For nearly 13 years at Houston Tomorrow, we’ve been researching, analyzing, writing about, discussing, and using transit service, trying to get a handle on what works and what doesn’t. One of the things you learn early is that Houston wasn’t designed around cars, but around a massive streetcar system, long before people had cars. The neighborhoods built around the streetcar stations were walkable and compact. We call this long period that lasted until about 1940 Houston 1.0
Houston 2.0 began with the advent of cars and the Interstate Highway System, with public money and policies aimed at moving people out to the edges of the region and redesigning their lives and environment around the idea of driving everywhere.
In April 2010, we held a transit framework retreat at Sky Farm, my family’s place in northwest Austin County. During an intense day around a long table, we looked at maps, photos, presentations, charts, and graphs, and filled long rolls of newsprint, pinned to the walls, with sketches and words. A framework of principles and goals emerged that first day, as well as the beginnings of a conceptual approach to regional transit service. Fundamentally, we agreed, it’s all about access and equity and efficiency, about connecting people to jobs, goods, services, fun, food, and all the rest.
The most basic principle was that transit service should first be available where the people are right now. That is, in the places where sufficient numbers of people are gathered every day for some reason, whether they live there, work there, are visiting there, or all of those things. We agreed that the lowest hanging fruit is to connect the biggest such place to the closest other big place.
Metro’s light rail strategy is to connect big activity centers and our group was in full agreement with it. But what happens beyond five years? We believe the creation of a transit-connected urban zone is coming, and that the beginning of Houston 3.0 is just around the corner. How far into the region that zone extends is a matter of public policy – and lots of nerve. That’s what this issue is about.
Almost from the beginning, Houston was transit oriented and a prime example of excellent design for walkable urbanism. The original Houston plan, by Gail Borden, was keyed on a grid structure with block sizes conducive to walking. The buildings were developed in an urban fashion, close together, often sharing walls, with windows and doors in the front.
New suburbs like the Heights and Montrose and Bellaire were made possible by developers who put in streetcar lines to enable people to get to work and to shop and find entertainment and all the other things cities can provide.
Those first neighborhoods were highly walkable, and stores and services were organized around the streetcar stations because the people riding the streetcars were pedestrians at both ends of their trips.
Today, those neighborhoods are still pretty walkable and convenient. In fact, looking at the map of the region at walkscore.com we see that those areas are still walkers’ paradises relative to most of the rest of the region. And at the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, a map of vehicle miles traveled in our region shows that people in the households in those old neighborhoods drive far less than people in other parts of the region – and spend far less on transportation – even though the transit system that made them possible is gone.
Houston 2.0 began with the destruction of the streetcar system and the advent of new roads and then enormous highways that enabled and encouraged sub-urban development far from the city center. Ten years ago, that paradigm was almost 100% dominant. Today, as the region creeps toward Houston 3.0 – another transit age of walkable urbanism and complete streets – that paradigm based on cars remains dominant. But not quite so much as before, and change is clearly coming.
The region’s basic transit service is provided by local buses operating in mixed traffic on city streets. Service levels vary dramatically. Some routes operate hourly, while others, like Westheimer and Harrisburg, run every 10-15 minutes, frequently enough that riders don’t need to consult a schedule. [Note: only the most frequent local bus service is shown in the maps in this illustration. The local system is complex and hard to read at this scale. Nevertheless, it serves the greatest number of people and is crucial to the system.]
The biggest limit to local service is METRO’s boundaries: outside those, the only local service is provided by Harris County in Pasadena and Baytown, and Island Transit in Galveston.
The 7.5-mile Main Street light rail line acts as the spine of the transit system, connecting the major employment centers of Downtown and the Medical Center. Houston’s single line carries more people per mile than any other light rail system except Boston’s. At rush hour, trains are crowded both ways into Downtown and the TMC; museums, parks, conventions, games, and universities along the line draw riders mid-day, evenings, and weekends. This short line serves a lot of destinations: nearly half of light rail riders make their entire transit trip on the train; the rest transfer from buses.
On routes where light rail isn’t planned, “Signature Bus” service – branded as Quickline or Swiftline – is being implemented as express service. It serves the same routes as local service, but stops less frequently to reduce trip times.
