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Yes, there are some people complaining about the new bus routes

The Houston Press talks to a few of them.

HoustonMetro

The 87 still runs—just not right here. While the previous bus network had 89 routes, the new one has 79—and as a result, low-income communities like Hersey’s lost access to 12 routes, while non-low-income communities gained three. That’s according to the April 2015 analysis Metro was required to conduct under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act—analysis to make sure any major transportation changes won’t have a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income communities. The conclusion, in every category—such as travel times and route changes—was no.

But since the new system has been in place, dozens of riders in these communities have spoken up to disagree, claiming everything from significantly longer commutes, to longer walks, to doubled transfers. And next week, Paul Magaziner, a Houston business owner who has both frequently and unabashedly criticized Metro for years, plans to file a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transit Authority, accusing Metro of discrimination. “They’ve basically created a transit desert in low-income, minority areas,” he said. “And this is very un-beneficial to those who are transit-dependent.”

Metro CEO and President Tom Lambert said that, with a transportation change as sweeping as this one, the push-back was expected, and the board plans to respond to every complaint and make proper adjustments. Last week, roughly 25 people spoke at a Metro board meeting to explain how the changes have unraveled their daily lives. Hersey was one of them. “I’m ready to move from the whole area, because it’s too much,” she told the board. “I’m just asking you guys to look over everything, because that bus stop, it was a helping hand.”

[…]

Metro has frequently cited that 61 percent of all routes will have faster travel times in its new network. Thirty-nine percent would be slower only by less than 15 minutes, and just 5 percent would be slower by more than 15 minutes (all of which are located along low-income/minority routes). Those numbers are based on 452 sample travel patterns, tested in the April Title VI analysis. But of those 452 test trips, none consider transfers to other routes—what many in the low-income neighborhoods in southeast and northeast Houston have found most cumbersome. And so, because 57 percent of the routes classified as low-income were still found to have faster travel times as well, the conclusion is still that there is no disproportionate impact.

“The routes are really much worse for the poor people—the people who really need transportation,” said Daphne Scarborough, a Houston business owner who frequently attends Metro board meetings. “All you have to do is look at a map and see that so many routes on the poorer side of town have been taken away, and then all the routes on the wealthier side of Houston have more buses running every 15 minutes.”

Lambert said that higher frequency was a main focus of the redesign, along with increasing rail ridership in a more integrated system (52 of the 79 routes now connect to the Metro Rail). Overall, 80 percent of the budget was focused on ridership, while 20 percent focused on geographic coverage. But that’s exactly what Magaziner criticized, given that the places benefiting the most, he said—such as stops along Westheimer where buses are coming every eight minutes—are not where the people who rely on public transit the most are actually living. “What they’ve done is they’ve robbed lower-income, minority service to shift the service to southwest and west,” Magaziner said. “It’s not going to work.”

Charles X. White, President of Sunny Side/South Park Super Neighborhood, has also been fighting for an additional group of people he’s seen affected by the changes: the elderly and disabled. In the Title VI complaint Magaziner plans to file next week, White says that American Disabilities Act noncompliance will also play a role.

According to Metro, less than 0.5 percent of people are walking more than a quarter mile to get to their stop. But to White, the problem—in addition to many bus stops not being wheelchair friendly—is access to MetroLift, a ride-sharing service that, as an alternative to the public buses, aids people who are unable to either walk to their stop or make it onto the bus. Riders have to apply, but White says he’s seen many who truly need it being denied.

Again, I don’t want to minimize the problems anyone is having with this change, which is big and radical and which everyone knew would leave some number of people worse off. Before I get to the questions and issues I have with this story, I want to say that I’m glad the Press pursued it. Even in a best case scenario, some things are going to go wrong and some fixable problems are going to arise that no one saw coming. I’m glad someone is trying to find this stuff out.

