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Christof Spieler

Thinking big about fighting flooding

Christof Spieler, on behalf of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, comments on a proposal to move forward post-Harvey.

On Oct. 25, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett released 15 recommendations for mitigating damages from future flood events. The researchers collaborating through the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium appreciate his willingness to release his priorities for public review and discussion.

The consortium was established by the Houston Endowment, Kinder Foundation and Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation to provide the public and decision-makers with important information so that Harris County and related watersheds can be rebuilt as a stronger, more resilient, more equitable and more livable region.

We found Judge Emmett’s list to have many merits. The consortium is thoroughly assessing the implications of the 15 recommendations and plans to share our conclusions soon. In advance of detailed conclusions, we have organized the issues into six broad themes.

See here for the background. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll give you those six broad themes: Structural projects, green infrastructure, risk education, development and buildings, planning, and governance. There’s a lot to do, but there’s a lot to talk about first, and the conversation is just beginning. Read and see what you think.

Can we share these lanes?

Metro is rethinking how the light rail lines run in parts of downtown.

Traffic woes and collisions along the newest light-rail lines in downtown have Metro leaders toying with the idea of backpedaling on their promise not to close parts of the lanes to cars.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new Green and Purple lines in downtown that run eastbound along Capitol and westbound along Rusk for about a mile continue to confuse traffic signal timing and drivers. The trains and vehicles have had several collisions in these shared lanes as drivers make turns, as well as enter and exit parking garages for downtown buildings.

Now Metro is – albeit cautiously – considering ideas to close the lanes to vehicular traffic where practical.

“There is zero intent to change this without getting a lot of input with the stakeholders,” board member Christof Spieler said, while acknowledging some changes may be needed to improve timing and safety for trains, drivers and pedestrians.

City officials, downtown business leaders and drivers, however, remain skeptical that dedicating the lanes to trains is going to be a solution.

“(Former Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO) Frank Wilson promised the community and the City Council that these would ‘never’ be train-only lanes in order to get agreement to allow them to operate downtown,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance.

I guess I’m not surprised there are issues with the trains sharing a lane with car traffic, but I did not know there was such resistance to the idea of separating the two. I suppose the entrances to and exits from downtown parking garages, which by the way can snarl traffic pretty effectively themselves, are a major obstacle to any kind of change. I’m sure there are some minor tweaks that can be made to improve things a bit, but more than that seems unlikely.

Metro still fixing rail car issues

Someday this will all be over.

Houston’s light rail system is fully open, but closing out a complicated rail car purchase that nearly derailed the new lines remains a challenge for transit officials.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials continue withholding $12.9 million from CAF U.S.A. – the builder of the vehicles – as they debate the amount of liquidated damages owed because of delays and delivery of railcars that were overweight, leaky and halted by faulty axles, among other problems.

When those discussions could conclude and what sort of damages Metro could receive is uncertain, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

“We are not there yet,” he said. “We are going to continue to work with CAF, address the issues and go from there.”

In the meantime, the Metro board on Thursday extended a contract with Parsons Transportation Group, an engineering and design firm, for oversight of the CAF purchase. The extension carries the contract beyond its previous expiration in May to April 2018 and adds nearly $700,000 to the contract, which has already paid Parsons $29.6 million.

All 39 of the new light rail cars purchased are available for service, and carried a higher-than-normal number of passengers because of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

All of the cars, however, also have a handful of fleet defects that CAF will have to correct, said Scott Grogan, Metro’s senior director of rail operations.


The cars are only part of the stumbles related to the rail lines that Metro has raced to correct. Axle counters along the line led to delays in service for months, dropping on-time performance, especially on the Red Line, which represents most rail trips.

Timing has improved significantly since a blitz of repairs prior to the Super Bowl held last month in Houston. In January, the Red Line posted its highest on-time percentage, 92.6 percent, since November 2015. For many of the months between, fewer than 80 percent of the trains arrived on time.

Officials said despite the lingering issues and unresolved matters, the system is carrying people and growing. Buoyed by heavy use for the Super Bowl week, light rail weekday ridership was 2 percent higher in February, compared to the same month last year.

On Saturdays and Sundays, use was increased 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

“This isn’t limiting our ability to provide service,” board member Christof Spieler said of the railcar repairs.

It’s annoying that Metro is still dealing with this crap, but it will eventually get sorted. I’m focusing on the fact that the Main Street line’s on time performance has returned to normal levels, and that ridership continues to be strong. I’ve done more riding on Metro – mostly bus, but some train – in the last year than in any previous year I’ve been in Houston. The bus system redesign has been great for me, enabling my wife and I to carpool to work without having to worry about it when one or the other of us needs to go in early or stay late or run an errand after work. Sure it helps that we live in the inner Loop, but that’s where transit is most needed, and it keeps one of our cars off of I-45 every day. This isn’t directly applicable to the story here, but I think it’s good to remember that while Metro has its problems, it does do a good job at what it’s supposed to do.

Metro preps regional transit plan

This could be on our November ballot as well.

A pending long-term regional transit plan, and likely voter referendum as early as November, will determine where Metro goes. More importantly, they will show what level of support people in the Houston region have for more buses, longer train routes and commuter service to increasingly urbanizing suburban communities.

What’s clear, transit officials acknowledged on Feb. 15 during their first in-depth discussion of the transit plan’s focus, is many solutions to traffic congestion will sit on transit agency shelves for years to come.

“We know we will never have enough resources to build everything,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “How do we choose which projects are most worthwhile?”

Board members during the discussion said a host of factors will influence transit project priorities, though the critical litmus test will be whether a project can reliably and quickly serve a large number of riders and solve a congestion challenge. Officials predict as the region grows freeways will clog even more with cars and trucks for more hours of the day. Expansion of many freeways is limited, so using the lanes more effectively or drawing people off the freeway will be critical.

“We’re all going to be more transit-dependent because we can’t spend two hours getting to work,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said.

Transit agency staff has started compiling a list of unfinished projects, including those left over from the contentious 2003 referendum and financial commitments from an extension of Metro’s 1 percent sales tax voters approved in 2012.

Along with public input and ongoing discussions, Metro could have a draft of a regional transit plan – incorporating not only service in Metro’s area, but beyond its own boundaries – by April under an accelerated timetable.


There are options for starting major transit projects within the next five years, but they require transit officials to either come up with alternative sources of money or ask voters to approve more spending, which could mean more borrowing and new taxes or fees to pay off the debt.

Officials are exploring both options. Last year, officials approved soliciting interest from private firms for development of a train line from the Texas Medical Center to Missouri City. The line, estimated to cost at least $400 million, has political support from many Houston area federal, state and local officials. Questions related to the proposal pushed the deadline for companies to express interest in partnerships with Metro from Feb. 7 to March 20.

Metro leaders, after new board members were installed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last year, also have said a voter referendum for more spending is likely. Transit board chairwoman Carrin Patman said the regional transit plan could lead to a vote as early as November, though the plan itself will inform what could end up in front of voters.

“It’s possible,” she said of an election in nine months. “We’ll have to see what kind of response we get to the plan and what is the best course.”

A referendum, officials said, could be approval for a single project that transit supporters consider high-priority or politically palatable. A entire suite of projects also could be put in front of voters.

See here for some background. The plan doesn’t exist yet, so it’s more than a little premature to speculate. The howling chaos in Washington doesn’t help, either. I’d prefer a bigger package to vote on than a smaller one, but a bigger one carries a lot more risk, as the opposition will be more intense. Still, we did pass the 2003 referendum against a pretty fierce and well-funded No effort, and I’d guess the Metro service area is more amenable to transit in general and rail in particular now than it was then. But even people who do support those things may vote against a referendum if they don’t think it gives them something they want. And even if Metro wants to put something up for a vote, there’s an argument to be made to wait till 2018 and do as much public engagement as possible beforehand. There’s a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll just have to see what they present when they have something to show us.

Metro celebrates ridership increase one year after new bus network rollout

Leah Binkovitz reports.


From September 2015 (the first full month after the switch was implemented) to July 2016 (the most recent complete month), METRO saw its ridership on local bus and light-rail add an additional 4.5 million boardings — a 6.8 percent increase.

The numbers are more modest when looking at local bus ridership alone, which saw a 1.2 percent growth in ridership during that period. The light-rail system’s Red Line saw a more sizable 16.6 percent increase.

“METRO clearly views the buses and rails as an entire system, not separate entities, which is a really productive frame,” said Kyle Shelton, program manager at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “They are mutually beneficial and improving the service level on both will likely keep ridership going up.”

Shelton said the lower rate of growth for the local bus routes was unsurprising. “Many of the routes didn’t change that much for many people, and those that did may have resulted in loss of riders — so overall an increase is a good first step.”


Indeed, local weekend bus ridership is one of the new system’s strongest areas, continuing a trend that begun almost immediately after the redesign was implemented. From June 2015 to June 2016 — the most recent METRO has released more detailed ridership data — local buses saw a 13 percent increase in ridership on Saturdays and a 34 percent increase on Sundays, according to METRO, with similarly strong numbers for rail as well.

Local weekday bus ridership actually dropped over that same time period by 1 percent. However, a 14 percent increase in light-rail ridership amounted to an overall weekday ridership increase of 3 percent. The growth in rail supports Patman’s focus on the new bus system’s strong connections to the growing network of lines. And she said, there’s more to come for the system.

METRO’s data charts boardings, and not trips. Someone who transfers once – in other words, someone who takes two buses – is counted twice. This is because METRO relies on automatic counters on buses and rail cars for these numbers. Because the New Bus Network was intended, in part, to reduce the need for transfers, then theoretically that increased efficiency could also contribute to lower ridership figures.

Overall, total METRO ridership increased from 39.5 million boardings in the first half of 2015 to 42.5 million boardings in the first half of 2016. That’s an increase of 7.5 percent. Jarrett Walker, a consultant who aided with the bus network design, as well as METRO officials, have previously said the aim of the bus network overhaul was to increase ridership by 20 percent after two years of operation.

“We’re focused on better bus stops, more bus shelters [and] improved accessibility,” Patman said. The agency plans to ask for funding for 25 percent more bus shelters in in its next budget.

