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My vision for Metro: Buses

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I’ve said before that I would have some suggestions for new Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and her team as they take their places. This post is where I start sharing those suggestions. The idea is to focus on proposals that I believe are doable in the current political and economic climate, in the short term as well as in the longer term. Ideally, all of these things could at least be begun by the end of Mayor Turner’s second term in 2023. Some of these things can be done by Metro on its own, but many will require at least some level of cooperation with one or more other agencies. in all cases, the goal is to get more people to use Metro. As always, your feedback on these ideas is welcome.

Let’s start with the backbone of the system, the local bus service. The good news here is that Metro’s current bus system map is basically as good as it’s going to get to maximize ridership, which by the way continues to improve. The bad news is that this means Metro has less control over what it can do to improve the bus system further. But the other good news is that the means by which they can improve the system further, and thus get more people to use it, are clear and easy to understand.

Really, it all comes down to two things: Sidewalks and bicycles. The new bus system does a really good job of getting you from one neighborhood or part of the city to another. But you still have to get yourself to your bus stop from your point of origin, and from your bus stop to your final destination. When your bus stop is on a well-maintained sidewalk, with safe street crossings, this is easy. When it’s not, it’s a strong disincentive to use the bus in the first place. The 85, for example, is a frequent route that runs along Washington Avenue, a part of town with a lot of destinations close together and a shortage of parking. It also has some of the crappiest sidewalks for a neighborhood that really ought to be pedestrian-friendly. People won’t take the bus if they think it’s not easy to get to or from the bus stop. Bad sidewalks are a big hindrance to bus ridership.

To their credit, Metro knows this. I feel reasonably confident saying that the Metro board will do what it can to work with the city of Houston as it plans out its Rebuild Houston projects (assuming the Supreme Court lets it), which now that the city operates under Complete Streets guidelines, means that sidewalks will receive proper attention. The budget that Council just adopted includes Metro money for each Council district earmarked for infrastructure repairs, so those pieces are in place. Metro also needs to work with Harris County, especially now that the Commissioner of Precinct 1 is and will be willing to work on infrastructure inside Houston, with the various TIRZes, HISD and the other school districts, and any other entity that is able to put up a few bucks to re-pour a sidewalk. Harris County Commissioners Court – all four precincts – really needs to be in on this, since it was the county’s insistence that the 2012 sales tax referendum bar using marginal revenues for light rail that helped lead to the bus system re-do. Put some skin in the game, Commissioners Court. These are your residents, too.

As far as bicycles go, we know that more and more people are riding their bikes to bus stops, then using the bike racks on them to get their bikes to their stop. This has the effect of extending the bus network, since it’s a lot easier and faster to ride a bike a mile to a bus stop than it is to walk that far. The city of Houston and to a lesser extent Harris County have done a lot to build up their bike infrastructure, and thanks to the Bayou Greenways bond issue plus the legislation to allow bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way, there’s a lot more of that to come. Metro needs to be part of the planning process so that bike trails that connect with high-frequency bus routes get priority, and to ensure that connectivity between trails and bus routes is always taken into account. Metro should also be at the table when the next phase of BCycle is being planned, to ensure that kiosks are deployed at or near bus stops and train stations whenever possible.

Speaking of the trains, while the bus system redesign was done in part to maximize the use of the new train lines, I feel like there’s a lack of information at train stations about what bus stops and bus routes are nearby. As an example, I’ve taken the train to the Wheeler station/transit center recently a couple of times to get to an appointment out near 59 and Kirby. From Wheeler, I could reasonably take either the 25 bus along Richmond, or the 65 bus along Bissonnet. The problem was that when I got out at Wheeler, I had no idea how to find a stop for either of these buses. Turns out, the 65 is right there, while the 25 (at least westbound) required walking over some pedestrian-unfriendly turf to get to a stop on Richmond just east of the downtown spur. I was able to figure it out for myself, and I’m sure the Metro trip planner could have helped, but a little signage at the station would have been very nice. A little signage at every station, showing you exactly where the nearest bus stops are and which ones go to which destinations, would be even nicer.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of what Metro and its new Board and Board Chair should focus on to improve the bus service even more. I’ll refer you back to this post by Chris Andrews from two years ago, right when the bus system makeover was first announced, for some further thoughts; pay particular attention to the bolded paragraph in his Conclusions at the end. Next we will talk about how Metro can do more to market itself.

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6 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    If the town of Ray, North Dakota can have a decent sidewalk, so can Washington Avenue in Houston! https://www.google.com/maps/@48.3422716,-103.1719474,3a,57y,337.73h,46.83t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sJE71HCNKTv0sV_EZR9j4RA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    Thanks for mentioning the awful sidewalks along Washington Ave. with the relevant adjective.

  2. Hey Chuck:

    As you may have discovered by now, the 25 Richmond does stop at Wheeler Transit Center. It has a bay for each direction, westbound and eastbound, not adjacent to each other. Passengers do not have to brave that walk to the shelter at Richmond and Bute by South Main Baptist Church.

    The westbound 25 buses must exit at the south end of the TC and make two rights and a left to get onto Richmond Avenue, which may take a long time. You can practically make that treacherous walk to Bute Street in the time it takes the bus to get there.

    You’re quite right that at least one sign pointing MetroRail transferees to the various bus bays at Wheeler TC would be quite helpful. Those of us who have ridden public transit in New York or Boston know how ubiquitous the signage is there, helpful or not.

  3. Your observations about “sidewalks and bicycles” are also quite correct. The portion of Richmond Avenue in Montrose is a great example of pedestrian-hostile sidewalks. It would appear that the City of Houston and Metro have been waiting to use the construction of the proposed University Line as an occasion to fix those sidewalks, but that construction may never happen.

    As more passengers use bicycles to get to the buses, Metro will need to look at purchasing three-bike racks to attach to the fronts of their buses, as well as a better solution for cyclists who use Park & Ride.

  4. Jay Blazek Crossley says:

    Metro’s local bus system could be significantly improved beyond reimagining, which was a (mostly) budget constrained plan. The Houston region significantly underfunds transit and oversubsdizes driving. Texas and Ohio are the only states with large metro areas that don’t find transit for those large metro areas. The TPC should significantly shift to at least half of all funding not being for SOV projects. The general mobility fund should be used for transit or sidewalks to transit.

    If we funded transit at half of what our peer cities are doing, metro could do a lot more with the amazing work they’ve done with reimagining and it would mean meaningful, frequent, service for many many more homes and jobs and schools.

    So I guess I’m saying I disagree that we couldn’t do more.

  5. […] Part 1: Buses Part 2: Marketing itself […]

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