Suburban areas are linked to jobs in the urban core by a comprehensive system of park & ride buses. The service runs every 5 to 10 minutes at peak hours, using flyovers from the park & ride lots to enter barrier-separated HOV lanes, then running non-stop to Downtown. As Metro board member Christof Spieler has noted, the park & ride transit system would rank among the top ten commuter rail systems in the country if it used rail instead of buses. He has also said “The current service is more frequent, more convenient, and faster than most commuter rail systems, and equally reliable.” Metro isn’t the only provider of such service: TREK and Woodlands Express buses cover some parts of the region not in the Metro service area.
There are major gaps in the service. Trips to Downtown tend to be easy; trips to other job centers – Greenway, Uptown, Westchase, Energy Corridor – are often longer with more transfers. Many suburban areas have no local bus service at all; as the population ages and suburbs get more diverse that’s becoming a greater problem. The success of the park-and-ride system and the light rail line proves that Houstonians will ride high quality transit when it is offered, but it isn’t offered everywhere.
The numbers in map above show the market share of transit for commuters arriving in six of the major activity centers. In the Central Business District, with the most transit service, 37% of commuters arrive via transit, followed by the Medical Center at 32%. Other centers have much less service and much smaller market share. Uptown and Greenway Plaza should see upticks as new service begins. Red dots indicate density.
The next round of light rail development that is evolving will be five more lines, adding 32 miles of rail. Within the next five or six years, this intense system will have 65 stations with more than 150,000 boardings a day, likely surpassing all modern US light rail systems (possibly excepting Los Angeles, which in the first quarter of 2011 averaged 154,000 per day).
What distinguishes the Houston light rail system from most other modern light rail systems is that it has no suburban commuter component. That service is provided by a growing network of park & ride alignments. Instead, the Houston strategy is focused on connecting large activity centers where tens of thousands – and even hundreds of thousands – of people either live or work or both.
The strategy also recognizes that more than 80% of trips every day are not about commuting to or from work, but basically running errands. Thus the trains have passengers all day, not just in the morning and afternoon peak hours.
This system will contain 40 miles of rail while the Dallas system has 72 miles. But Houston’s ridership will be about double that of Dallas, at about half the cost.
For years, most of the transit activity in the region has been focused on downtown. This system will expand that focus to other centers, but will add more service to downtown, which will remain the top transit destination.
The most exciting prospect will be that of the growth of small destinations,neighborhoods with interesting restaurants or shops or other amenities, including parks. People who ride transit discover these places because they are not distracted by driving and actually are able to see what’s there.
The emergence of popular places could drive economic development in a large number of neighborhoods. Additionally, some attractive neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily well known now will begin to grow as people seek to live there and developers try to meet that demand.
Generally, a kind of development that Houston hasn’t seen much of for a century will occur: transit-oriented development (TOD). In TODs, shops and other amenities are clustered around transit stations because many people accessing them will be on foot and will want the convenience of complete neighborhoods (and a cup of coffee). While there has been some TOD along the Main Street line, the explosion of it is still in the future. And some argue that downtown wouldn’t have grown so much without the commuter bus system.
With 65 station areas encompassing some 30 square miles of TOD possibility, Houston may soon have the largest real estate market in the nation for walkable urbanism based on transit.
It’s difficult to grasp the significance of so many different neighborhoods almost suddenly being linked together by light rail transit service.
First, many of these neighborhoods are diverse, low-income areas where car ownership is low, often slightly below one car per household on average.
These new, inexpensive links to jobs, health care, schools, and other amenities should allow significant improvements in hundreds of thousands of lives. Also, small businesses in these neighborhoods will be accessible to a new group of potential customers and clients.
Secondly, people who want to live in urban circumstances – which in Harris County is more than 41% – are a huge market of 1.7 million people who are really not currently served by the market. There are public policy reasons for that; urban form is essentially illegal everywhere in the City except in the Central Business District. The City’s Urban Corridors ordinance begins to address that by setting up an optional development code for the light rail corridors.
The City is forecast to grow by about 30% by 2035, so if each of these 65 neighborhoods grew by just that much right around the stations, all would improve the prospects for neighborhood amenities such as shops and services, which could also mean more local jobs.