Spieler said the agency is also in the early stages of planning for more express service. “I’m really thinking of how we built on it,” Spieler said of the one-year old network. “One of the things we’ve talked about is adding more express service, adding more signature routes, [bus rapid transit] routes to sort of make trips faster,” he said. Those routes would likely strengthen major corridors, including along Westheimer Road, the Energy Corridor, downtown and the Medical Center. “That’s an overlay on the network and it’s really possible because of the network,” he said.

I don’t have a whole lot to add to this. We’ve been seeing the numbers as we’ve gone along, and they had all been pointing in this direction. I expect continued growth, with jumps possible when the Harrisburg Line extension is finished and (assuming it doesn’t get sidetracked) the Uptown BRT line debuts. The other BRT possibilities that Christoph Spieler mentions are exciting, if not yet formed. In the meantime, focusing on better bus stops, and the sidewalks around them, will go a long way towards ensuring this trend continues. Well done.

On a personal note, I can say that I take the bus a lot more often now than I did a year ago. I work downtown and carpool with my wife, and had always taken the bus home one day a week because of a regular after-work errand she runs. With the new bus network, I find it completely takes the concern out of pretty much all other variations in our schedules, because one of us can always take the bus home with a minimum of fuss. I’ve taken the bus home from after-work social outings, and I’ve taken the bus to and from after work doctor’s appointments; my wife took the bus one time to a lunch appointment, when I needed the car during that time. None of this was possible before the change. I can’t speak for anyone else, but from my perspective this change has been a big win.

Main Street Line having on-time issues

Not good.


Poor on-time trends for Metro trains are costing riders time along the city’s most heavily-used transit route, and potentially leading some to consider other options for trips, a transit agency board member said Wednesday.

“I think we are losing ridership to this,” said Christof Spieler, during a Metropolitan Transit Authority committee meeting.

While no data indicates for certain that ridership is affected, Spieler said a handful of issues are hurting the reliability of trips on the Red Line, mostly as the line passes through downtown and Midtown. The primary cause is a problem with devices along the line which verify that the train is cleared to cross certain intersections.

Officials have been working for more than two years to find a fix to the axle counters, though its effect on the on-time performance of trains is worsening when coupled with traffic signal timing issues in downtown Houston. High heat and humidity also makes the problem worse, said Andy Skaowski, Metro’s chief operating officer.

The problem is longstanding, according to Metro’s monthly performance data. The last time Red Line trains finished a month with an on-time performance better than 95 percent – the benchmark Metro set for acceptable performance – was October 2013. In some months, fewer than 80 percent of trains arrived on time. Metro was unable to calculate on-time performance along the line for 10 months after a 5.3-mile extension of the line opened in December 2013.


Often, a single problem along the line can stall numerous trains, Skabowski said. The goal is to have trains arrive at each station every six minutes most of the day. If a train is stopped by a faulty axle counter, the delay cascades as trains behind it are held up so they do not bunch together.

That can make the delays even more mystifying to riders, Skabowski said.

“What you’re seeing in front of you is not your train, it is two trains in front of you,” he told Spieler.

The problem is being addressed, so one hopes the on-time performance will bounce back. For what it’s worth, I can only recall one time in recent months where I experienced one of those “why aren’t we moving?” delays. I don’t take the train that often, however, so that doesn’t mean much. Metro has gotten a lot done over the past few years, and it seems like their biggest problems lately have been caused by their suppliers and contractors. Those are still their problems to manage, and this one needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

What makes transit successful?

It’s pretty basic, as this report lays out.

A new report released [Tuesday] by TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, finds that developing transit in walkable areas and offering frequent, fast bus and rail service is the key to increasing urban transit ridership.

The report, “Who’s on Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works” draws on results from three focus groups and a survey of 3,000 people in 17 U.S. metropolitan areas with varying levels of transit development and ridership. It builds on the findings from TransitCenter’s first Who’s On Board report released in 2014—the largest-ever attitudinal survey of transit riders—which showed that Americans from coast to coast think about and use public transit in remarkably similar and often unexpected ways. The latest edition of the Who’s On Board series offers several core findings to inform how government agencies and elected officials approach transportation, land use, and development policy:

  • The most important “first mile/last mile” solution is walking. The majority of transit riders, including 80 percent of all-purpose riders, typically walk to transit. This finding underscores the importance of putting transit stations in busy, walkable neighborhoods; building offices and housing within walking distance of transit; and providing more and safer pedestrian routes to transit.
  • The two most important determinants of rider satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time. The availability of information and conditions at the station or stop were also important, suggesting that real-time information and shelters are important amenities for transit agencies to provide. On the other hand, power outlets and Wifi were rated the least important items out of a list of 12 potential service improvements.
  • There are three common patterns of transit use: occasional riders who take transit once in awhile, commuters who take transit regularly but only for work, and all-purpose riders who take transit regularly for multiple purposes. Transit agencies should strive to grow this third category of rider, as they are the most reliable and financially efficient customers to serve. All-purpose riders are more prevalent where it’s easy to walk to transit, and where transit is frequent and provides access to many destinations.
  • Transit riders are sensitive to transit quality, not “captive” to transit. For decades, transportation professionals have talked about two kinds of transit riders: car-owning “choice riders” who use transit when it meets their needs, and carless “captive riders” who will use transit regardless of its quality. Who’s On Board finds that the “captivity” of carless riders is severely overstated. People who live and work near better transit ride transit more often, whether or not they own cars. When transit becomes functionally useless, there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.

Who’s On Board offers several recommendations for local governments and transit agencies to improve transit service, including creating dedicated lanes to reduce travel time, improving frequency on routes with high ridership potential, and zoning to concentrate development around transit corridors.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules. Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable,” said Steven Higashide, Senior Program Analyst for TransitCenter and leader of the foundation’s opinion research program. “Transit lines that don’t follow these rules–like commuter rail with parking lots at every station or slow streetcars that don’t connect to other transit–tend to perform poorly. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

“Who’s On Board shows that discussions about transit often ignore what really drives transit ridership. In Houston, we bucked the trend by redesigning our entire local bus network to improve frequency and travel time—and total ridership is up more than 10 percent,” said Christof Spieler, a Houston METRO Board Member. “If every city followed the report’s advice and focused transit investments on frequency, travel time, and walkability, we could make transit useful to millions more people across the country.”

The full report is available for download here.

More information about the report is available here. If you look at the Recommendations on page 12 of the report, you’ll see that pretty much everything there was implemented by Metro in its bus system redesign. The main thing that still needs to be done, which is the first recommendation for local governments on page 13, is improving sidewalks. Every dollar that we can reasonably spend towards that goal will be worth it. Read the report and see what you think. The Chron story on this is here, and Urban Edge has more.

Reimagining public transportation is hard work

Noted for the record.

Four years ago, Helsinki launched an innovative bus service as part of a long-term plan to make cars irrelevant.

It was called Kutsuplus—Finnish for “call plus.” And it was one of the world’s first attempts to reinvent carpooling for the algorithm age.

The service matched passengers who were headed roughly in the same direction with a minibus driver, allowing them to share a ride that cost more than a regular city bus but less than a taxi. It was a bit like anUber for buses—or more accurately, likeUberPool—except that Kutsuplus was running for nearly two years by the time Uber got into the ride-sharing side of its business.

Operated by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, Kutsuplus was the best-known component of Helsinki’s and Finland’s intelligent traffic system. Ridership grew steadily. But late last year, Helsinki authorities shut down Kutsuplus, deeming its cost to taxpayers too high. The blue minibuses picked up their last passengers on December 31.


For passengers, the system was fairly straightforward. You would log onto a website, top up your account, select the starting and ending points for your journey, and walk to the closest bus stop to wait for the pick up. The average fare in 2014 was around €5—about US$5.50. By comparison, a single ride by bus or metro is €3. Taxi fares start at €6 and can go much higher depending on the distance traveled.

The project had two main targets: assessing technological feasibility and user acceptance. Judged on these goals, it was a success.

“The research proposal tackled a number of different problems and we were able to solve them to a surprising degree,” says Sampo Hietanen, who until recently worked at ITS Finland, a nonprofit that promotes intelligent transport systems. “We made some wild promises, such as predicting arrival times. That’s not really something you can control yourself, because congestion and other circumstances affect it too.”

Riders took to it. The growth rates matched what the researchers had projected: Eventually the system had 21,000 registered users.


Two things ultimately killed Kutsuplus. First was the need for massive scale to make the economics of ride-sharing really work. Second was the significant public cost of doing that.

The transport authority had big expansion plans for Kutsuplus. From the original 15 buses, the fleet was to grow to 45 vehicles in 2016, 100 vehicles in 2017, and later into the thousands.

Achieving scale with this model is crucial in order to optimize trips across an entire fleet. With a small number of buses and users, it’s more difficult to match up passengers who are going in the same direction around the same time. This explains why Kutsuplus buses were frequently close to empty. The two times my family and I used Kutsuplus, we had the bus to ourselves.

The math looks different if you add lots of riders and lots of buses. Scaling up to 100 vehicles would have increased the efficiency of Kutsuplus threefold, Rissanen says. Hietanen agrees. “There’s a huge difference between mass transit that works in some areas some of the time, and mass transit that works everywhere all the time,” he says.

Scale could not come without funding, however—and in an austere budget environment, that was a problem. Although the €3 million it cost to run Kutsuplus was less than 1 percent of the Transport Authority’s budget, the service was heavily subsidized. The €17 per-trip cost to taxpayers proved controversial.

Rather than investing many millions more into Kutsuplus to bring it to scale, city officials backed away. They let the pilot come to an end. Rissanen wasn’t happy with the decision.

“The minibuses were meant for high-volume usage,” Rissanen says. But the politicians “got scared and didn’t want to invest in it in an economic downturn.”

See here and here for some background on the Kutsuplus service. Thomas highlighted this story in a comment on my post about driverless cars and the future of mass transit, in Houston and elsewhere. Kutsuplus is an awful lot like what Tory Gattis had hypothesized, except that these vehicles still had human drivers. Given the economic factors cited, it may well be that taking those human drivers and their salaries out of the equation would have made this viable, but we’ll have to wait awhile to know that for sure. (Although there are some services like this in other cities, including New York and Washington, DC, so perhaps we’ll have a better idea sooner than that.) A couple of points to note here: One is that the reason this system came about is because Helsinki’s existing mass transit system has a key flaw: its buses run mainly north-south, so taking east-west trips are hard to do. Two, despite the initial success of the Kutsuplus, there’s no evidence to suggest it caused any reduction in driving. To be sure, it may not have lasted long enough for an effect to be seen, and as we know from Christof Spieler, it’s not about getting people who drive now to stop and change what they’re doing. It may be this was a glimpse of our future that was snuffed out before it had a real chance to succeed, and it may be that this was another pie-in-the-sky vision from people who will support any form of transit except the ones we have now.

