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So can we call the Metro bus system reimagining a success yet?

If no news is good news, then Metro is swimming in good news, because I haven’t seen much coverage of its new bus system rollout since the opening days. Perhaps all that concern (expressed by one person) about disaster and mass firings was a tad bit overblown. I don’t want to jinx anything, but if there’s a disaster out there in the bus lanes, it’s an awfully under-reported disaster.

I did see one negative story, to be sure.

HoustonMetro

Just northeast of downtown, in Houston Fifth Ward, it’s difficult to find a fan of the new network.

There are few shaded bus stops here. At the corner of Jensen and Lyons, what appears to be a temporary bus stop sign is attached to a pole on a yellow stand. A rider took cover in the shade of a nearby tree — a shelter from the unrelenting sun.

“They need to do something out here,” said Sherry Green, waiting on the #11 Lyons bus to take her to work in the med center.

The lack of shelters is a problem, according to Joetta Stevenson, of the Fifth Ward Civic Association and the Super-Neighborhood Council. But there is more, she says, that needs to be addressed.

The area depends heavily on public transit and has for generations. “Buses aren’t an amenity, they’re a necessity,” she said. And some of those bus routes by which people would set their watches have changed. “We knew where the buses would take us and now it’s total chaos and confusion. People don’t know and they don’t understand,” Stevenson said.

Outside the community center, seniors whose day revolves around the activities inside, complain that they’ve waited longer for buses for two days. One man said he boarded the bus he always took, but suddenly it took him to somewhere he’d never been before.

The makeover is a change for METRO, and it appears, for a lot of people in Fifth Ward. A METRO app that explains what buses will take you where and when is available, but few seniors at the community center have a smartphone or the interest in using an app.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said the agency met with Fifth Ward community groups earlier this year. He said new bus shelters are in the works for the area — nearly 40 by the end of next year. He sees the shelters as a way to encourage more ridership in Fifth Ward.

In response to the complaints and confusion expressed about the new routes, Lambert said METRO is addressing the issues constantly, refining and correcting to make it work for those who use it.

So two issues – the lack of shelters, and some people not liking the new system and/or not knowing about it beforehand. The lack of shelters isn’t actually related to system reimagining. It’s a longstanding issue that Metro plans to address (as noted above) thanks to the additional sales tax revenue it receives thanks to the 2012 general mobility provision referendum. Perhaps that could be accelerated a bit, but those shelters weren’t there before system reimagining and wouldn’t be there today if the old map were still in place. I guess if you’re doing a story about people being unhappy with Metro you go with what they tell you, but this is a tangent and not actually germane to the issue.

As for people complaining about waiting longer for buses, it’s hard to know what to make of that without knowing any details. How long are we talking, and how long were they used to waiting? Which bus line are we talking about? Maybe there was a problem that day, maybe it was a matter of good or bad luck with timing, maybe it was a perception issue more than anything else, or maybe there used to be more than one line that ran along the street in question and now there’s just one so your odds of getting lucky on the timing have diminished. Perhaps if the reporter doing this story had checked on any of that she could have attempted to answer some of those questions objectively, or at least provided the information I’m talking about so someone else could look it up. Without it, all I can do is speculate.

I don’t want to minimize the confusion issue. If you’re not on the Internet, I expect the change would be especially confusing, since you wouldn’t have been easily able to try and figure it out beforehand. I don’t know how much engagement Metro had in the Fifth Ward – one meeting? more than one? – but it would be a good idea to schedule a few more, to make sure everyone now understand how the new system works. We always knew this was going to be hard. The fact that things seem to be going well overall doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t get anyone off the hook for fixing the problems that remain. This is fixable, and I do believe that the people in the Fifth Ward and elsewhere will find that the system overall is better and more useful to them. But we do have to get over the initial bumps first.

That’s it for negative stories that I’ve seen so far. For what it’s worth, since the Fifth Ward is a predominantly African-American neighborhood and since there have been questions about how Metro’s service will change in areas like that that are transit-dependent but not heavily populated, I checked a couple of the African-American news sites to see if they had anything my Google searching might not have picked up. Both the Defender and the Sun Times had Day One stories about the unveiling of the new network, but nothing after that that I could see. Make of that what you will. And now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t seen anything about the often-controversial flex zones, either. Again, maybe there’s stuff happening that isn’t being reported, but I can’t know what I can’t find.

Other stories: Kyle Shelton rode the bus on Day One with his one-year-old, and came away impressed.

We arrived at our bus stop at 8:11. A southbound 56 bus, headed in the opposite direction, rolled by as we approached the curb. The northbound – the bus we wanted – was running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but given the massive overhaul of an entire system of buses that had begun just a few hours earlier, we were patient. Ultimately, we only waited about 10 minutes for our ride.

