Transformative transit: Houston’s reconfigured transit system

By Mary Ebeling

The City of Houston Metro Transit Agency, after years of declining transit ridership associated with dispersal of jobs and other destinations away from the city’s core service area, embarked on an ambitious multi-year effort to redesign its system to better serve the community’s transportation needs. Through partnerships with an array of stakeholders, the agency determined that the old bus network faced both geographical and temporal challenges. It no longer served current employment centers or other critical destinations, and it failed to provide frequent and useful service to people needing to travel outside the traditional morning and evening peak hours. As the nation’s fourth largest metro area, measuring 600-square miles, many eyes are on Houston as the switch is implemented. Lessons learned in this city about the importance of issues such as frequent service or connectivity could help guide other agencies, large and small, that are contemplating similar efforts.

To meet these challenges Metro developed a completely new network. The agency also set an ambitious goal of achieving a 20 percent increase in transit ridership within 2 years of the system reconfiguration while simultaneously working within the existing budget. The new network, as pointed out by Human Transit consultant Jarrett Walker, “provides seven-day-a-week all-day frequent service linking 1 million people to 1 million jobs, up from less than ½ million…”

Rather than taking an incremental approach, Houston’s transit agency made a complete change overnight. On Saturday, August 15th, riders used the old routes and schedules. The next day, Sunday, August 16th, the new network was in place, complete with new signs, route and stop numbers, and maps. To encourage old and new riders to try the new transit system, Houston Metro waived fares for the first week, resulting in a 24 percent increase in ridership. In addition, Metro customer service staff was available at bus stops and transit stations to assist customers with trip planning and to answer questions.  New technologies like next bus texting and smart phone apps are also in place to help smooth the transition to the new system.

The new gridded network prioritizes direct routes, better integrates with the city’s three rail lines, and offers frequent service with 15-minute headways on the busiest corridors seven days a week. Routes with lower demand run on 30-or 60-minute headways. A dual trip planner compares the new routes and frequencies with the old system maps.

Metro has heard both positive and negative feedback about the new routes. Some riders are pleased to discover their trip is shorter while others now have to juggle additional transfers. Questions related to compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act specific to service allocation have surfaced. As of this writing, the new network is less than a month into implementation, so any evaluation is still very preliminary. Going forward, Metro staff knows that it will need to make adjustments to the new system and notes that this is to be expected with such a major overhaul to a system that has not seen updates since the 1970s.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.