Other cities want to be like Houston

For parks and landscaping.

The word “infrastructure” typically conjures up images of towering buildings, layered freeway interchanges and heavily monitored drainage ditches; concrete, cars, trucks and impressive feats of engineering that attempt to mold the natural world and resources to fit human needs.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., has long been hailed, and criticized, for such accomplishments, but a shift in social, political, and economic values has strengthened lesser-thought of elements of city infrastructure: parks and green space. Architectural and engineering professions in Houston have been historically bolstered by energy and the wealth it has pumped into the city, but the recent downturn in oil prices and a more diversified Houston economy has led the city to focus on what the landscape architect can bring to table.

Just like “infrastructure,” the term “Houstonization” has begun to mean something completely different. Cities across Texas and the nation, including San Antonio, are taking a closer look at the Bayou City and how the Sun Belt’s biggest metropolis, now 180 years old, has done an about-face to embrace the natural environment as cultural and economic assets to retain and attract residents. Literal mud holes and parking lots have become world-class parks.


Like most paradigm shifts, it took an “aligning of the planets,” said Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum in the ornate lobby of Hotel ZaZa Thursday evening. He would later reiterate this concept for conference attendees next door in the auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Those “planets” are core patrons – the bureaucratic (city), the civic (philanthropist/corporate) and the citizen patron. The key for Houston, as other cities, has been another three-piece vocabulary, the public-private partnership, the so-called “P3.”

Just as these patron planets aligned for the rise of the highway and construction cranes, they have aligned for green space, Birnbaum said. “People are hungry and ready for parks.”

Houstonians – along with national and international consultants – are currently turning an urban golf course into a botanical garden; they’re redesigning, reconnecting and expanding Memorial Park and its arboretum; they’re connecting 150 miles of bayou trails; and developing engaging programming to activate its 371-and-counting parks.

“It takes big civic ideas and the patronage muscle to pull it off,” Birnbaum said.

That’s a report from a recent landscape architect’s conference that was held in Houston. OffCite was all over this as well. Lots of good reading there if you’re interested.

They also love us for bus system reimagining.

Was it hard to persuade people to focus on rerouting bus lines?

They had us all put together a list of, what are things you’d like to see done. This was on my list. It took about three years for the agency to be convinced to do it.

There was a lot of focus on the fact that ridership was dropping. I was actually offering up a solution that addressed that problem.

It probably didn’t hurt that it was budget friendly?

It’s funny when you look at this. Why haven’t more agencies done this? Because on the surface it’s a no-brainer: make a system better without putting money into it. In the end we put a little bit of money into it, but using your current resources to do more seems like it’s something everybody would be doing. But it turns out it’s actually really rare.


So Houston is open to change and your project has been a progressive triumph. But is the city ever going to reach that urban planning “nirvana”?

Yes. I think we’re actually getting there. There are people from all over the United States looking at Bayou Greenways as a model, looking at Discovery Green and Market Square. We’re a city that has suddenly ended up in the national spotlight when it comes to urban planning, and that’s really interesting because 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, we were the joke at the beginning of every urban planning presentation.

Yes, I distinctly remember the slide in those presentations.

It’s funny. One of the most famous pictures is that picture of downtown Houston covered in surface parking lots, and that’s where Discovery Green is now.

Some of the things we got held up for as being bad, like the lack of zoning, I think are turning out to be advantages. The good restaurant scene we have actually has something to do with the fact we don’t have zoning.

It’s really odd, parks people are looking at Houston, development people are looking at Houston, transit people are looking at Houston.

That’s got to feel pretty good.

It feels pretty darn good.

That’s from an interview with recently reappointed Metro board member Christof Spieler. Spieler has previously said that other transit agencies are closely watching the new bus network rollout – one agency that is considering something similar was here in town on the day that the new maps were implemented, for a firsthand look at how it went. As Spieler says, that feels pretty darn good.

More Metro appointments for Mayor Turner

The Chron editorial board gets its wish.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday named two new Metro board members and reappointed two others – taking a more moderate course than his predecessor, who replaced all five of the city’s appointees.

Disability rights advocate Lex Frieden and construction oversight manager Troi Taylor will join the board, presumably in April once the City Council and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board approve them. They will join current members Christof Spieler and Sanjay Ramabhadran, whom the mayor opted to retain. On March 4, Turner tapped former board member Carrin Patman, an attorney, as board chair.

“I think it is a stellar team,” Turner said, saying the appointees’ diverse backgrounds give him confidence they’ll tackle Houston’s transit challenges.

Counting Patman, three of Houston’s five appointees to the nine-member board served before Turner took office in January.


Frieden is the second person with a physical disability appointed to Metro’s board, after Kathleen DeSilva, appointed by then-Mayor Bob Lanier in 1992. DeSilva, who died in August, was appointed after Frieden and others challenged Lanier to add members of the disabled community to more city boards and commissions.

He is a nationally recognized leader in the independent living movement and in research into access to services by the disabled.

Taylor is a construction development specialist, notably in planning and building health care facilities. Turner said Taylor, a Houston native, has delivered 10 consecutive multi-million-dollar projects “ahead of schedule and under budget.”

Taylor’s father, Joseph, was a Metro bus driver for 18 years.

“I would ride on the bus just behind him and we’d talk,” Taylor said.

“I think part of our job is going to be making alternative transportation attractive again,” Taylor said, citing a “culture shift” necessary to draw more riders to light rail and buses.

The Mayor’s press release is here. the Chron had made a point of asking Mayor Turner to retain Christof Spieler on the Metro board, though by law he can be there for only two more years. Which means the Mayor will have at least one more opportunity to pick Board members in his first term. Congratulations and good luck to the new appointees.

Mayor Turner appoints new Metro board chair

Good choice.

Carrin Patman

Former Metro board member Carrin Patman will return to the transit agency as chairwoman, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday.

Patman, 59, is a partner at Houston-based law firm Bracewell, where she has represented major corporate clients in fraud and breach of contract claims. She served on the Metropolitan Transit Authority board from April 2010 until December 2013, when she resigned to attend a fellowship program at Harvard University.

“I realize how critical effective, excellent transit is – making sure all of our citizens in the greater Houston area have excellent transit and we build for the future,” said Patman, who will be the first woman to lead the transit agency board.

Board members are limited to four 2-year terms for a maximum of eight years. Patman’s previous service means she is eligible to serve an additional four years.

“She is a visionary leader capable of collaborating with all the different community stakeholders,” Turner said.

The mayor has the option of replacing four other Metro board members – Christof Spieler, Diann Lewter, Barron Wallace and Sanjay Ramabhadran – or retaining them. Turner said he expects to make other Metro appointments in the next two weeks.


Metro is a different agency today than the one Patman joined six years ago, when its light rail program and budget were in disarray. Now its finances are stable and ridership on buses and trains is growing after a two-year redesign of local service. Two new light rail lines opened last May.

“I think they are going to be inheriting the strongest Metro there has ever been and I am proud that is the handoff,” said Garcia, who was appointed with Patman by former Mayor Annise Parker when she assumed office.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here. Patman’s service on the Board under Garcia makes her well qualified to take the reins now. She helped clean up the mess before, and she’s fully aware of where things are and where they ought to be going. I of course have a few thoughts on that myself and will be writing them down in the next couple of days. Until then, all I can say is that I really hope Mayor Turner intends to ask Christof Spieler to continue to serve on the board, and that Spieler says Yes.

Metro bus system tweaks coming

From the inbox:

You spoke, and METRO listened. Beginning Jan. 24, 2016, METRO will put in place a series of route and schedule modifications based on feedback received from riders and bus operators since launching the New Bus Network Aug. 16, 2015.

These service enhancements are expected to reduce overcrowding and improve on-time performance, and are the next phase in METRO’s five-year plan to create a more comprehensive transit network with bus and rail. Click here to see a complete list of changes.


Like Chris Andrews and several other folks, I got to attend a presentation by Metro about its redesigned bus network – how it has gone so far, what the changes that are to come at the end of this week are about, where they go from here. I can’t compete with Chris’ detailed writeup about the conversation we had with Metro, so let me encourage you to read his post. I do have a few observations to add:

– The most common statement on the list of changes is “Adjusted running times to improve service”. What that means is that Metro scheduled departure times from each endpoint for all routes, based on estimates and test drives of the routes. In some cases, the actual amount of time it took for a bus to get from one end of the route to the other was less than Metro expected, so rather than have buses sit and wait before heading back out again, they adjusted the official schedule. The end result of this should be more frequent departures from endpoints.

– As has been previously reported, Metro has already seen a significant increase in bus ridership, only a few months into the new system. I asked if they could tell if it came from regular riders who were now using buses more often, from completely new riders, or some combination of both. In reply, Metro Board member Christoph Spieler pointed out that they turn over about 20% of their ridership every year, just due to people moving, reaching teenage years or dying, and other life changes. The key for them is to capture a larger share of the people whose changed life situations – new home, new job, retirement, new school, whatever – has them at a point where they are considering how they will get to the places they need to go. In an ideal world, more people will consider those things, and will choose transit-conducive options, as these changes approach and before they happen.

– Other challenges Metro faces: Sometimes, destinations that are frequently used by transit-dependent populations get moved without Metro knowing about it. And sometimes, the new locations for said destinations are not at all conducive for being served by transit; they’re on side roads far away from main arterials, there are no sidewalks, etc. Social Security offices and HCC campuses were cited as examples. In general, communication between Metro and other government agencies has improved greatly, but there is still room for improvement.

– Sidewalks in general are a challenge for Metro, because people can’t or won’t use Metro bus service if they can’t easily or safely get to and from the bus stops. Chris Andrews had a detailed look at the sidewalks and street crossings along his to-be-changed route back in May of 2014. A lot of the routes and numbers he discusses there are different now, but the challenges are the same. Building and repairing sidewalks isn’t Metro’s job, it’s the city and the county’s job. The more that can be done to fix and improve sidewalks at and around high-use bus stops, the more people will ride.

