In Houston, the wheels on the bus go (almost) all through the town

by August 18, 2015 9:36AM ET

An unprecedented transit overhaul improves service for majority of commuters but leaves out some low-income areas

Metro Board Member Christof Spieler prepares to board a bus on the first day of new system.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America
The Houston Transtar Control Room, where the city's traffic and bus systems are monitored.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America

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.

A passenger boards a bus at the corner of Rand and Lockwood streets in Kashmere Gardens on the last day of the old schedule.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America

Houston's old bus system, like many across the U.S., assumed that many of Metro's more than 220,000 average daily riders (PDF) were traveling to downtown Houston. But in the more than three decades the bus had been operating, new satellite suburbs and commercial centers had mushrooms to the south and west of downtown and grown into new urban centers.

“The Houston conversation, like many of transit projects, began with a conversation I call the ridership-coverage tradeoff,” Walker said. “Fundamentally, if you redesign the transit network for max ridership, it would always shrink in terms of the area that it covers, so that it could run higher frequency.”

With no additional funding, Houston had to choose where to run frequent service and where to cut bus lines.

Houston's new system is a grid, north and south and east to west, and many routes connect for the first time neighborhoods that have long had poor or no bus service. According to Metro, 61 percent of the routes will run faster after the redesign. More than one-fourth of the 78 routes will run every 15 minutes, seven days a week, so that someone could go to a stop without having to look at a schedule and trust that a bus would come soon. The goal, Tom Jasien, Deputy CEO of Metro said, is to increase ridership by 20 percent in two years, when the board will evaluate whether the new system has worked.

L. Wayne Ashley, who writes the Texas Leftist blog, praised Metro for frequent service between neighborhoods, like Montrose and the Heights, that have a growing population and previously had no bus line linking them. On his blog, Ashley recounted that now his trip home from church on Sunday was cut from 45 minutes to 10.

But he wondered if the new system will attract new riders at the expense of old riders. “You are putting service in a lot of parts of town that are optional — you hope they use it but they may not,” Ashley said. “But you are taking service from areas where bus is not optional.”

A Metro customer service representative assists a rider with the new system.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America
Metro board member Lisa Gonzales Casteneda uses the Metro Bus App.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America

Metro noted that over 99 percent of current riders will have local bus service within a half-mile of their homes. But some routes that long-served low-income, minority neighborhoods that have lost population in the north and east of the city have seen their service cut.

“I don't think it's right what they did,” said Carlos, who didn't want to give his last name. Carlos lives in a north Houston neighborhood outside of the 610 beltway. The bus he used to ride ran until midnight, but the new service stops at 8 p.m. Carlos was recently laid off and spends a lot of time on the bus, going grocery shopping and meeting up with friends. Now to get home late at night, Carlos explained, he will have to take different bus and walk 15 minutes under a highway through a high-crime part of town. “I am thinking about [getting a car]. I am going to get me one, in case this doesn't work, it doesn't help,” said Carlos.

Nearly all of the routes were changed, many significantly. Metro says that 93 percent of riders will catch the bus at their former stop, and that more than half the routes are faster than they previously were.

On Monday morning, the first day for commuters to take the new system, Metro staff and 200 volunteers canvassed transit centers with paper maps and smart phones, handing out water bottles and helping riders figure out their new commute, as the temperature climbed. The transit board approved free rides for a week to help people get used to the new system and attract new riders.

At a transit station inside Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, Barrett Ochoa, 20, opened up a giant paper map and traced a woman's new bus route, as he explained it in Spanish. Ochoa interned at Metro this summer and stayed on to help during the transit change.

Bus enthusiast and Metro intern, Barrett Ochoa, 20.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America

Ochoa is from the small East Texas town of Lufkin, but fell in love with transit after visiting Houston as a child. He recently transferred from University of Houston to Texas A&M to study urban planning. Riders like Ochoa, who has a car but chooses to ride the bus, are one of the demographics that Metro is eyeing.

“I think that now, newer technologies are really redefining the old diesel bus that blew exhaust when it went by you,” Ochoa said. Metro has instituted a texting service, where riders can text a number on the stop and receive a message about when the next bus will arrive. “Transit is something that as technology improves, it does as well. That’s why this new bus network is amazing,” said Ochoa. “People don’t think of local buses as being cool or reliable, and that’s what we are doing — we're making something that you can depend on. It doesn't have a ribbon cutting ceremony.”

On Monday, Metro's Facebook page was filled with questions and comments. Some praised the new system: “No problems catching the 82 this morning. Running every 10 minutes. Love it.” Some riders said they did not know the buses had already changed and had missed their connection and were running late.

Source: Al Jazeera America reporting, Metro Houston dual trip planner

In the morning, while it was still dark, Risa Pippin and four women waited anxiously for their new bus, the 162 Memorial, which takes them from a western suburb to downtown. The route had been changed, so that instead of coming around every 15 minutes, the bus only comes once every half hour. Pippin and her fellow riders have complained to the transit authority and asked for their former bus service to be reinstated. A few of the riders still felt like there is a hidden agenda to get rid of their bus incrementally.

“The new bus schedule is not going to make life easier for me. It might make life easier for some other routes, but not this route,” Pippin said. “Not this route.”

Passenger Risa Pippin takes the 162 Bus at about 6 a.m. to her job in downtown Houston.
Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America

Pippin, who works downtown as a senior accountant at a major oil company, has been taking the bus for more than a decade. She hates to drive in Houston traffic. Pippin's mother is disabled, so every morning before she gets on the bus, Pippin drives to her mother's house, has breakfast and helps her with some chores. The new schedule means Pippin will have to get to the bus stop 30 minutes earlier and will get home 20 to 30 minutes later, adding an extra hour to her commute.

On this first trip, commuters are anxious. The bus takes about 40 minutes to drive downtown, which is longer than the old route, but not as long as the riders anticipated. However, the riders worried that the trip home will be longer than expected.

Throughout the almost two-year planning process, Spieler said, the board has listened to bus riders like Pippin and Carlos and has been open to changing routes and times in response to customers' complaints.

“The board has made it clear to staff that we will continue to get inputs from riders and the community and as we need to fine tune the network we are prepared to do that,” Tom Lambert, President and CEO of Metro explained at a press conference on Sunday. “We are going to be very responsive to the community.”

Transit companies across the country are closely studying Houston’s new system. Staff of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) travelled to Houston to observe the transition. Kelsie Marty, a marketing manager at COTA, said they hired the same consultant, Jarrett Walker. Spieler said he was shocked when someone from New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) recently approached him and bemoaned, “I wish we could do this [with New York City buses].”

“This system will continuously change,” Spieler said. “We know that, because the city's not going to stop changing, because infrastructure is changing, because demand is going to change, because we will have new ideas and because we are going to have more money.”

Spieler is excited about what this new bus system will mean for the future of Houston, but he understands that it is not going to be an easy change for some residents.

“Realize that this is not easy,” Spieler advised other cities and transit agencies. “You are dealing with people's daily lives and what they depend on and how they get around everyday and that's not an easy thing to change and that's not something to take lightly.”