But the opportunities for much more significant growth, particularly in some of the larger, more urban places, could mean that these 65 station areas could accommodate half or more of all of the City’s growth, without needing to pave and develop greenspace and farmland.
This is the Houston region’s near-term opportunity to develop a true “urban zone” in which many different places are connected by good transit service. This will begin to moderate the cost of such places by increasing the supply in response to clear market demand, enabling many of the people seeking walkable urbanism to find it.
Can neighborhoods work with the City to develop a vision and plan for their own futures?
Houston is known as a sprawling metropolitan region where everybody drives. Many people take this to mean that transit service is impossible, since cost-efficient transit loves density.
But masses of people are more clustered than many realize, and jobs are very clustered. The maps here reveal the possibility of an efficient regional system that uses publicly owned right of way to provide potential service to about 3.5 million people.
The map above, by Houston Tomorrow, shows the top 25 job centers in the region, determined by H-GAC in 2006 using 2005 data. This map, also by Houston Tomorrow, shows that all but one of those centers is in Harris County.
The small map at upper right shows, in beige, the service area for Metro, the largest transit agency. In this map, all but two of the top job centers are in the Metro service area.
But the interesting data in the larger map is in the green areas, which are 5-mile-radius circles around the job centers. The green area contains nearly 60% of all the people in the region and 75% of all the jobs. The light lavender color is a ten- mile radius, and that plus the green area contains nearly 80% of all residents and 86% of all jobs.
Connecting these centers with high-quality frequent transit service is the low-hanging fruit and should be the top priority for regional transit planning.
Looked at in this way, the best continuing strategy is pretty obvious: keep connecting the biggest centers, which also moves the edges of the transit system out to meet many more potential riders, who then would have access to hundreds of thousands of jobs, not to mention restaurants, shopping, sports, culture, recreation, entertainment, education, and the other things that density provides.
Above, the top 25 job centers are shown connected by transit lanes in the major arterials, primarily Interstate Highways, but including State Highways 6/FM 1960, 290, 59, and 288, all controlled by TxDOT. In the larger version. the background grid is activity intensity, which combines population and job density. This system is very efficient in going to the places where the people are. The inset map at top right shows that this system links all the job/population circles explained previously. Links from this system to places outside the centers is easy.
This concept breaks some new ground by proposing significant amounts of “arterial bus rapid transit,” which Houston Tomorrow has advocated for many years.
Three important concepts come into play for arterial bus rapid transit (BRT). First, the region is highly polycentric. The centers are the generators of the highest-paying jobs, and for the most part they arose from the freeway intersections created by the Interstate Highway System.
Second, it is less complex, cumbersome, controversial, and costly to deploy buses on rubber tires than to install miles of rail for trains.
Third, the public already owns the right of way, a major expense in transportation projects.
The regional arterials are how we get from home to work to play to school to culture and all the rest. Increasing the capacity of each of the freeways to connect the centers with high-quality rapid bus service that operates like light rail is the quickest, most flexible way to get to excellent regional transit service that does much more than deliver a few thousand people to downtown in the morning and take them home at night. Most of the freeways have HOV/transit lanes already. An arterial BRT system would move people around all day, and maybe all night, in both directions. Commuter origins also become destinations.
This system would provide transit options to millions of people.
In this stylized map, a number of transit innovations are brought forward. All are based on the concept of connecting together the places where most of the people are. One of those innovations is the idea of “Regional Rapid Bus,” (orange lines) or bus rapid transit, running in dedicated guideways in the freeways. (Thin orange lines are BRT in mixed traffic.) The important concept is that the public already owns all of that right of way and infrastructure and its capacity is simply increased by adding more transit vehicles going to more places, not just as park & ride service in the morning and afternoon.
There is also much more light rail service, creating a system that also connects large and small centers while providing access to many more places because of its fine-grained nature. This is high-quality, very reliable service, much different from buses in the street, but it’s still focused on neighborhoods (although some are very large.)
Other proposals include intercity rail, more frequent local bus service, and more park & ride service.
This is just one vision for how the Houston region could provide the most access to the most people at the least cost. We hope it is useful.