– In a way, the fact that Metro is just tweaking these routes has buried the lede. As Spieler put it, the fact that there are no major changes to be made means that they basically got it right the first time. That’s an amazing accomplishment, and the ridership increase numbers bear out the reasons for making the change. In my exit interview with Mayor Parker, I said that Metro and its many accomplishments over the past six years are something she deserves a lot of credit for. You can add in the bus system reimagining to that, because as well as it has gone, it was a huge risk to undertake. A whole lot of things could have gone wrong, and if they had they would have landed at the Mayor’s feet. That she had the confidence in Metro and its ability to pull this off says a great deal about them both. Now transit agencies around the country, which had been closely watching Metro and not quite believing that they “had the guts” (as Spieler put it) to do this are thinking about doing it themselves. Having the political will to go through with this was key.

– Yes, these changes have come at a cost to some people. It’s been documented, and it was openly acknowledged at the meeting. I don’t think that anyone can credibly argue that the benefits have not outweighed the costs, however real they are to the people who were directly affected. Still, this is another indicator of how well the whole process has gone, and how good a job Metro did at designing and implementing the new system. You may note in the article that was linked in that post that one of the louder critics of Metro and the system reimagining project, a man who predicted widespread disaster as implementation approached, said he was preparing to file a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transit Authority, accusing Metro of discrimination by diverting transit resources away from minority neighborhoods. That was back in September. I checked with Metro on this, and they confirmed that no such complaint was ever filed. Make of that what you will.

So that’s my impression of where things are now. I hope some of the other attendees write up theirs as well. I have some further thoughts about what Metro ought to be working on over the next few years, but this post is long enough and I’m still working through it. I’ll post that at a later date. Has the new bus map changed how you use transit? Leave a comment and let us know.

The system has been reimagined

Now we get to see how it all goes.


Seven members of the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority board were among the first passengers to try the revamped bus network launched early Sunday morning after taking a 30-minute bus ride around the city.

Metro CEO Tom Lambert joined along on their quick spin across town, allowing them to see the results of more than two years of planning in action for the first time.

“We’re looking forward to getting more and more people to give us a test drive this week,” Lambert said at a press conference before boarding the bus, adding that his staff has focused on making sure customers have all the information they need in hand.


Board secretary Christof Spieler said there is a palpable difference in the quality of the new bus system that will likely make peoples’ commutes easier.

“I was standing there last night, watching the last runs on the old network, and it’s just amazing how much better Houston’s transit system is this morning than it was last night,” Spieler said. “This is one of the biggest transitions any transit system in the United States has ever done and there has been extraordinary effort on the part of the staff to actually make this happen.”

Houston’s transition has certainly drawn national attention – five employees from the Central Ohio Transit Authority have been watching Houston’s staff work to unveil the new routes in preparation for their own system upgrade in 2017.

“Our system is definitely smaller,” said COTA spokeswoman Lisa Myers on Sunday. “But lots of great ideas are happening here that we can certainly scale to Columbus, Ohio.”

Rides are free all this week – local buses and light rail – and there will be Metro personnel around town helping people figure out the new routes. There are tools and utilities available on the Metro website to help as well. It will be a few days before I get a chance to ride – and honestly, the bus route I take hasn’t changed that much – but if you’re a rider I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of the changes. Texas Leftist has more.

System reimagining is going to be hard

Because change is hard. It always is.

Transit officials might have reimaginged bus service in the Houston area, but the riders who rely on it for daily trips are asking them to rethink it again.

Since the redesigned bus system was approved in February, concerned riders have appeared at every Metropolitan Transit Authority board meeting worried the changes will leave some riders — notably elderly and low-income Metro users — a farther walk from convenient bus stops and with less effective bus service. Those concerns amplified this week during public hearings to discuss the changes.

Dozens of riders, ranging from disabled transit-dependent downtown workers to late-shift restaurant employees at Houston’s airports to elderly users afraid of half-mile walks, have voiced concerns about the new bus network, set to debut Aug. 16.

“It is the only transportation I have,” said Sharon Bomar, one of many residents of a senior apartment building at 2100 Memorial to oppose the changes.

This is going to be hard. It was hard work getting to here, and it will be hard going forward. This change affects everyone who currently rides a Metro bus, and some of those people will be worse off as a result. The goal, and the hope, is that far more people will be better off, and that some number of people who currently don’t ride Metro buses will be persuaded to do so because the new routes are sufficiently more convenient for them. But again, some people are going to lose. They’re likely the only ones showing up at a meeting like this, since there’s not much for those who like the new routes to say. The good news for Ms. Bomar and her neighbors is that an alternate route that restores her service has been proposed, and it already has the approval of board member Christof Spieler. If any further changes are coming, I figure that will be one of them.

Along with the route displacement, residents in northeastern and southern Houston have raised numerous concerns, including a lack of sidewalks to get to bus stops.

“Look at the reality of my mama, your mama, a grandmother having to walk four blocks for the bus,” Houston Councilman Dwight Boykins told Metro officials.

Boykins, who said he is exploring what the city can do to improve streets and sidewalks, noted some bus stops are “so close to an open ditch that I am sure (riders) fear they will fall in.”

“The last thing I need is for one of my senior citizens to have to walk, and then get hit by a car waiting for the bus,” Boykins said.

No question better sidewalks would be a huge help here, but that’s not something Metro can control. They can do more to improve stops, especially at transfer points, and we should expect to see more shelters at stops thanks to the extra sales tax revenue that Metro is receiving. The thing is, I don’t think we will be able to judge how good the new system is until people start using it. Does ridership increase? Do people say they like it? How does Metro adjust if things don’t go as well as hoped? We’ll see what changes they make in response to this feedback, then we’ll see how it goes in August. Let’s please have a little patience and some appreciation of the fact that there will be some bumps in the road no matter what.

You can still ask Metro to make changes to their new bus routes

Chris Andrews highlights a little Metro-related activism going on in my neighborhood.

Residents in the Woodland Heights neighborhood of Houston have initiated a petition to modify the proposed 30 bus route.

Currently, the neighborhood is serviced by the 40 Pecore route. When METRO’s System Reimagining was proposed in early 2015, the 30 Clinton / Ella route was shown to continue on much of the route that is both the current 40 Pecore and 50 Heights routes. Unfortunately, the routes have since changed, leaving Woodlands Heights Residents without transit on Watson / Taylor / Sawyer streets. The originally drawn proposed 30 route was shifted to the east to Houston Avenue. This creates a duplicated north / south service with the proposed 44 Acres Homes route, which incidentally has the same, and if not better, level of service.

Residents propose shifting the 30 route back to the first proposed reimagined route (shown below), providing service to Watson / Taylor / Sawyer streets between Pecore and Memorial Drive. This would continue to provide service to areas serviced by the current 40 and 50 routes. Shifting the proposed 30 route to the west along Watson / Taylor / Sawyer streets would also provide access to the Target-anchored Sawyer Heights shopping center, as well as the 2100 Memorial senior apartments. (I can attest that a healthy number of residents who live at this complex use the current 50 route.)


METRO will continue to host public hearings regarding the new bus network, with a meeting on Wednesday June 3, 2015 at 6:00 PM, and another on Friday June 5, 2015 at 12:00 PM. Both meetings are scheduled to take place in METRO’s Board Room. View the METRO board meetings and notices page for more details.

Discussion about the disappearance of the 40 route and the subsequent petition first appeared on Nextdoor a couple of days ago. My initial reaction was along the lines of “um, you know that Metro announced these new routes a year ago, and formally gave the go-ahead back in February, right?” Turns out that even at this late date there are tweaks being considered, as you can see in the post above. Adding to the confusion a bit is that the system map displayed on the system reimagining website doesn’t reflect the current status. I like what has been proposed here, and as Andrews found on Twitter, so does Metro Board member Christof Spieler. I’m only a block away from Studewood, however, so this alternative would be great for me. Folks who live closer to the midway point between Studewood and Houston Avenue will be less well off. Make your voice heard while you still have time, that’s the message here. Link via Swamplot.

One hundred days till the new bus network

And counting down.

Metro on Friday began the 100-day countdown to sweeping changes in local bus service, conceding that months of work ultimately will be judged by the level of confusion – small or large – that happens Aug. 16, and its effects on riders left with longer trips.

“We cannot miss this mark, and we won’t,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

To make the change new signs must be hung at around 10,000 Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops across the Houston region. Officials, starting soon, must also hang new route information at each one, along with an aggressive outreach campaign and reprinting bus schedules.

Though it’s taken more than two years to develop the system, the countdown Friday represents that push starting in earnest, officials said. “We’ve jumped off the cliff,” board member Allen Watson said.

Nearly every bus route in the system, which carried an average of 266,000 people daily in March, will be affected by the redesign. Board members in February approved changes that refocus Metro on attracting new riders and restructuring service to better reflect where people live and work in Houston.

As a result, the bus network – which largely relied on routes that weaved through the area and focused on downtown Houston – was revised to create more north-south and east-west routes that operate more on a grid pattern around the region.

Proponents say the system is a vast improvement, noting a Metro analysis found that it connected more riders to more jobs. Combined with two new rail lines set to open May 23, Metro board member Christof Spieler said the new system gives transit riders three rail lines and 22 bus routes that operate every 15 minutes or less.

“That is freedom,” Spieler said, referring to the benefits of faster trips and easier access to the region via transit.


Practically every Metro rider – most of whom have at least one transfer – will have a new routine. To address the potential confusion, Metro will offer side-by-side online comparisons of routes starting June 1, said Denise Wendler, the agency’s chief information officer. The comparison will let someone look at their current route and compare it to the best option along the new network.

When the new system begins, Wendler said Metro will also offer information by text message, so someone standing at a bus stop can use their phone to receive a text telling them when the next bus on their route is coming to that bus stop.

“That will be a prominent part of the information campaign,” Wendler said.

Metro has a big job ahead of it, not just communicating the changes to existing riders and helping them understand how their routines will differ, but also to new riders, the people they want to start taking the bus now that it will be more convenient for them. A big part of this is to increase ridership, and that means converting some number of non-riders into riders, at least for some of the time. I’m a roughly once a week rider – my route will change in August, but it won’t be that much different though I will have a longer walk to a bus stop – and I have to say, a bus that lets you off close to your destination is often a lot more convenient than navigating a downtown parking lot and walking in from there. Cheaper, too. Have you looked at the new bus system map and considered your options?

Metro board approves reimagining

On to implementation.