Now then. Paul Magaziner is the guy who was quoted in numerous stories about system reimagining before implementation talking about what an impending catastrophe it was going to be, with many people losing their jobs because they wouldn’t be able to get to work. Daphne Scarbrough is a longtime anti-rail activist, who has sued Metro more than once. Basing a story that’s critical about Metro on what they have to say is like basing a story that’s critical about the New York Yankees based on what David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have to say. There may be something to the criticism, but I’m sure not going to take their word for it.

This story adds to the fairly modest pile of anecdotal evidence of problems affecting people post-reimagining. Again, I don’t doubt the existence of this evidence or the effect on real people that it’s having. But what I notice is that it continues to be individual accounts, here and there. The Sunny Side/South Park Super Neighborhood issue seems to be about MetroLift more than anything else; it’s unclear how much system reimagining has to do with that. Maybe that promised Title VI complaint will give some indication.

As far as that goes, here’s the process. I guess the question is what happens if Magaziner and Scarbrough aren’t satisfied with the outcome. A federal lawsuit is a possible path, but that’s a big, expensive undertaking. Whether it gets that far or not, I’ll be interested to see what if any official support this action draws, from elected officials, business and/or labor leaders, other neighborhood organizations, the NAACP/LULAC/TOP, and so forth. Not everyone supports every fight, but a fight that has merit will draw someone to its side.

And let’s not forget that while it has always been known that some people would have a longer trip or a longer walk to a stop, this is supposed to be balanced out by bus service being better and more accessible for a lot more people. One way this would manifest itself is by more coverage on weekends and holidays, when a lot of people still need to get to work and a lot of those who don’t still need to get to other places. While we should absolutely keep an eye on those who have seen their level of service go down, we should not lose sight of those who have been helped by the change. This is ultimately how Metro will be judged – did they make the service better for enough people, and do the ridership numbers and customer feedback reflect that? As above, official support, if there is any, will be telling.

Finally, on a side note, Purple City takes a closer look at the complaint of the first person featured in that Press story. It turns out, Metro didn’t really move the bus route further away. The route was moved from the street bordering the eastern side of her apartment complex to the street bordering the west side. The main difference for her, and the reason why she has a longer walk now, is because the only pedestrian access gate is on the east side. If there were a gate on the west side – which Purple City believes is a request that the property management company would likely consider to be reasonable – she would have a walk that was about the same length, possibly even shorter. Perhaps that would be a good idea to pursue, rather than trying to force Metro to change this route. This is only one example, but in a story built on anecdotal data, it sure weakens the basic premise that a lot of people are needlessly and negligently worse off.

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7 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    I am glad to see that someone has asked me about the new bus routes rather than all of the irrational exuberance that has surrounded any sort of change by METRO. As someone who rides the bus to work 5 days a week, I can say that the change is not so wonderful. I used to be able to take the 26 to work, all the way, and the 27 home all the way. The bus stop is about .33 miles from my house, and about 50 feet from work. Now, I stop at the TMC transit center, leaving me the choice of walking for 10-15 minutes or transferring to another bus. I don’t mind walking, but it sure can be unpleasant to sit at work soaking wet in bad weather, or dripping with sweat in the hot summer weather. And, either way, the trip takes longer–over one hour to go seven miles. (Partly due to the terrible construction on Sherpherd.)

    The reason that the new plan is so awful, is that most routes are now east-west and north-south only. Meaning, that in order to travel to a destination to the northeast, two buses or more are needed. The simplistic idea of making a grid and creating “more connections” has instead forced everyone to need connections. And, of course, the buses are not perfectly on schedule, meaning that you miss connections and wait and wait and wait.

    For me, the real absurdity is that I once could walk about 3 minutes from my home in the Heights area, and catch the 40 and go downtown. Not too quickly, but still, simple and faster than walking. Now, I can’t go the four miles to downtown without transferring, and enduring a 45 minute or more ride. I can walk downtown that fast. So why bother with the bus. Add to that, the METRO trip planner told me that to get to Jones Hall on Louisiana Street, I should take one bus, get off, walk for 2 minutes to another stop, catch a bus and get off at Montrose and Alabama, and from there walk about .2 miles and 3 minutes to my destination. Well, it is about 2 miles and 30 or 40 minutes of walking. So the trip is a total of about two hours.

