Houston high frequency network GIF

How Houston Reimagined its Transit Network and Increased Ridership

Featured image credit: Laura Bliss, CityLab

As a transit-oriented blog reader, you may have heard back in 2015 that Houston’s Metro system changed the route map of its buses overnight after years of careful planning and community feedback. Now going on four years later, what has been the impact on riders and the communities they live in?

To understand the plan’s genesis, I recommend reading this 2014 blog post by Jarrett Walker, one of the transit consultants who worked on the plan for Houston. The thesis was this: If the system removed duplicate routes and routes to low-ridership areas — and instead created a grid of high-frequency routes in high-ridership areas — this would result in increased ridership with faster service for riders.

The plan devotes 80% of Metro’s resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20% to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places. Currently only about 50-60% of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome. […] This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed.

Jarrett Walker

Efficiency is a focus of the plan. It reduced freight rail crossings by 30 percent, limiting the delays caused by long trains crossing roads at slow speeds and holding up buses and other traffic. The Twin Cities’ Metro Transit system already does this to a large degree.

What was the result? Higher bus ridership, initially, and sustained improvements in light-rail ridership.

According to the Texas Tribune in 2016, average monthly bus ridership grew 3.3 percent in the 10-month period starting in September 2015, compared with the 10 months before it. Given that these statistics do not reflect a full year, some seasonal effects could have been present.

In Houston, average monthly ridership grew 3.3 percent in the 10-month period starting in September 2015, compared with the 10 months before it.

In Houston, average monthly ridership grew 3.3 percent in the 10-month period starting in September 2015, compared with the 10 months before it.

Compared with declining ridership in other metro areas, including in Texas, Houston shows how reimagining the bus grid can deliver numbers in a short period of time.

According to reporting by Government Technology, ridership in Houston has continued to grow, with most of the gains in light-rail ridership, which now connects better to the grid of high-frequency bus routes.

Overall ridership in Houston grew about 0.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, with light rail growing about 3.2 percent, and bus ridership holding steady, according to METRO ridership statistics.

These ridership gains, however impressive, are at the expense of areas more expensive to service with bus routes.

This is a moral trade off. Should the system prioritize fast service for riders in dense, high-ridership areas or ensure that every possible rider who needs a route for work or recreation has access to that? Inevitably, forcing some riders to walk farther to the nearest higher-frequency bus route is an equity issue, one that many cheerleaders of the plan in the media have neglected to discuss at length.

A November 2018 report by the local transit advocacy group LINK Houston looked into equity issues after the network’s so-called re-imagining. The report found that 54 percent of local transit (bus and rail) trips occurred during off-peak hours. The report also mapped a Transportation Equity Demand Index, as well as where transit riders lived and where their destinations were.

Houston TEDI Results with High-Need Areas

Houston Transit Equity Demand Index map with High Need Concentration areas. Credit: LINK Houston


houston bus ridership residence

Houston METRO local bus rider residential ZIP codes. Credit: LINK Houston


houston bus ridership destination

Houston METRO local bus rider destination ZIP codes. Credit: LINK Houston

The report recommended that Metro and other agencies increase frequency on current routes, especially routes with 60-minute frequency. The report also recommended that agencies extend hours to make transit more available and more reliable. According to Metro’s data for October 2018, 25 percent of local bus trips were not on time. With increasing frequency, the report recommends eliminating schedules for routes operating with 8 minutes or better frequency.

The report offers many other ideas for increasing equity for the Houston area’s transit network, serving a region of 6.9 million people with local buses, light rail and commuter buses.

What do you think of Houston’s plan and its effects on ridership and connected communities? Share your views in the comments!

For comparison, here are both Houston’s and the Minneapolis–St. Paul systems’ route maps.

Houston transit system map

Minneapolis Saint Paul Transit System Map

Conrad Zbikowski

About Conrad Zbikowski

Downtown Minneapolis resident covering local issues including parks, transportation, zoning, and development.