Metro’s board gave unanimous, final approval to the so-called reimagining plan, authorizing agency staff to plan public meetings to explain the changes.

Between now and August, Metro must replace every sign at every bus stop, revise every bus schedule and prepare a massive educational campaign.

“This will be the biggest outreach effort in the history of the city,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.


Metro plans to spend around $7.5 million replacing signs at bus stops, reprinting maps and schedules and conducting the educational campaign. The need for these steps led to a two-month delay on starting the new routes, which had been scheduled for June.

“The day this goes into effect, I intend to be standing at a bus stop helping people out,” [board member Christof] Spieler said.

See here for the previous update. Metro has a lot riding on this. I believe the concept is sound, but the execution is key. I will be very eager to see what the effect is on ridership.

Meanwhile, according to this Chron editorial that ran on Wednesday, the board was also supposed to vote on approving funds for the Uptown BRT line. I don’t know what happened with that, but unlike bus system reimagining, for which the Chron had good things to say, they had concerns about this project.

Both Metro and Uptown organizations have made grand claims about how this BRT plan will reduce congestion on West 610 Loop, but we’ve yet to see supporting numbers or studies.

It is also troubling that a total reconstruction of Post Oak doesn’t include bicycle lanes. The people who live and work in the Uptown area should be able to use bikes as transportation without risking their lives. Multi-modal transit provides the most and best options for a booming Galleria area.

Members of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Houston Management District, which are spearheading the project, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that the project should be judged by its results. It is hard to judge by anything else. These appointed boards hold their meetings away from City Hall and operate without the direct input of voters, all while diverting taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, this cost of this BRT project has grown from an originally projected $177.5 million to Uptown Houston’s current $192.5 million estimate. Metro told the editorial board that the project would cost more than $250 million. These conflicting numbers should serve as a warning sign.

Mayoral elections are around the corner, and unless this BRT project has unanimous support, that big budget item risks getting diverted away from transit and toward filling potholes and hiring police officers, just as Mayor Bob Lanier did with transit funding in the early 1990s. The growing Galleria area looks to choke on its own growth as new towers go up and more cars fill crowded roads and freeways. At its core, the BRT plan tries to bring the success of park and ride into Uptown, but it needs support from all stakeholders before moving forward.

I’ve discussed the subject of bikes in conjunction with this line before. I definitely agree that if the Uptown Management District is going to spend all this money and cause all this disruption to redo Post Oak like this, it makes much more sense to incorporate bikes now rather than try to shoehorn them in later, after they’ve realized what a mistake they made by not planning for them in the first place. I hope they don’t make that mistake. As for the effect of the Mayoral race on this project, you know how I feel about that. You can start talking about things other than potholes and pensions any time now, fellas. Texas Leftist has more.

System reimagining time

Big day today, hopefully.

A once-in-a-generation change to Houston bus service – shifting from a downtown-focused, hub-and-spoke design to a broader network reflecting new ways people move around – could receive final approval by Metro’s board Wednesday.

Officials say the “reimagining” may represent a make-or-break moment in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s efforts to boost lagging ridership.

“If we screw it up, rolling this out, we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” board member Cindy Siegel said.

The board will consider authorizing staff to revise the entire local bus system. None of the changes apply to park and ride service.

The final plan, however, scraps one of the biggest changes originally proposed in several northeast neighborhoods – on-demand “flex” service as opposed to fixed routes. And the redesign won’t take effect until August, two months later than planned, giving officials more time to transition to changes that could affect most of Metro’s 290,000 or so daily riders.

Cost estimates reflect Metro spending $9.3 million more annually than it does now on bus service, a roughly 3 percent increase. The higher costs would be covered by additional fares – officials predict the revised routes will increase ridership by 20 percent – and sales tax revenue tied to the 2012 referendum that allows Metro to keep more of the region’s 1-cent transportation sales tax.

See here, here, and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I’m one of the six percent that will be negatively affected by this, as the #40 route that I take the most often will no longer pass through my neighborhood. From what I can tell, I’ll either have to take two (high-frequency) buses to get downtown with a minimum of walking, take a lower-frequency route that’s farther from my house than my current stop is, or take a high-frequency route (the Washington Avenue one) with a long walk; this latter option is something I do now occasionally on my way home. As someone once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so I’m okay with this as long as it meets the stated objectives. I look forward to seeing what final changes Metro has made as they move forward with this. Houston On The Go has more.

UPDATE: System reimagining was unanimously approved, according to a Metro press release. The approved map can be found here.

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.

From the “Good problems to have” department

Metro will have a few million dollars left over when it is done building the remaining light rail lines.

After more than three years of construction, Metro officials estimate $39.9 million of the $900 million awarded by the Federal Transit Administration is left over and unlikely to be spent as work wraps up. Contingencies for cost overruns often are built into financial estimates for large transportation projects, notably rail. Metro’s costs have stayed largely in line with estimates of $1.58 billion for the two lines.

None of the federal money applies to the Green Line, which was locally funded. Both the Green Line to the East End and the Purple Line to the southeast are scheduled to open in April.


Most of the leftover money, $24.9 million, is dedicated to the northern segment of the Red Line light rail route, which opened in December 2013. Another $14.5 million is available along the Purple Line, between downtown and the Palm Center Transit Center south of MacGregor Park in southeast Houston.

If the money from the October 2011 agreement isn’t spent, it would go back to federal coffers.

The money can be used only for those two lines, and only for projects related to developing the rail routes, though that does give Metro officials leeway.

Officials on Thursday outlined for a Metro committee some projects they are considering, though more talks are likely as the list is winnowed.

Two of the most significant projects are at the ends of the rail lines, near Northline Commons along the Red Line and at Palm Center Transit Center where the Purple Line terminates.

Metro has a bus transit center near the Red Line terminus, a few steps from the tracks on land owned by Houston Community College. Officials said tying the bus center and rail line together with an elevated walkway would improve conditions for riders.

Metro’s lease for the bus center land expires in 2021, and the agency is working with HCC on a long-term plan for the area incorporating the campus and the transit connection.

Lambert said a rail-bus terminal at the location would be years in the making but would be more affordable if included in the long-term, federally backed rail development.

Additional parking spaces at Palm Center Transit Center would serve a similar purpose, giving more potential riders a way to park at a rail station.

Board members Thursday said it was vital the money be used in ways that benefit riders and residents near the rail lines.

“I think we should be looking at projects that increase ridership,” Christof Spieler said, noting rail use can often be affected by how people arrive at the station. “I absolutely want to look at bus stops.”

Board member Dwight Jefferson said more stations closer to where people live could be beneficial.

“You have the station at Elgin and you do not have another station until a mile down on the other side of the freeway,” Jefferson said. “You have a whole huge stretch of neighborhood that is totally not served on the rail line.”

Remember how the I-10 widening was originally supposed to cost $1 billion, then wound up costing about $2.7 billion? I love having another excuse to bring that up. As far as this goes, I’m with Spieler – projects that would help boost ridership should take priority. That leaves a lot of possibilities, and I hope Metro takes the time to brainstorm and get public input for more suggestions. This is a great opportunity, so let’s make the most of it.

Still tweaking the reimagining

An updated version of Metro’s reimagined bus network will be out soon.

The so-called reimagining plan, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority began studying more than a year ago, touches every bus route in the sprawling Houston-area system. Changes will take effect in June, with Metro planning some early testing of new services and a massive public information campaign prior to the launch.

Staff plans to unveil the updated, final plan for the system to the transit agency’s board on Jan. 29. Though officials originally said the changes would not increase costs, correcting issues raised during the process might lead to increases in bus service, which would require more money.

The new system abandons routes that haven’t shifted as the region’s population moved farther from the city’s core or adjusted as transit-dependent residents moved in large numbers to areas like Gulfton and northeast Houston.

Supporters say the new system will include frequent east-west and north-south lines that are fed by less frequent routes that fill in the rest of the service area.

In some areas where Metro officials said ridership was low, the plan controversially introduces “flex zones” where riders can call a bus roving in the area. This bus would take them to a destination within the specified zone, or to a nearby transit center where they could connect with regular bus service.

Residents in the northeast part of Houston, where three of the flex zones are planned, have balked at the proposal.

“We are not in the position to experiment,” said Otis Robinson, a part-time Metro bus driver who has led some of the opposition to the flex zones in his Tidwell-area neighborhood.

Robinson said neighbors would prefer regular service. He said ridership on current routes is low because Metro doesn’t provide frequent service to places residents want to go.

See here for the background. If this winds up costing Metro some money, I doubt that’s a big issue. If nothing else, one would hope that the increased sales tax revenue that is now coming their way ought to help pay for whatever expansion of service would be required. As for the “flex zone” question, I honestly don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe take the residents’ word for it and have fixed routes with higher levels of service in those areas, with flex zones as the fallback in case ridership doesn’t increase? Like I said, I don’t know. I look forward to seeing what the updated map looks like.

Metro gets some new rail cars online


Eight of the long-delayed railcars needed to expand light rail service in Houston are expected to start ferrying passengers in the first week of 2015, promising some relief from rush-hour crowding, transit officials said Thursday.

The cars, the first of 39 from CAF U.S.A. to clear their testing, are ready to roll, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority president Tom Lambert. Drivers are about a week from completing their training. The new arrivals are the third brand of railcar to run along Houston’s light rail system.

Seven had completed their “burn-in period” as of Thursday, Metro executive vice president Terence Fontaine said. An eighth was likely to finish its 1,000 miles of testing along Houston’s lines by Christmas.

“Our intent is to put those cars into service first of next year,” Lambert told Metro board members.

The railcars, built in Elmira, N.Y., are months behind original schedules. Manufacturing problems delayed delivery, and issues with the first cars caused further setbacks. The final train isn’t expected to arrive in Houston until May and will need weeks of testing before it can enter service.


Additional cars also allow Metro to pull some of the older trains for service, agency planning director Kurt Luhrsen said. The original Siemens cars, which opened the Red Line in 2004, are ready for some scheduled maintenance. The new trains allow for those to be pulled without disruptions to service.

The surplus won’t last long, however. Officials plan to open the Green and Purple lines east and southeast of downtown on April 4. By then, Luhrsen said, officials plan to have 14 of the new trains in service. A minimum of 12 are needed to have a single car arrive every 12 minutes along the two new lines.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just glad to see some good news on this. Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of the delays.

Treating all fares the same

Good idea.

A six-month test starting in February will gauge the effects of letting cash-paying rail riders switch to buses for free.

