Houston has a shiny, new bus network

Over the past decade, Houston has invested a significant amount of resources in public transit. Most notably a new 12.8-mile light rail line runs through downtown, and other lines are either under construction or in planning. But on February 11, Houston METRO’s board of directors approved perhaps an even more transformational change to transit in the region: a new bus network, officially named the “System Reimagining Plan.”

The System Reimagining Plan essentially redrew the city’s bus map from scratch, consolidating heavily used routes onto a simplified grid-like network and eliminating lightly used buses. The transformation is impressive, as is shown on this interactive map. The agency focused resources on expanding the network of high frequency buses (waiting times of 15 minutes or less) and connecting new areas of housing and employment. Other innovative and cost-saving ideas provide better quality service to more areas of the region.

The underlying feature of the new bus network is that Houston accomplished this by only marginally increasing its existing bus fleet and operating costs. And while the $1 billion plus light rail line has attracted over 11 million annual riders (according to the National Transit Database), the redesigned bus network is expected to increase ridership in the neighborhood of 20 percent, adding 15 million new riders to the current 75 million annual riders.

Unfortunately, Houston’s redesign in of their bus network is an uncommon occurrence. Most regions are operating bus networks that have been in place for decades with little change. Though the System Reimagining Plan has attracted little national attention, it could represent a new way of thinking about how we approach our mass transit systems. The challenges associated with redesigning a bus network cannot be overstated, but when it comes to value, Houston might be providing a useful example for the rest of the country.

The concepts behind Houston’s new bus network

Leaders at Houston METRO realized that the bus network they were operating had been mostly unchanged since the early 1980s. Meanwhile the region had expanded into one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, adding millions in population and jobs. In fact, despite Houston’s population growth, transit ridership has been declining since a peak in 2001. The existing bus network is focused on serving downtown and does not provide ability for transit users to easily access the region’s polycentric development.

On METRO’s transit system reimagining webpage, they list several goals for the change, including network simplification, extended weekend service, improved reliability, and service provision to meet current and future travel patterns. Below is a summary of some of the innovative, as well as the common sense, approaches that METRO took to reimagine their bus network:

  • Simplified routes so that they are straighter and easier to remember, in part by eliminating complicated and intricate paths.
  • Created new routes or increased frequencies on other routes to create a grid network of buses running in intervals of 15 minutes or less. This will allow users to access most of the network with minimal waits and reduce transfers.
  • Eliminated several lightly used routes in suburban neighborhoods and replaced them with “flex routes” that can be served with smaller vehicles on a demand-responsive basis.
  • Reduced railroad grade crossings to increase reliability.
  • Ensured that the new network accessed some of the new job centers and population areas that have changed since the early 1980s.

While these improvements will overall be very helpful for most current and future users of the system, changing service typically has negative effects on many Houstonians. Many users could lose their current routes or have to walk further to access the new services. Others could have concerns about new routes coming through their neighborhoods. To accommodate these concerns, the METRO board made an initial reimaging map open for public comment. Over a 9-month period they held several public meetings and made modifications to the original plan.

With comments and concerns incorporated, METRO approved the reimagining plan and will begin implementation of this plan during the summer 2015.

Initial conclusions

Though the final outcomes of Houston’s bus redesign have yet to be seen, it appears Houston will receive numerous benefits with essentially no new operating or capital costs. But Houston’s case is rare nationwide because the political and equity concerns in most regions tend to outweigh the desire to recreate bus networks. It is very difficult to take a bus route away from a transit dependent rider and give that route to someone who does not know that they are going to benefit. This factor alone describes why bus networks are often neglected and seen primarily as a social service rather than a regional transportation option.

Instead of the low cost, politically challenging option, elected officials in many regions tend to prefer to build new rail and streetcar lines that leave a lasting impression. Adding new service and cutting ribbons is always politically easier than taking away something from a few, so bus lines often remain unchanged for decades. While rail investment certainly has its merits, most transit riders in the United States are on buses. Regions that have a higher portion of transit users or that have bus-only networks are going to face substantial political challenges to overcoming the initial barriers of reimagining. However these cities would have even more to gain by updating and improving with the resources that they already have.

There are three initial recommendations that we can take from the Houston case:

We need to better understand barriers to change

The political challenges that Houston and other cities face when attempting to alter their bus network are substantial. But it is difficult to understand their magnitude and what is needed to overcome these barriers. There needs to be more information about how successful regions, such as Houston, have been able to overcome these barriers and what lessons can be drawn from successful and unsuccessful attempts to redesign a bus network. This new research could help to enable other cities to follow suit.

Local level leadership must take risks

METRO leadership took a risk by altering existing bus service, and the region appears as though it will be much better served in the future. For other cities to follow in their footsteps, local leaders need to make their entire public transit systems a priority. This does not necessarily mean throwing limited dollars at the problem, but instead using some of their political capital to make lasting improvements to accessibility.

Federal incentives must be improved

Federal policy currently incentivizes investment in new rail networks or advanced bus-rapid transit. While investments in rail and BRT can bring great benefits, the federal government could retool existing programs to incentivize regions to rethink their bus networks. Grants of much smaller amounts than what it costs to build new rail lines could be used to help local transit boards and elected officials overcome the political barriers that surround a reimagining campaign.

Developers and transit choice riders claim to like rail investment because of its permanence. Once a rail line is established, it is nearly impossible to remove it and thus they can depend on the service and its economic development far into the future. However we tend to forget that almost every city in the U.S. is running a bus network that has seen very little change in half a century. Instead of seeing the flexibility of a bus as a negative, let’s imagine how we can use this to our benefit and use the bus to better serve a transit hungry population without breaking the bank.

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