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On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.

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BRT is generally touted as the quickest and cheapest solutions for car-centric cities hoping to provide mass transit options. These projects dedicate separated road space specifically for buses, with the intention of removing them from the common stream of traffic and decreasing the delays for commuters. Stations that protect riders from the elements and with raised platforms allow riders to enter buses as they would a train. Coming in at 1/5 the cost of light rail, BRT projects can provide a very similar level of service, especially when given designated right-of-way.

The Uptown Management District is currently working on installing a contentious BRT system along the medians of Post Oak Boulevard. Such systems could be installed along the esplanades of former streetcar lines and permanent raised bus platforms installed along the routes at a fraction of the cost of a streetcar line. All of this can be installed with the understanding that a streetcar line would go in along the route once the city has reached a more sustainable density.

Reinstalling streetcars in Houston is not a novel idea. The Greater East End Management District has been working on a streetcar initiative since 2011, planning a route through the Second Ward that connects to the light rail line and nearby stadiums. The project is meant to spur development in the area but could provide decent service for a broad swath of Houstonians. The very fact that rail transit is desirable enough to attract developments is a sign that we should be considering more possible additions.

I’m OK with BRT for the Uptown line because that was always going to be locally funded, and it’s what we can afford. It’s been hard enough overcoming other obstacles to just get to the point where things can move forward. This project will do a lot to relieve the fierce congestion in the area and I believe it will help up the pressure to get the Universities line built since the need to connect the Uptown line to the rest of the system will be so obvious. I consider BRT to be a lesser version of light rail, but this is likely the best we were going to get any time soon, so let’s not quibble while there is forward momentum.

As for streetcars, they’re basically light rail without the dedicated right of way, and as such they can and will get stuck in traffic just like buses would. Yes, I know there are things that can be done to mitigate that, but ultimately streetcars don’t add capacity, and that’s an issue. Especially with bus reimagining going on, I’d be hesitant to think too much about streetcars, but there are two situations where they might make sense. One is in areas where there’s enough road capacity to handle sharing a lane with streetcar tracks, and the other is as a short-distance extension of light rail. The Greater East End Management District plan cited above might be an example of the former; as it is intended to connect to the Harrisburg line, it also works for the latter. Another example of the latter I’ve been thinking of is a streetcar extension to light rail in the Medical Center, as there are now so many more buildings that are a decent walking journey away from the existing rail stops. I’m not exactly sure what route this thing might take – maybe something along MacGregor into Holcomb, then somehow to Old Spanish Trail? There are many details to work out – but you get the idea. You might be able to do the same sort of thing with shuttle buses, but streetcar tracks could be laid outside existing streets, and can be in closer proximity to pedestrians since their paths are completely predictable. I’m just thinking out loud here. The basic goal here is to increase capacity and make it easier for more people to travel to dense, hard-to-park places without cars. The more we all think about this stuff, the better off we’ll be.

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