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

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3 Responses to How Houston Reimagined its Transit Network and Increased Ridership

  1. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs February 26, 2019 at 7:52 am #

    High frequency (15 minutes or better) is a requirement for any grid system to succeed. Because transfers are unavoidaly timed randomly, few will transfer unless the waits are short.

    Where lower demand justifies only 30-minute service or worse, timed transfers at transit centers are required.

    Metro Transit’s Service Improvement Plan correctly assumes that 60-minute frequency isn’t enough to retain even transit-dependent riders.

  2. jf February 27, 2019 at 2:11 pm #

    I lived in Houston from early 2016 to mid-2017, and in Minneapolis from late 2017 to now. I lived in Vancouver BC for 10 years before that where the public transit and cycling is very good.

    In Houston I rode a frequent bus from my apartment to the University of Houston. Many times I would take my bicycle on the bus rack in the morning and ride home along a Bayou Trail in the afternoon (riding on the roads was not an option for me). Aside from the flooding and extreme heat, it was a pretty good arrangement.

    In Minneapolis I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work in under half an hour, so I take transit much less often. I am also much more willing to ride my bicycle on-street here.

    In my opinion, the two systems are very similar: grid-based high-frequency routes in the core areas and corridors, with some twisty routes in the ‘burbs with basically unusable service. I found connections between routes in Houston to be generally more efficient than in Minneapolis, and the buses were more frequently on time in Houston as well.

    The light rail in Minneapolis is much better, connecting the airport, major university campus, and two downtowns. The light rail in Houston is not quite a “developper streetcar”, but it really needs many more miles of extensions to serve as a backbone for the bus grid. Both are pretty slow, needing to stop for traffic signals and having stops too close together for end-to-end journeys. Houston’s rail is worse because it operates in mixed traffic and inexplicably doesn’t have signal priority: I was constantly flabbergasted to see a full train wait at a red light to allow SOV pickup trucks to turn left.

    Given my preconceptions about both cities, I was pleasantly surprised by the transit system in Houston, and slightly disappointed by the system in Minneapolis.

  3. kevin February 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm #

    These routes should join the Hi-Freq Network with some restructuring :
    Grand Ave/E 3 rd
    Randolph/E 7th
    Robert St
    Johnson /SE
    Rice
    Broadway N
    Lyndale N
    38th Street to every20mins
    These routes 3/4/14/22 /62/63/68/74 should upgrade to high frequencies to every 15mins,#3/4/62 already running every15mins with some schedule adjustments.A major problem with Metro Transit there have too many branches that are confusing and makes the schedules inconsistent .
    None of their Hi-freq routes are truly high frequent for the entire routing the #54 was lone route for its entire routing , recently it was extended to E St PAUL with 30mins headways.
    It is time to get rid of the poor performing routes and duplications and improve the network to 23 routes with 15mins headways

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