The vast majority of riders use a Q card, day pass or some other form of Metro payment. Transfers with those items are free, provided subsequent trips are along the system and not just a reverse of the current trip. That prevents a rider from making a round trip on one fare, officials said.

About 10 percent of riders use cash, and about 4 percent use cash and transfer, according to Metro. The cash trips don’t include a free transfer because Metro eliminated a way to track transfers when it moved to the Q card in 2008.


A lack of convenient transfers is especially cumbersome for rail users who don’t use Q cards. Riders who pay with cash or a credit card receive a paper ticket. During the pilot, those tickets will be good for bus trips within three hours after the ticket was purchased.

As part of the pilot program, bus drivers will have day pass cards to give to riders, which they can load with money on board the bus.

“Fundamentally, I think this solves our biggest problem,” said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

The details are a bit unclear in this story, but the basic idea is that if you transfer from a rail line to a bus on the same trip you don’t have to pay a second fare, regardless of how you paid for your initial trip. This is how it should be, and how it was before the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro team undid it. This is one of many things Metro is doing to boost ridership, with rail expansion and bus route reimagining being high on the list. Honestly, just the fact that Metro is doing a better job engaging with the community – you know, the people that actually ride the buses and trains – is a big step forward. I hope it translates into better numbers, but whatever it does, this needed to happen.

Uptown BRT moving forward again

Good news.

Tensions are easing over plans to develop dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, where community leaders want to give commuters and shoppers more transportation options and relieve worsening congestion.

“We’re there and ready to make this project happen,” said John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, the agency leading the project to run express buses along Post Oak Boulevard and Loop 610. The buses would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Northwest Transit Center.

Breeding and others said buses should start rolling on Post Oak in mid-2017.

Lately, the project has been mired in disputes between Metro and Texas Department of Transportation officials. After Metro officials balked at an agreement TxDOT requested to ensure the project was only for buses and would not be converted to rail in the future, state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley proposed moving $25 million from Uptown to an unrelated project.

The state funds would pay for elevated bus lanes along Loop 610. Moseley had said the disagreement indicated the Loop 610 project wasn’t ready to move forward.

Although its absence would not kill the project, the Loop 610 component would dramatically improve the travel time to the Northwest Transit Center. Faster, more reliable service would increase use of the lanes, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

On Wednesday, Moseley said TxDOT had agreed to keep its funding for the project on the table until February, providing enough time for Metro to resolve its concerns about agreeing to a bus-only project. Voters in 2003 authorized the agency to build light rail in the corridor.

“Metro has asked for some extra time,” Moseley said. “We support this project and think that is reasonable. That gives us an extra period of time to look at authorizing the money.”

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he was optimistic the various players could agree on issues skeptics have raised about mass transit in the Uptown area.

“I am trying to use this project as an opportunity to put some of those things to rest,” Garcia said during a meeting meant to update board officials on the Uptown project. “Try to bring some of the people together and find out where is the common ground.”

See here for the last update. I’m glad to see Moseley and TxDOT acting more reasonably, though I’m still annoyed that they’re dictating terms that would stand in contradiction to the 2003 Metro referendum. I suppose I can live with that if we can finally get this project off the ground. The Highwayman has more.

Who needs managed lanes?

Not TxDOT, and not on 290.

State transportation officials have changed plans for widening U.S. 290, increasing capacity for people driving alone but reducing opportunities for alternatives to solo driving.

After initially planning four or five general use lanes in each direction and three reversible managed (toll and carpool) lanes in the center, Texas Department of Transportation officials are now planning for a single managed lane. This lane, however, will extend to Mason Road, much farther than it does now, said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the U.S. 290 widening project.

Reducing the space for carpool and toll lanes gives officials room to add one or two more general use lanes in some spots, making five or six free lanes available.


Eventually, Othon said, a tollway is planned along Hempstead Highway, providing carpool and transit access. A 50-foot corridor along this tollway is expected to one day carry high-capacity transit such as commuter rail.

The Hempstead corridor projects, however, remain well beyond state and local officials’ current funding plans.

Othon said additional general use lanes on U.S. 290 would help relieve the immense demand drivers place today on the freeway. About 240,000 vehicles use the freeway daily, based on TxDOT counts.

A reduction in managed lanes, however, means options other than driving alone become less attractive. Interstate 10 west of downtown Houston has managed lanes in both directions, providing a bigger benefit for those who use transit or share a ride.

“The point is to add capacity,” said Christof Spieler, a member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro officials urged TxDOT to build two-way managed lanes to improve transit options. Buses across Houston use the managed lane system – Metro maintains many of the lanes – because they typically enable buses to make quicker trips between suburban park-and-ride locations and major job centers. If buses are stuck in the same traffic solo drivers are, they lose their advantage, transit officials said.

I have no idea what drove that decision, and I have to say it’s a little disconcerting for it to happen without any public input. The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s very self-limiting. You can only have so many single-occupancy vehicles on the road at any one time. Increase the number of people per vehicle, increase the number of riders on buses headed to and from park-and-ride lots, and you can move a lot more people on the same number of lanes. Why would you not want to do that? Has TxDOT not noticed how crowded the massively-widened Katy Freeway has been getting lately? To say that the Hempstead Highway option is “well beyond state and local officials’ current funding plans” is putting it mildly. Look how long it’s taken to get this part of the 290 construction project going. Nothing about this makes sense, but that’s TxDOT for you. The Highwayman has more.

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

Despite vocal opposition, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members tentatively approved sweeping changes to the bus route system that restructure routes and change daily habits for nearly everyone who uses a bus today. The approval authorizes staff to move forward with scheduling and other features, but it doesn’t close off public comment.

“We can continue to work with the community and continue to work with elected officials,” said board member Christof Spieler, one of the champions of the so-called reimagining plan.

Community leaders and elected officials asked Metro to delay their decision for a month.

“Once you vote on it, they are in concrete,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who represents large portions of northeast Houston affected by the service changes.

Board members settled on letting staff move forward, but in a way that permits concerned riders to voice their opposition over the next two months.


To pull off the major changes, staff will have to plan schedules for 270 routes. Some have different hours for weekdays and weekends, while others have peak schedules when ridership is highest. It is expected to take months to finalize the work, then hold more public meetings to gauge reaction before switching to the new routes in June.

Metro will continue to solicit input from the public on the plan, and will continue to make adjustments as they go. A lot of the opposition came from residents of the Fifth Ward, and a lot of their concern had to do with the proposed flex routes, which are a new and unproven idea in Houston though they’ve been used elsewhere. The Fifth Ward has a population that is both transit-dependent and shrinking, which is a tough problem to grapple with. As Christof Spieler points out in the story, there are places in Houston like Gulfton that are of a similar socioeconomic profile and equally transit dependent but which have much denser populations. These areas, which have been underserved by Metro in the past, stand to be big winners from the new bus service. How do you balance the needs while staying within the budget? There are no easy answers. Metro’s press release is here, Texas Leftist has more.

The Metro board took action on a couple of other items as well. The Highwayman reports:

Metro moved forward with other issues, but many uncertainties remain. Board members approved resolving a spat between Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation over a planned elevated bus lane along Loop 610 in the Uptown area.

The elevated lane is part of a project, led by the Uptown Houston Management District, involving dedicated bus lanes and rapid service along Post Oak Boulevard. TxDOT, which previously committed $25 million to the elevated lane, asked Metro for assurances that the project was not a precursor to rail development.

Metro officials balked at the TxDOT agreement, fearing it violated the 2003 referendum voters approved for rail projects in the Houston area. Thursday, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia proposed approving the agreement, with the caveat that Attorney General Greg Abbott verify it doesn’t violate the referendum.

“I don’t want Metro for any way to be the reason this project is not going forward,” Garcia said.

The board also agreed that any future rail development along Post Oak would require voter approval.

Meanwhile, after acknowledging delays in opening the new Green and Purple light rail lines, Metro officials said they expect both new lines will open April 4. The delay was caused by downtown hotel construction that severed a chilled water line that required repairs to the rail system, and problems with axle counters along the lines caused by a manufacturer’s defect.

See here for the background on the former, and here for the latter. I hate giving in to the TTC’s strongarming, but the project does need to go forward, and Metro was in a precarious position. At least they have an option if the AG opinion goes their way. As for the new opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, all I can say is that I sure hope this is the last time it needs to be pushed back. Metro’s press release on that is here.

Metro still tweaking its reimagined bus plan

Still a work in progress.

Sweeping changes to Houston’s bus system are on pace for approval later this month, though some features of the new routes and schedules will be a work in progress.

Five so-called “flex zones” planned in areas where ridership is low but service is crucial will undergo further study and another round of public meetings, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said. A pilot of the zones where riders will call in for transit trips also is planned.

“I have always known that, unlike the bus route restructuring, the flex zones introduce a new thing,” said Metro board member Christof Spieler, chief proponent of proposed route and system changes. “I have always known we would have to dig into those more.”

Metro already has hosted about 20 public meetings and a dozen sessions at local transit centers to roll out the reimagining plan, aimed at improving service so more people will hop aboard Metro buses. More meetings are planned to work through some of the remaining issues, namely the flex zones.

The plan, which officials say uses existing resources without adding operational costs, relies on heavily-traveled routes along major streets to move people around the area. To get folks to and from those frequent routes, buses that come every 30 or 60 minutes will fill in the gaps.


Flex zones already are in use in other cities, said Nancy Edmonson, one of the consultants working on the redesigned bus system. Edmonson told board members Denver has 24 zones and Dallas maintains nine.

In Denver, the system allows people to call two hours to two weeks in advance of a trip, or book online. During peak commuting times, the bus operates between transit centers and certain spots, like a normal fixed route, meaning no reservations are required.

In Houston’s case, there is some predictable timing built into the plan, despite the flexible timing and some unresolved issues.

“What we are reasonable sure of is the bus is at the transit center every hour and the same time every hour,” Spieler said.

He said other details will be worked out after more public meetings in the neighborhoods affected. Those discussions, however, will come after Metro largely sets itself on a course for the new system.

“We do not feel we need to have the flex zones worked out before we go forward with the system changes,” Spieler said.