I noticed that as our bus arrived a second southbound went by. Those buses were less than 15 minutes apart, yet on the same route last week those gaps were closer to 30 minutes.

We rode for free, since METRO is offering complimentary rides all week on local buses and the rail line to promote the changes. Our route took us within steps of the Bayou. We walked across the Montrose pedestrian bridge and watched dogs in the nearby dog park. Our outdoor trip also took us along pathways to Waugh Drive. We grabbed a coffee at Whole Foods and ultimately did a circuit back to Montrose Boulevard.

Our walking route was about the same distance that we cover in our neighborhood most mornings. Only this time, we got to do it along one of Houston’s best landscapes. And we didn’t have to worry about parking.

As we started our walk along Dallas Street back toward Montrose, I saw a southbound 56 bus – the one we needed to take – roll by. Last weekend I would have cursed under my breath knowing that the next bus wouldn’t rumble past for at least 30 minutes. This weekend we just kept walking knowing another would be there soon.

We were at the stop at Dallas and Montrose for no more than three minutes before the next bus arrived. We were home in five more minutes. Our son was down for a nap almost exactly one hour after we left the house to catch the initial Bayou-bound bus.

In the time that we were out, I counted six 56 buses going north and south, including the ones we rode in each direction. Assuming I missed a few when we did our Whole Food circuit, METRO was right on pace with its promised frequency of a bus every 15 minutes.

The 56 runs along Montrose/Studemont/Studewood, which makes it the closest bus route to my house. I have to say, I’ve seen a bunch of these buses go by as I’ve been going about my business. Reading this account made me realize that my best bet for getting to the Art Car Parade next year is likely going to be hopping one of these buses. The possibilities here are definitely intriguing.

Moving on, here’s Raj Mankad:

I am a daily rider and I happened to benefit from the irrational inefficiency of the old system. Two different and relatively frequent buses passed by my house on the way to Downtown. In the new system, only one relatively frequent bus serves my street. Wasted resources like the doubled-up bus lines by my house were distributed to a grid that brings high-frequency lines to our multiple job centers and densely populated areas. I am willing to give up a little service to my street if the whole system works better for me.

The morning of my first ride I experienced some confusion. The bus blew by me as I tried to find a stop on a long, previously unserved stretch by my kids’ school. (Note to METRO: Please put a stop for the 44 at Houston Avenue and Bayland.) It was a minor inconvenience. I waited in a shady spot, the next bus arrived in about 15 minutes, and I transferred to the train at the Downtown Transit Center.

At a table of friendly if harried METRO representatives, I picked up a copy of the new METRO system maps. Designed by Asakura Robinson, METRO, and Traffic Engineers Inc., the new maps are a huge improvement. One bus rider claimed that the old maps were deliberately designed to confound you. Living carless in Houston can be so alienating that you start to believe that METRO’s failures are a nefarious plot. I never looked at the old maps. Taking the bus was a form of mysticism for me. You relied on your intuition. The new maps are so clear they are a revelation. Houston almost makes sense.

The old bus lines were like coils that had been pulled out and stomped on. The ends spiraled around neighborhoods and the middles jogged back and forth across the street grids. Having every bus converge Downtown doesn’t make sense when our city is a multi-nodal conurbation, as Rice School of Architecture professor Albert Pope puts it. Why should I have to travel Downtown from the Heights to get to Uptown?

The new maps are beautiful to behold because the designers had a far more rational and orthogonal set of lines to work with. The Frequent Network map is the piece de resistance. Job centers, parks, freeways, and bayous are shown with the right line weights and opacities at a legible scale. You see our key assets with transit links in the foreground — a view I much prefer to the decontextualized spiderweb of freeways normally used to represent Houston. (The clarity of the map also reveals the service gaps on the east side.)

The Park & Ride, Express, and Key Local Routes map is also gorgeous. Finally, you can see that we already have a commuter system to build on. This new map would have been helpful when I rode the 292 from Missouri City to Rice University for a year, and when I figured out how to get to Galveston by bus.

The 44 is an alternate option for me to get home from work – the 30 would drop me closest to home, but the 44 would do in a pinch. Reading Raj’s story made me look again at the very useful interactive service map and realize that if I wait at Capitol and Smith for a bus going home, I’d actually have three options – the 30, the 44, and the 85 down Washington, connecting to the 56. Given that the 30 is the least frequent of these, that makes my odds of a reasonably short bus trip home on the days when I don’t have the car after work (I carpool with Tiffany, and she sometimes needs to make other trips before going home) are quite a bit better than I thought, and better now than they were before reimagining. Not too shabby there. Oh, and the rest of the article is a really nice story about a rider Mankad met on the way home. Do be sure to read it.

So that’s where we are now. I’ll keep an eye on this in case it falls apart tomorrow. Have you tried the new bus system yet? If so, what do you think?

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