Transportation

Federal Report Highlights Houston’s Transportation Woes

Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority performs well in dense, urban areas. However, it's nearly useless in suburban residential neighborhoods, according to a new analysis.

by Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle / June 13, 2016
A Houston Metro light rail car. flickr/Roy Luck

(TNS) — On an overcast day with the sky threatening rain, the wait for a bus on Dairy Ashford Road can be stressful for Monroe Weiss, fresh off a long shift as a security guard at a building in the Energy Corridor.

"If it came more often, so someone didn't have to stand out here worried about getting rained on, maybe more people would use it," said Weiss, 66, who commutes four days a week from Bellaire.

If Weiss was headed downtown as opposed to far west Houston, however, he'd have a better chance of a quicker trip on public transit, even under Metro's revamped bus system.

Like many bus and rail agencies in the U.S., Metropolitan Transit Authority's bus and rail network in Houston performs well in dense, urban areas where bus stops might be every half-block and connections are common. It's nearly useless in suburban residential neighborhoods where demand is more limited because of car ownership and handicapped by no bus service.

The latest assessment comes from a new comprehensive analysis that combined population and local job information with public transit routes to deliver a complete look at how well transit systems serve specific neighborhoods in Houston and every city nationwide with bus or rail systems.

Metro officials have long acknowledged the sprawling Houston area is poorly covered for regional transit, and even within its territory spreading across 1,285 square miles, service is spread thin and would be costly to add. Expanding public transit inside and outside the loop often faces persistent opposition from some vocal residents and elected officials.

Metro reconfigured its bus system in August, for example, but is still working through challenges related to improving service in more places, many of them in suburban neighborhoods.

"If you had all the money in the world, you could do door-to-door service," Metro board member Lisa Castaneda said.

The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology and TransitCenter, based in New York, said their transit project analysis gives bus and rail riders, public officials and others nationally "a collection of data of unprecedented breadth about transit connectivity, access, and frequency." They developed and posted an online U.S. public transit map in April. The AllTransit map combines the nation's 805 public transit agencies into a single system, tracking the location of 15,070 transit routes and 543,787 bus and rail stops. Those points are then overlaid with various other information, such as store locations, workplaces and employment data for U.S. Census Bureau blocks.

Improving Sparse Transit in Houston Suburbs

Houston's transit system trends like many similar cities, by being strong in the city center and weak in the suburbs. Where many buses and trains converge, and follow a much more uniform and packed series of routes, bus and rail access is improved. However, where area homes, shops and offices were developed more with cars in mind – parking lots in front and block after block of curb cuts for entrance and exit – transit usefulness diminishes.

Other southwestern and southern U.S. cities follow a similar path. For instance, Atlanta, where the city core is less than one-quarter the size of Houston, has an average transit score of 7.7 out of 10 in the city, compared with Houston's 6.2, according to the AllTransit map. For the region, however, Atlanta drops dramatically to a 2.1, while the Houston area slides to a 2.9.

Public transit supporters, such as TransitCenter officials, said they think car-only development doomed bus and rail in some cities like Houston, while civic and business leaders in other places took an opposite approach.

"A lot of the subway lines went out into farmland, but they were able to guide development for decades," said TransitCenter communications director Jon Orcutt, noting Washington is an example of a city that planned for transit rather than planning to add transit to suburban settings.

That level of progressive thinking on the issue has been lacking in Houston, where transit skeptics - usually representing suburban areas - have fought rail development efforts in recent years. In Harris County and surrounding counties, nearly 70 percent of the residents have abysmal transit access, with more than half of the local population without any meaningful bus service whatsoever for daily trips.

It's why many residents outside Houston's city limits consider transit a city-only service.

"I pay the (transit) tax, but I get nothing for it," said Paul Murtaugh, 60, who lives just inside Harris County near Tomball.

The regional transit agency includes Harris County, Houston and 14 other smaller cities. Notably, all the surrounding counties, Pearland, The Woodlands and Conroe, are not members of Metro. Montgomery County and Fort Bend County have their own limited transit systems. And The Woodlands and Conroe are working on local bus service, in addition to the current Woodlands Express commuter buses that connect workers to downtown Houston, Greenway Plaza and the Texas Medical Center.

Urging Public-Private Collaboration on Metro Expansion

Metro board Chairwoman Carrin Patman said one of her top priorities is to revise the Houston regional transit plan. Citing a disconnect in distributing transit routes in various spots, she said it will take more political collaboration, but also a willingness for everyone with a vested interest to talk.

"I have a great interest in doing whatever there seems to be collaboration for, including public-private partnerships," Patman said of improving public transit access in the greater Houston area.

Any advancement of transit must overcome or at least mute opposition. Murtaugh, like many suburban residents, said the cost of transit and lack of public interest make him skeptical of spending more. Asked if he'd pay more to deliver what would be costly service to his neighborhood miles from some of Houston's core job centers, he said "absolutely not."

"Who in their right mind would spend money to offer bus service where everyone wants to drive?" Murtaugh asked.

That mindset is not pervasive in other major cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, where car travel and transit converge daily in better harmony.

"They created communities of riders," Orcutt said, noting particularly the suburban rail offerings in each of those cities. "We found that a big predictor of if people support transit is if they can walk to transit."

Walking, meanwhile, remains a challenge for some who use transit in Houston. Part of Metro's restructuring of its bus service spaced bus stops farther apart in some areas, notably primarily residential areas outside the city. Metro board members, after seeing the initial reaction to the bus system changes, asked last month how some of the feedback Metro received that led to farther bus stops can be reconsidered. Only about 1,000 of the 1,800 responses to a question about appropriate walking distances came from Metro riders.

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"If someone that does not use transit that has plenty of money thinks that for less advantaged people it is OK for them to walk a half mile to a bus - and by the way they don't need a shelter and they don't need it paved - that really does not cut any ice with me," Patman said. "That is not our mission."

Seeing a Day When Houstonians View Bus or Rail as Alternative to Car Travel

Though it will potentially come with added costs, Metro officials said they're interested in adding service where possible, and rethinking attitudes about route decisions and transit-dependent riders throughout the region.

"Metro should be moving where people need us rather than people having to move where Metro tells them to move," said Sanjay Ramabhadran, one of the transit agency's board members.

Critics who say transit planning is government control of where people live often judge the issue unfairly, said Jacob Anbinder, a spokesman for TransitCenter. "It is no more a choice on the part of the government to control behavior than to subsidize highway construction," he said.

Transportation, in many respects, drives development, albeit sometimes slowly. Metro's light rail lines in Houston are dotted with redevelopment projects, many for homes and retail. Those apartments and condominiums, however, are dwarfed by the homes, hospitals, warehouses and stores envisioned along the Grand Parkway in western and northern Harris County.

In the past 30 months, Metro's light rail system has tripled to nearly 23 miles, at a cost of $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, state transportation officials have added 53 miles to the Grand Parkway from Interstate 10 to U.S. 59 near Kingwood at a cost of $2.9 billion.

Faced with growing congestion on freeways, many of those suburban residents, however, will look for an option beyond driving a vehicle everywhere they want to go in the Houston area, transit supporters say.

"I think five years from now the people going the farthest distances will change their habits from what they are today," Clark Martinson, general manager of The Energy Corridor, said during a panel discussion last week discussing transit and cycling options in western Houston.

©2016 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.