Here’s the description and location of the flex zones. There have been some changes made to the overall plan and to the flex zone concept since the original reimagining map was introduced – see here for an updated presentation to the Metro board. Texas Leftist has been following this and had some concerns about the flex zones that Metro has begun to address. Clearly, Metro needs to keep the conversation going with its riders, especially those in these zones. I continue to think the reimagined system has a lot of potential and I’m glad to see Metro incorporate the feedback that it’s been getting. The Highwayman has more.

Christof Spieler: On reimagining the bus network

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

At METRO, we’re proposing to redesign every bus route in Houston. We call it Reimagining, and I think that it will be one of the most important improvements in the modern history of Houston transit — alongside the park-and-ride system, the light rail lines, and the creation of METRO itself.

We started this process because our riders told us that the current bus system isn’t working well. We saw this in comments we got at public meetings, and we saw it in a 20% drop in ridership from 1999 to 2012 — a drop that occurred even as the amount of service METRO operates increased. I can say from personal experience that our riders are right. I ride the bus often; for several years, before I got a new job on the rail line, it was my daily commute. Too many of our routes are infrequent and circuitous. Too many connections are unreliable and out-of-the-way. The system as a whole is too hard to understand. Weekend and evening service is minimal.

We knew we could do better. But until we engaged a team of local and international consultants, assembled a task force of stakeholders representing the people who use the system, and worked through the process of designing a new system from scratch based on all the data we have of where people live, where people work, and where people are riding transit today, we had not idea of how much better.

It turns out that we can do a lot better.

We can make frequent service available to more people. Frequency is the most important component of high-quality transit. If a bus comes every 15 minutes, you can just show up at the stop without consulting a schedule. You don’t have to plan your life around the bus; it is there for you when you need it. Today, 534,000 people live within 1/2 mile of 7-day-a-week frequent bus service; under the reimagined system 1,126,000 do. Of our 207,000 current riders, 99,000 will see their trips upgraded from infrequent service to frequent service. Within that zone of frequent service, they have access to 998,000 jobs, to colleges and universities, to retail centers, to parks, to places of worship, and to medical care.

We can dramatically increase weekend service. If someone depends on transit, they need to get to the store on Sunday, not just to work on Monday, and the people who work at that store need to get to work on Sunday. Today, METRO operates only 40% as much local bus service on Sunday as on a weekday. 20 of METRO’s local routes don’t run at all on Sunday. In the reimagined system, every route will run seven days a week, and the bus will come as often on Sunday morning as it does at midday on a weekday. 10,000 current riders who have no Sunday service today will get it.

We can make it easier to get around a multicentric city. Today, nearly every bus route goes Downtown, but most of our riders are trying to go elsewhere. We’re forcing them to go Downtown first to transfer to go wherever they want to go. That takes them out of their way and slows them down. The reimagined system will create a grid of east-west and north-south routes, creating connections all over the city and serving major employment centers from Greenspoint to Westchase. Today, someone going from the Heights to Memorial city has to first go east to Downtown to catch a bus west. In the new system, they ride west to the Northwest Transit Center and connect there. That will reduce an 89 minute trip to 50 minutes, saving that rider 6 hours over a five day workweek.

We can make the system easier to understand and to use. METRO’s current routes are accidents of history. Some date back to old streetcar routes, tweaked over time but never rethought. The results are confusing. Shepherd, for example, is served by the 26/27 south of 20th, the 50 from 20th to Crosstimbers, the 44 from Crosstimbers to Tidwell, nothing from Tidwell to Parker, and the 66 north of Parker, (plus a few other overlapping routes.) The new system is designed to make routes as logical as possible. On Shepherd, for example, there will be one route that runs the entire length of the street. That also makes it easier to name routes in a way that describes where they actually go.

We can make trips faster. By making routes more frequent to reduce wait times and by making trips more direct with the grid, we can make trips a lot faster. The team looked at 30 locations all over the network and analyzed all possible trips between them. 58% will be at least 10 minutes faster with the new network; 28% will be at least 20 minutes faster. We can also make trips more reliable, reducing by 30% how often our buses cross freight rail lines at grade.

We can provide service tailored to neighborhoods. A grid of fixed route buses works will in areas like Southwest Houston, with high population density, well spaced and connected arterial streets, and destinations that line up along those streets. In the Northeast, though, we have lower densities, a fractured street network, and scattered destinations. Today, we serve those areas with meandering low-frequency routes. We have the budget to keep doing that, but we think we can serve these areas better with flex zones: buses that circle a neighborhood and deviate on request to where ever someone wants to get picked up or go. These connect to fixed routes at transit centers, connecting those residents into the entire network.

This plan is about making people’s everyday lives better. It will give our current riders faster, more reliable, more frequent service. It will also make transit a useful option for more people; we project it will grow ridership by 20%. It will do all this with minimal negative impacts — 93% of current riders will be able catch a bus at the same stop they do today, and 99.5% within 1/4 mile of their current stop — and within current resources. We think the reimagined network plan will also build a foundation for the future: the system structure makes it easy to extend routes, increase frequency, add more lines to the grid, and overlay express service as the region continues to grow.

Now that we’ve unveiled this draft plan, it’s time for our riders and everyone else who lives in the METRO service area to have their say. Nobody knows a neighborhood as well as the people who live or work there, so we know we’ll get some good ideas for improvements. We’re holding public meetings across the area, and setting up information tables at transit centers to get input from our riders, but the easiest way to see the plan and send us your comments is to go to

Why, people have asked me, didn’t METRO do this long ago? Because change is hard. Few cities ever undertake a blank sheet reexamination of their bus systems; they tend to focus on route expansions, and big capital projects. Few transit agency staffs are willing to let go the systems they know well, few boards are willing undertake something so complicated, and few elected officials want to take the inevitable pushback that comes with any change to a system that people depend on every day. METRO has always spent a lot on money on operating the local bus network, but in the past agency leadership never paid much attention to it. This board knows that the bus system is at the core of what we do, and once we got the agency back on a sound financial footing, we committed to making sure we run the best system we can. If you think this plan does that, we need your support to make it happen.

Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP is a METRO board member and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, Director of Planning at Morris Architects, and Senior Lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture. He relies on METRO for most of his daily trips.

Ed. note: See also Christof’s article in Offcite.

Metro unveils draft bus re-imagining

Here’s your proposed new bus system.

Transit planners kicked off a major shift in Houston bus service Thursday, betting that the benefit of faster service on key routes will outweigh riders’ concerns about adjusting to new schedules and service patterns.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday released a draft of its “reimagining” plan, intended as a sweeping upgrade to the region’s bus system. The map, which officials say will change over the next few months based on public suggestions, focuses on distributing service more efficiently.

Some officials said the plan, if approved in about four months, could help increase ridership by 20 percent or more after two years.

Metro buses, still operating on a system largely developed in the 1980s, are essentially delivering the best service for Houston in 1990, said Geoff Carlton, a consultant on the reimagining plan.

“New job centers exist that maybe didn’t a while ago and we need to respond to serving them,” Carlton said.

Often, bus routes are redundant, especially downtown, wasting resources. Some buses also take circuitous routes to cover neighborhoods where few people ride.

The changes involve about the same about of service, but make service on some major lines much more frequent by developing a grid pattern. Popular north-south and east-west routes that pass by major job centers like Greenway Plaza, southwest Houston and the Uptown area will have buses arriving every every 15 minutes or less.

Less-popular but important routes will have service every 30 minutes or less, while low-use routes in less dense areas of Houston will have service every hour or less.

With the changes, which also re-route buses to avoid some delays like freight rail crossings, 93 percent of current riders will be able to catch a ride at the same bus stop they use now, according to the analysis used to create the map.

The full Chron story is here. See for all the details, and see here for a copy of the presentation that was given to the board. As it happens, I’m in that seven percent of riders who will not be keeping his old bus stop; the current #40 bus that among other things ran down Bayland in the Heights is no more. I’ll have some other reasonable options, and as someone who generally only rides once a week it’s not a big deal. The #40 was not heavily used – the closest replacement to it, the new #17, is one of the “every hour or less” routes – and the overall gain in the system looks to be vast. Certainly, the new routes, which operate as a grid and which operate much more frequently out west where they’re really needed, are sensible and easy to understand. My first impression is positive, and I think it will go over well and will be well received. There will be plenty of opportunities to give your feedback to Metro, and I’m sure all of our friendly neighborhood light rail critics who have been just begging Metro for years to Do Something about bus service will be right there giving their honest appraisals and cheering them on. Anything less on their part would just be tacky, after all. What do you think about the new routes?

Riding that crowded train

Metro ponders its options for dealing with potential delays in the delivery of new railcars.

Metro officials said Wednesday that the best solution to an expected shortage of railcars might be to limit trains on the main light rail line to one car rather than two, freeing up cars from the current fleet to serve new lines scheduled to open in September.

Currently, Metro tethers two cars together most of the time on the decade-old Main Street line to ensure sufficient capacity.

Officials acknowledged that the decision would frustrate riders, likely leading some to abandon using the line.

“If you try to use our current fleet to run East and Southeast,” said board member Christof Spieler, referring to the new lines set to open this year, “that means leaving passengers behind.”

Officials are waiting for 39 new railcars from the manufacturer, CAF U.S.A., but they still don’t know exactly when the cars will arrive. At least two are likely to be in service by September, Metro officials said.

The company is months behind a schedule that calls for it deliver the final car by September, and it has yet to deliver a viable vehicle. The first car to arrive in Houston came in December – five months late – and still hasn’t passed a key leak test. The train also exceeds weight specifications, meaning it will cost more to operate.

Metro’s board met Wednesday to examine options for operating the new East and Southeast lines and the existing Red Line with the agency’s 37-train fleet. Both new lines are on pace to open in September, said David Couch, vice president of rail construction for Metro.

To have trains arrive every 12 minutes on the two new lines, and assuming no CAF cars arrive by opening day, Metro will have to pull 10 trains from the current route.

See here for the background. Assuming that the two that Metro thinks are likely to show up on time do so, then eight cars will need to be diverted. If “at least two” turns out to mean “more than two”, so much the better. On the other hand, any unexpected maintenance will be that much more disruptive. I don’t see how Metro has much choice for how to deal with this in the short term, so it’s really just a question of how short the short term is. A month, maybe two months, to get enough cars in so that the Main Street line doesn’t need to be cannibalized any more, that’s probably not a big deal. Longer than that, especially if the deadlines are fuzzy and promises get broken along the way, that’s a problem. Other than be prepared to sue for damages if it comes to that, I don’t know what else Metro can do about it right now.

