Houston’s Transportation Lessons For Other Cities: A Road, Bus & Rail Checklist

The city should avoid fancy rail projects, in favor of road and bus strategies that will actually move people around.

Tory Gattis | January 27, 2018 | |
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[This is the second article in a 2-part series on the transportation lessons to take from Houston. Here is part 1. Both articles were originally published on the blog Houston Strategies.]

Houston has not completely avoided the light rail bandwagon. In 2004, it opened a $300-million 7.5-mile “Main St.” line that links downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Hermann Park, Rice University, the Texas Medical Center, and the Reliant Park stadium and convention center complex.

Ridership has been high, although there is some dispute on how many of those are new transit riders. Many previously continuous bus routes now transfer riders to the rail and then require them to transfer again to a new bus. In fact, while rail ridership has been high, overall Metro transit ridership has dropped noticeably since the line opened and bus routes were changed to connect to it.

This has proven to be the biggest risk of building rail. Transit agencies, obsessed with proving that the large capital investment was worth it, try to push as many riders onto the train as possible by canceling competing bus service (even if it’s faster) and forcing transfers whenever possible. Overall trip times increase and transit ridership drops.

Where Houston has been smart with light rail is in keeping it focused on short-distance local trips and not trying to make it useful for long-distance commuter transit (where HOV express buses shine). For example, New York has subways for local transit, and heavy rail for commuters. Local transit just needs stops, while commuter transit usually needs large park-and-ride lots or garages. Most cities these days try to stretch one mode to perform both functions, and end up with a dysfunctional hybrid that doesn’t have enough stops to be useful for local trips, but has too many stops painfully slowing it down for commuter trips. Houston’s line has stops roughly every half-mile along its 7.5 mile length, making it great for local trips with short walks, but slowing it to 17 mph net speed.

This local focus makes Metro’s new LRT/BRT network extremely complimentary to express bus and vanpool commuter transit by allowing people to get around the core easily during the day for meetings, errands, or lunches without their car, thus making the decision to ride commuter transit an easier one.

Metro has also made the smart decision to use more bus rapid transit (BRT) as it expands the core network from 7 to 30 miles over the next 7 years, cutting the cost per mile roughly in half and improving the chances of federal funding.

Summarizing Lessons Learned from Houston

  • Investing in freeways, tollways, and HOV does improve mobility. Yes, there is some “induced demand,” but congestion is reduced to fewer hours per day and more people get more access to affordable housing. Simply compare 6-lane I-5 in LA with 12-lane I-5 in Orange County to see the difference.
  • Improved mobility provides access to more affordable housing for middle class families.
  • Improved mobility also maximizes the potential customer base for entrepreneurial small businesses, increasing economic vibrancy.
  • Freeway frontage roads with convenient commercial businesses are a good idea. They are not always aesthetically attractive, but they do provide a noise and pollution buffer for residential areas and make it far more politically feasible to expand capacity in the future.
  • Stopping new highway construction does not stop sprawl. It simply shifts jobs from the core to the suburban periphery, leading to a deteriorating tax base in the older core city.
  • Remember that transit is not about fancy and expensive commuter trains – it’s about cost-effectively getting people out of their cars by offering faster trips.
  • Evaluate transit agencies on boosting overall ridership and trip market share – not ridership on specific rail lines.
  • Aggressively develop a comprehensive network of congestion-priced toll lanes to support round-the-clock high-speed commuter service: buses, vans, carpools, and even single-occupant vehicles willing to pay.
  • Use the toll revenue to support construction of additional lane and transit capacity. Taxpayers will be more supportive if they think the revenues are supporting enhanced mobility rather than going into the general tax revenue fund.
  • Regional authorities (like counties) have a better “big picture” view to push needed mobility projects over the objections of NIMBY municipalities, and they need the power to do it.Houston has benefited from the regional view of dominant Harris County, which has the substantial majority of the population in the metro area.
  • Set up mechanisms and incentives for cooperation among major agencies.

That’s it. Hope you enjoyed it. Comments welcome…

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