HOUSTON — On Saturday night hundreds of transit workers criss-crossed Houston ripping off plastic bags that had covered new bus signs at 10,450 stops.
Houston has done something that few cities undertake. On Sunday morning, millions awoke to a completely reinvented bus system.
At the downtown transit center, touch screen bus maps oriented riders to the new route. In the early morning, several passengers lined up at kiosks to find out how to get around on the redesigned system. A staff member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, best known as Metro, noticed a map of the old system still hanging in a glass case, unhooked it and rolled it up. All morning excited volunteers, staff and board members walked around giving directions and calling in small tweaks to the new bus system that has been two years in the making.
Houston has ballooned into the fourth-largest city in the U.S. (and the most ethnically diverse city in the country), with a bus system mapped in the 1970s. The population has almost doubled, but the bus map had stayed roughly the same. Like many U.S. cities, Houston no longer has one traditional city center but is made up of several densely populated urban hubs, and an increasing number of people live and work where the bus lines did not reach. Instead of changing the system piece by piece, Houston decided to reimagine the entire network from scratch. It's an unprecedented change, and cities across the country are watching Houston to see what happens.
Metro had been losing riders for more than a decade, explained Christof Spieler, a Metro board member who championed the new system. Since 1999, the number of bus riders has reportedly decreased by 20 percent. He had taken the bus for years and knew “it didn't get people where they needed to go.”
So, when Spieler joined the board in 2010, he encouraged Metro's leadership to make a bold admission.
“We said, ‘Our system is broken This is a bad system; we want to fix it.’ That's almost the first step to solving something, is actually recognizing that you have a problem.”
The board hired a public transit consulting firm, led by Jarrett Walker, author “Human Transit” a popular book and blog about transit around the world, and tasked him with arranging a new transit network from scratch.