    And then don’t get me going on about the POW! train. That was a disaster which I won’t repeat. I’m sure that they won’t fix the METRO so maybe I will have to move to some place more urban and urbane. Perhaps a city in the north. Or maybe even the Woodlands.

  2. voter_worker says:

    Jason, just going by my general sense of where you live and work derived from what you’ve written here (Heights area/Downtown) couldn’t you take the 27 or 40 southbound and connect with the 85 to get downtown? The 85 has a stop at Texas and Smith, one block from Jones Hall which you mentioned as a destination.

    Apologies for commenting on your travails, but you did motivate me to go to Metro’s maps and try to make sense of them, which I’ve been avoiding doing, so thanks! I’m sure that I’m missing major elements of your daily work travel trajectory so don’t interpret this as me trying to figure out something that you couldn’t…far from it. I’m grateful that your predicament prompted me to check out Metro’s information.

  3. Jason, I don’t know where you live in the Heights, but I used to take the #40 bus to and from downtown, and that route still exists in near-identical form (as far as anyone going between the Heights and downtown is concerned) as the #30 bus. It’s basically on the same schedule as well, every 30 minutes during peak hours. Is this not a viable option for you?

    As voter_worker says, you really should look at the interactive system map:

    http://www.ridemetroapp.org/systemmap/#

    As far as connecting from one route to another is concerned, I’ve done this multiple times already, as I have found that the fastest way home for me is the #85 (Washington Avenue) to the #56 (Montrose/Studemont), both of which run every 12 minutes during peak hours. If you’re on Durham/Shepherd, the #27 is also an every-12-minutes bus; if you’re on Heights, the new #40 is every 20 minutes. The #27 would require changing at Washington, but the new #40 goes downtown via West Dallas. And the #44 goes down North Main to Houston Avenue into downtown, every 20 minutes.

    tl;dr: Look at the system map. You have plenty of options, and even with making a connection, your ride should be no worse than what it was before.

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    You are both correct. I am west of Shepherd. The 40 is at 20th and Heights, so I would need to catch the 26 (where I could catch the old 40) and take that to the new 40, or else walk for 20+ minutes to catch the new 40. It is just amazing that I can’t take only one bus for the short trip downtown, unless I went to walk for 20 minutes. Either way the trip is too long. It seems like every neighborhood has two buses, one going east-west and one north-south. Thus going southeast, northeast, etc. requires a transfer.

    I work in the Med Center and take the 27 to the TMC center, and from there I now either need to transfer or walk about 12 minutes, again making a long commute even longer. Although to be fair, the construction on Shepherd is a big part of the problem. Who knows, it might be done sometime this century.

    The METRO trip planner is what advised me to get off at Alabama and Montrose to go to Jones Hall. It is not the best way to get there by bus though. Maybe they can fix the trip planner.

  5. Mainstream says:

    I wish the buses up Shepherd and Durham ran later at night, or that Metro would institute a Night Owl mini bus system to cover the wee hours at least hourly to provide better coverage. I would like to have a bus option home from entertainment districts. I recently used Megabus back from a neighboring city, but upon arrival near midnight downtown, my public transit options to get home required either a 25 minute walk from 11th and Heights, or waiting until 5 a.m. for service to resume.

  6. Thomas says:

    “It seems like every neighborhood has two buses, one going east-west and one north-south. Thus going southeast, northeast, etc. requires a transfer. ”

    Correct. This, for better or worse, is the underlying philosophy of the new bus network.

  7. Jason Hochman says:

    Thomas, the people who already rode the bus don’t like the new network. They already had a convenient route, so the new system should be considered an improvement if it can get new riders. To me, this simple “grid” seems a facile solution that ignores the trips that most people need to take, in favor of giving people “options” to transfer here or there or even to take the rail part of the way. All of which create longer commute times for you.