a weekday. 10,000 current riders who have no Sunday service today will get it.

We can make it easier to get around a multicentric city. Today, nearly every bus route goes Downtown, but most of our riders are trying to go elsewhere. We’re forcing them to go Downtown first to transfer to go wherever they want to go. That takes them out of their way and slows them down. The reimagined system will create a grid of east-west and north-south routes, creating connections all over the city and serving major employment centers from Greenspoint to Westchase. Today, someone going from the Heights to Memorial city has to first go east to Downtown to catch a bus west. In the new system, they ride west to the Northwest Transit Center and connect there. That will reduce an 89 minute trip to 50 minutes, saving that rider 6 hours over a five day workweek.

We can make the system easier to understand and to use. METRO’s current routes are accidents of history. Some date back to old streetcar routes, tweaked over time but never rethought. The results are confusing. Shepherd, for example, is served by the 26/27 south of 20th, the 50 from 20th to Crosstimbers, the 44 from Crosstimbers to Tidwell, nothing from Tidwell to Parker, and the 66 north of Parker, (plus a few other overlapping routes.) The new system is designed to make routes as logical as possible. On Shepherd, for example, there will be one route that runs the entire length of the street. That also makes it easier to name routes in a way that describes where they actually go.

We can make trips faster. By making routes more frequent to reduce wait times and by making trips more direct with the grid, we can make trips a lot faster. The team looked at 30 locations all over the network and analyzed all possible trips between them. 58% will be at least 10 minutes faster with the new network; 28% will be at least 20 minutes faster. We can also make trips more reliable, reducing by 30% how often our buses cross freight rail lines at grade.

We can provide service tailored to neighborhoods. A grid of fixed route buses works will in areas like Southwest Houston, with high population density, well spaced and connected arterial streets, and destinations that line up along those streets. In the Northeast, though, we have lower densities, a fractured street network, and scattered destinations. Today, we serve those areas with meandering low-frequency routes. We have the budget to keep doing that, but we think we can serve these areas better with flex zones: buses that circle a neighborhood and deviate on request to where ever someone wants to get picked up or go. These connect to fixed routes at transit centers, connecting those residents into the entire network.

This plan is about making people’s everyday lives better. It will give our current riders faster, more reliable, more frequent service. It will also make transit a useful option for more people; we project it will grow ridership by 20%. It will do all this with minimal negative impacts — 93% of current riders will be able catch a bus at the same stop they do today, and 99.5% within 1/4 mile of their current stop — and within current resources. We think the reimagined network plan will also build a foundation for the future: the system structure makes it easy to extend routes, increase frequency, add more lines to the grid, and overlay express service as the region continues to grow.

Now that we’ve unveiled this draft plan, it’s time for our riders and everyone else who lives in the METRO service area to have their say. Nobody knows a neighborhood as well as the people who live or work there, so we know we’ll get some good ideas for improvements. We’re holding public meetings across the area, and setting up information tables at transit centers to get input from our riders, but the easiest way to see the plan and send us your comments is to go to transitsystemreimagining.com.

Why, people have asked me, didn’t METRO do this long ago? Because change is hard. Few cities ever undertake a blank sheet reexamination of their bus systems; they tend to focus on route expansions, and big capital projects. Few transit agency staffs are willing to let go the systems they know well, few boards are willing undertake something so complicated, and few elected officials want to take the inevitable pushback that comes with any change to a system that people depend on every day. METRO has always spent a lot on money on operating the local bus network, but in the past agency leadership never paid much attention to it. This board knows that the bus system is at the core of what we do, and once we got the agency back on a sound financial footing, we committed to making sure we run the best system we can. If you think this plan does that, we need your support to make it happen.

Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP is a METRO board member and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, Director of Planning at Morris Architects, and Senior Lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture. He relies on METRO for most of his daily trips.

Ed. note: See also Christof’s article in Offcite.

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