The lost canopy

Very disappointing.

Metro officials on Thursday scaled back plans for an iconic downtown Houston transit hub where three rail lines will cross after board members grew frustrated with what they called inexcusable delays and cost overruns.

“This has been mismanaged from the get-go, and there cannot be situations where things are not budgeted fully,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Gilbert Garcia said during a board meeting. “This is precisely why we get criticism.”

Faced with a proposal to modify a design after investing time and money, board members instead chose the cheaper option of spending $1.05 million to build a basic canopy. That’s still $450,000 more than they budgeted for the hub, located between Capitol and Rusk along Main.

The block will be a major crossing of the Main Street Line, which opened in 2004, and the East and Southeast lines slated to open in late 2014. Because of its status as the transfer point from the rail lines, Metro officials wanted to brand the stop with a larger canopy and features that drew attention to the rail line as a special downtown asset.

“This is the kind of thing where if you look at successful transit systems, they are not bare-bones systems,” board member Christof Spieler said.

Metro officials solicited teams to propose iconic designs and assembled a jury to choose a preferred plan. The panel made its recommendation on schedule in February 2012, but Metro did not ratify the winner until September 2013, 18 months later than planned.

Interim CEO Tom Lambert said officials still were piecing together exactly how the station planning got off course. By the time officials started assessing the cost overruns and timing, Lambert said, they found themselves in a predicament.

“There was not enough time,” he said. “We cannot have a station without any cover.”

Clearly, someone dropped the ball, and no one noticed it lying there on the ground until it was too late. Not having it – having it replaced by a more mundane canopy – won’t break anything, but Spieler is right that successful transit systems have character to them. If you’ve ever used New York’s subway system, especially at certain stations, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s still possible to salvage something out of this – the firm that submitted the winning design is still committed to it and has been trying to rejig it to lower the cost – but that may require someone with deep pockets to step in and clean up the mess. Let’s hope Metro figures out what happened and makes sure it doesn’t happen again. The Highwayman and Swamplot have more.

More riders, fewer routes

Metro keeps moving towards its re-imagined bus service, which is aimed at increasing ridership.

Currently, Metro operates on a philosophy that half its resources should go toward high-performing routes and half to making sure everyone has convenient access to a bus stop.

By re-directing most of those resources, the same number of buses can provide more frequent service on fewer routes, which advocates say could make more people want to ride.

“It is not just about people who are riding today,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “It is about people who are not riding today.”

Increasing the number of buses on key routes and running faster service in fewer places could increase ridership as much as 25 percent, consultant Geoff Carleton told a Metro committee Tuesday. Refocusing 90 percent of resources on ridership areas, would leave fewer than 2 percent of current riders without a bus stop within a half-mile of where they live, he said.

The new figures, Carleton said, show Metro will see greater ridership gains for less sacrifice than estimated when discussions started in September. By adjusting some bus lines and, essentially, redrawing all the routes, planners found they could cover more area than initially thought, while keeping bus service close enough to where more riders live.

“People are willing to walk farther for faster, more frequent service,” Carleton said.

Transit officials have been receptive to more focus on ridership, but most prefer a 70-30 or 75-25 division between ridership and coverage. By putting 70 to 75 percent of its resources toward routes where ridership is likely to grow, Metro estimates increased ridership of 12-to-15 percent. That plan would leave fewer than .05 percent of Metro’s tens of thousands of daily riders without access to buses within a half-mile of their homes.

Not clear from the story if Metro is going for the 90% plan or the 70 to 75% plan. It may still be under discussion at this time. I don’t know what the sweet spot is for maximizing ridership and minimizing loss of coverage, but achieving a 25% gain in ridership in return for inconveniencing (or worse) two percent of existing riders seems like a reasonable trade. Assuming one isn’t in that two percent, of course. How Metro handles that – you can already imagine the local news stories about sympathetic people who now have to walk a mile to their bus stop – will be at least as big a determining factor in the success of this project as the ridership numbers themselves.

Spieler warned that many riders will be in for a surprise, even if their bus access stays relatively the same. They may retain bus service, he said, but more frequent buses on fewer routes means adjustments to daily schedules will have to be made.

“People are used to what they have right now,” he said. “Change is hard and we expect to get a roomful of people when we roll out the changes.”

As long as no one promises that if they like their bus route they can keep it, I guess. I carpool into downtown nowadays with my wife, but I wind up taking the bus once or twice a week because she needs to run an errand or because one of us needs to leave or arrive at a different time or whatever. The bus I take is the #40 and it runs pretty frequently – I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait more than ten or fifteen minutes for a bus, and it’s usually much less than that. I’m rooting for it to not change much, but we’ll see.

The Uptown plan is as much about HOV as it is BRT

Maybe more.

Most discussion of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone’s plan, which goes before City Council this week, has been about a proposal to annex Memorial Park into the zone and spend $100 million restoring the drought-stricken park. The centerpiece of the zone’s plan, however, is a $187.5 million vision to widen and rebuild Post Oak Boulevard with dedicated bus lanes in the middle, build 7,500 feet of elevated bus lanes on the West Loop, and finance a transit center and parking garage at Westpark and the West Loop.

“We’re doing a lot to improve streets in the Uptown area to help make it more convenient for people to get around, but getting to the Uptown area, we’ve done about all we can with the automobile,” said John Breeding, director of the Uptown zone. “What we need to do is find some way to grow our transportation supply, and that is by bringing in transit.”

Breeding stressed that Post Oak’s existing six lanes and protected left turn lanes would be preserved.

More than 65 percent of Uptown workers live to the southwest and northwest in areas served by HOV lanes and Metro’s park and ride service, Breeding said, but just 10 of 300 daily park and ride buses visit the Galleria; most go downtown.

“We are badly underserved right now,” said Kendall Miller, an Uptown zone board member. “We have some local routes that kind of go through us, we have some van pools that are organized by the big companies. It’s very ad lib.”

About 37 percent of all downtown workers take a Metro vehicle to work, Breeding said, and 62 percent of them make more than $80,000 a year, showing people choose transit for many reasons and that everyone from oil executives to retail clerks would use the buses if they served Uptown.


Metro board member Christof Spieler said about half the people who live in areas served by park and rides use the service, adding that Metro has long wanted to add Uptown to that list.

“It’s never been possible because, in order to get from the Northwest Transit Center or the Southwest Freeway to Uptown, those buses would have wound up stuck in same traffic with everyone else,” he said. “I really think this is a game-changer for transit in one of our most important job centers.”

City Councilman Oliver Pennington, who represents the area, said Greater Houston Partnership data show there are almost 200,000 jobs in his district, 91 percent of which are filled by workers living elsewhere, creating “a terrific traffic nightmare.” The proposed transit plan would make the area more competitive and more livable, he said.

“I’m a firm believer that we need some things to show what a great city we are. I think it will not only serve the people, but it will show the world that Houston is doing things for its citizens. We need some physical evidence of the kind of life that we enjoy here.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I think this is the first mention I’ve seen of elevated bus lanes for the West Loop, which would enable the park and ride buses to avoid the traffic of the Loop and thus be more attractive to potential riders. It certainly makes sense to expand the park and ride network into Uptown, and I do think it will be heavily used once that happens. Having the support of CM Pennington makes approval of the TIRZ expansion very likely, though I’m sure there will be some lively discussion given the Memorial Park concerns that have been raised.

Expansion of the TIRZ is still a necessary condition for any of this to go forward. Funding for this plan is dependent in part on a grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council, which has not yet approved said funding but could take the matter up once soon.

The proposals could come for consideration before the regional group’s Transportation Policy Council – the body responsible for allocating the federal grants – on May 24 or June 28, said Alan Clark, H-GAC’s transportation director.

“The council allocated around $400 million in grants at its April 26 meeting. The projects in question were not slated for action, but money was held back so these projects can be considered,” Clark said.

Before the proposals go for a TPC vote, an H-GAC advisory committee will consult with the Texas Department of Transportation about one phase of the plan that would involve linking bus service on Post Oak to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center, Clark said.

Current ideas include creating a grade-separated bus way above the main lanes of Loop 610 that would be connected to a Post Oak transit line, he said.

“Because this (the connection between Post Oak and the Northwest Transit Center) is so integral to the overall plan and its anticipated benefits, the Technical Advisory Committee wants to do further study,” Clark said.

Again, I feel confident that this will go through, but it’s fine if H-GAC wants to take its time and think about it some.

One other point to stress about all this is that by extending Metro’s park and ride network into Uptown, which includes the BRT lanes on Post Oak, we are also building for even more expansion and connections in the future. The Westpark transit center would obviously be of use when the University line finally gets built. If there is ever a commuter rail line along US 290, the Northwest transit center, which is the northern endpoint of this project, would be the gateway from it into Uptown. Adding a node to a network has value beyond the node itself. This plan has a lot to offer for Uptown, but it’s potentially very good for the big picture as well.

Biking to transit

KUHF has an update.

Metro’s Strategic Planning Committee got an update on the “Bike and Ride” Access Study. Metro says it wants to make it easier for Houstonians to combine bike and bus travel.

Metro officials say between 10,000 and 15,000 people every month bring their bikes aboard when they use the bus. Every bus has a rack on front that can hold two bikes.

Initial results of a survey by Metro and the Houston-Galveston Area Council show many more riders would like to bring their bike on a bus or train, but they don’t know how transit fits into their travel choices.

Metro board member Christof Spieler says the goal of the study is to find ways to hook up bike trails with transit centers.

“And what those bike trails end up being, is they end up being ways to extend our light rail system. If you live in the Heights you might not have a light rail station, but you’ll have a bike trail that will lead you directly to a light rail station.”

I’ve discussed the bikes on trains issue before, and as noted in my first link remain hopeful that as the new light rail lines are completed and new rail cars are purchased that Metro will extend the hours in which you are allowed to bring your bike onto a train to include rush hour. The figures monthly bike boardings on Metro buses is in line with what Metro had previously reported. It’s a non-trivial amount, but there is surely room for that number to grow. More train service, more bike-on-train hours, and better bus service should help with that. I don’t know if anyone has articulated a goal for bike-to-transit usage – 20,000 combined bike-on-bus/train boardings per month? Thirty thousand? Fifty thousand? – but we should have one, and we should have a strategy for how to reach that goal. I hope that subject comes up as Metro and H-GAC evaluate the results of the survey, which you can still take.