Houston's Groundbreaking New Transit System

Today we're focusing on Texas transportation issues. Strong Towns member, James Llamas works for an engineering and planning firm that helped to build a completely new bus system in Houston. Here's the story of that successful public transit project.

It's easy to focus on the hole Texas is digging and marvel at the speed and enthusiasm with which we're making it deeper. Every year we find a new way to double down on a transportation policy singularly designed to maximize highway congestion. If ever our ability to widen is in doubt, we turn to higher powers for assistance.

But amid all of the Lone Star State’s dubious policy decisions there are actually numerous efforts under way that should interest builders of Strong Towns. Despite rapid population growth in recent years, my adoptive home of Houston has remained relatively affordable. This is thanks in large part to a regulatory environment that allowed Houston to build more housing last year than any other city in the country, including a healthy amount of small-scale infill. While most development in the city is governed by a dreadful form-based code defined by setbacks and parking requirements and some areas have a private form of zoning called deed restrictions, we are mostly unencumbered by “traditional” zoning. In fact, a 2.5 square mile area of the central city has no minimum parking requirements whatsoever.

Perhaps the most innovative effort Houston has undertaken in recent years, and an example for aspiring Strong Towns, was the transit agency’s decision to throw out its entire eighty-route local bus system and draw a new one from scratch. Known as Transit System Reimagining, the project was developed over the last three years and implemented in August 2015 as METRO’s New Bus Network. I was fortunate to work on the project as my firm, TEI, led a diverse consulting team that included network design expert Jarrett Walker.

What would possess a transit agency to change every route in its system overnight?

What would possess a transit agency to change every route in its system overnight? Despite Houston’s population growth, successful light rail line, and highly effective commuter bus network, the local bus system was losing ridership. As regional growth made transportation challenges in the city more acute, it desperately needed a transit system that could relieve some of the burden from the streets. Instead, fewer people were riding each year. The funding outlook for additional service or continued rail expansion was not favorable, so attention turned to examining the sizable operating budget. We were out of money; it was time to start thinking

The reason for the decline in boardings wasn’t difficult to see when we started mapping demographics. Houston had grown and changed dramatically over the last few decades but METRO’s route structure was largely the same as the one it inherited from its predecessor in the 1970s. The city back then was relatively centralized with a downtown employment center surrounded by the densest residential neighborhoods. The city today has numerous job centers and dense concentrations of people spread across the region. The old network was set up to take people to and from Downtown, but in the Houston of today people are traveling from everywhere to everywhere.

Before we could get down to designing a network to enable that kind of movement, we had to get clarity on how to balance the directive to increase ridership with other worthy but often conflicting goals like serving particularly needy populations or others in areas with a desire for service but where high ridership is not a possibility. While every transit agency would love to provide fantastic service to everyone in their service area, a finite operations budget means making a trade-off between desirable outcomes.

A six-month conversation with a taskforce of leaders representing stakeholders of all types as well as the community at large preceded the drawing of a single line on a map. We took the stakeholders and METRO board of directors through hands-on exercises to understand the trade-offs inherent to transit planning and how limited our resources are for serving the region. With the advice of the task force, the METRO board came to a decision directing us to design a network devoting 80% of local bus resources to maximizing ridership and the remaining 20% to maintaining access to the system for existing riders. This represented a considerable shift from the old network which, in our estimation, placed the split around 50-50.

Transit technologies have gone in and out of style over the years, but getting to one’s destination quickly and reliably has not.

Explicitly or not, every transit agency is making the decision of where to come down along the spectrum of ridership versus coverage. While “providing fantastic transportation to the citizens of Anywhere, USA” makes a feel-good goal, the geometry of transit requires this trade-off as Jarrett’s work covers extensively. The types of pressure a transit agency feels from elected officials and riders will tend to push it toward specialization, but designing for specific groups and current riders will result in a system that only works for specific groups and current riders. We know a not-insignificant portion of the transit riding public turns over each year, so it’s easy to see how this can lead to decline if services aren’t designed to be broadly useful. Useful, of course, means providing reasonable travel times to the places people want to go. Transit technologies have gone in and out of style over the years, but getting to one’s destination quickly and reliably has not.

With an actionable directive in hand, we set about an 18 month process of network design, analysis, refinement, public engagement, and more refinement in collaboration with the dedicated planning, scheduling, and public affairs staff at METRO. The services intended to achieve high ridership were designed according to the universal formula for high-ridership transit: straight, simple routes running frequently through areas of dense activity and adequate walkability. Coverage services were designed to reach the remaining locations where riders boarded the system.

The network that resulted is headlined by 22 routes (up from 11 on weekdays and 1 on Sunday) that run every 15 minutes or better, seven days a week, forming a grid across the busiest parts of the city so that the most common trips can be made with zero or one connection and short waits. This “frequent network” is supported by a few dozen routes running every 30 minutes or better and designed for future promotion to the frequent network as ridership picks up. The remaining routes run hourly into lower-ridership areas, reaching within a quarter mile of the stops of 99.5% of preexisting riders. All of this was accomplished within (roughly) the same operating budget.

The product is liberating for people like me who rely on transit for our daily transportation. On most major streets, someone can walk out to the bus stop without consulting a schedule and know confidently that a bus will be along shortly. People in Houston work, shop, and recreate seven days a week, and now all local bus routes run seven days, as well.

Early returns from the New Bus Network are very positive, with local system ridership up 8% in the third month of service. Weekend ridership spiked immediately in response to the expanded weekend service, and numbers on the light rail system are way up since the new network better complements the three new lines. Most importantly, the service matches where many people are making trips, so more and more are likely to discover that transit is now a good option for them.

A Strong Town makes the most of the resources it has available and measures the return on its investments.

A Strong Town makes the most of the resources it has available and measures the return on its investments. In METRO’s New Bus Network, particular routes are designed around one of two specific goals that are measured by clearly defined metrics. If it becomes clear that a route isn’t on track to meet the ridership goal then it will be revised or reassigned an appropriate level of service. A coverage route that surpasses ridership expectations, as one already has, will be promoted. Conversely, a coverage route will not be judged as failing if it does not achieve high ridership so long as it is still meeting a community need. These feedback loops will allow METRO to manage the network going forward so that it remains a relevant and vital part of Houston’s transportation system. Incremental responses to feedback from the system will also make it gradually more obvious where higher levels of investment, like BRT or rail, are justified: where buses are frequent and full.

I had a bit of a fan girl moment the first time I met Chuck and he already knew about our work with METRO. He said something along the lines of “I don’t know much about transit, but this totally made sense to me.” Transit in a Strong Town can be thought of as a way to intensify the street, enhancing the platform for wealth creation when congestion signals for intensified land use. That’s certainly the signal we’re getting in Houston, and the New Bus Network is prepared to help us become a stronger town.

(Top photo from Wikimedia)

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About the Author

James Llamas is a Senior Associate at Traffic Engineers, Inc. (TEI) in Houston where he works primarily on the firm’s transit, street, sidewalk, and bike planning and engineering projects. He graduated from Rice University with a B.S. and a Master of Civil Engineering. At TEI, he has played a critical role in the development of the Houston METRO Transit System Reimagining project, a blank-sheet redesign of the region’s bus network. James also serves on the board of directors of Houston Bike Share. Since moving to Houston in 2008 James chooses to rely on walking, biking, and transit for his daily transportation rather than a personal vehicle. His passion for creating great streets and liberating transit is energized by his daily experiences moving around Houston.