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First test for flex zones

This is worth watching.

Though many Acres Homes dwellings and shops are in disrepair, a community still thrives here. Churches and some well-kept homes anchor corners and dot small, residential streets, all of which dead-end or loop back to Sweetwater.

Bus service in Acres Homes has been lackluster for years, some riders said, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority has struggled to match services with need. Large, empty buses lumber past unoccupied bus stops before folks hop aboard at more popular nearby stops.

Metro is about to try something different. Pending board approval Thursday, officials in February will roll out a three-month test of door-to-door service in an area of Acres Homes around Interstate 45 in northwest Houston. Dubbed “community connector service,” the plan is identical to the “flex zones” concept included in a systemwide overhaul of Houston-area bus service.

The results of this test will be important not just for area bus riders, but perhaps to the transit agency’s broader efforts to revamp its bus system.

“We are kind of putting our reputation and everything we do there,” Metro board member Diann Lewter said of the new service.

[…]

Residents needing a ride within the area must call at least an hour before they need to be picked up, said Michael Andrade, Metro’s director of paratransit service. Recurring rides can also be set up by calling ahead, he said. Phone operators will be bilingual.

The flex zone approach is similar in some ways to the MetroLift program for disabled riders, which has experienced ups and downs as users complained about poor service. The difference is that with the connector service, the buses will stay within the zone, reducing the potential for delays, while MetroLift goes wherever the passenger needs to go. For trips outside the zone, connector riders will transfer from the flex zone buses to fixed routes.

Board member Christof Spieler, a supporter of the plan to restructure bus service, said once riders use the service, “they will absolutely love it.”

The zones enable Metro to deliver service without tying up too many resources. Two 24-foot buses can provide service in the area, with a third held in reserve to handle high demand. That’s more efficient than using 40-foot buses when ridership is low.

The Route 9 North Main bus, which uses Sweetwater in the proposed flex zone area, averages 887 riders on a weekday, according to Metro’s figures for the last quarter of 2014. That’s an 8.7 percent decline from 2013.

Andrade said the measure of success for the zone will not be comparing its ridership to that of the previous service, but judging how people use it to connect to other Metro routes and how they move inside the zone.

See here and here for some background. Technically, this isn’t the flex zone plan that’s part of the still-being-worked-on bus reimagining project, but it’s the same basic idea and is more or less a beta test for it. I do think that judging this three-month pilot program at least in part by ridership numbers is valid, though we should keep in mind that three months is an awfully short period of time in which to draw conclusions. But ultimately, increasing ridership has to be the goal, because if we believe that better service leads to more riders and we believe that this is better service, then we should follow through on those beliefs. The Highwayman and Write On Metro have more.

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