Houston rethinks mass transit

In the developed world, the municipal systems we rely on are largely invisible and universal. In mansions and studio apartments alike, flip a switch and the lights come on; turn a tap and water flows out.

Transportation is a different matter. The way we get from place to place varies greatly, influenced by location, lifestyle, and socioeconomic status. From driving an SUV to cycling or riding the subway, how we choose to navigate our cities is often seen as a reflection of both our personalities and our life circumstances.

But while individual and cultural transit preferences can seem immutable, history proves otherwise. Around the globe, it’s not uncommon for massive shifts in mobility patterns to occur over a relatively short period of time. Deeply influenced by political, technological, economic, ecological, and demographic factors, transportation is constantly shaped by (and shaping) its surroundings.

Case in point: Houston. Long known as a car town, it has made significant progress in diversifying its transit options.

Boomtown challenges

The United States’ fourth-largest city by population, Houston has a strong economy and a remarkably diverse population. But this success also brings challenges. Four million additional people are expected to arrive by 2040, with much of the growth occurring in car-dependent subdivisions that continue to expand the metropolitan borders. Officials predict a 60% increase in traffic — difficult to imagine in a city where rush-hour congestion is a common gripe.

As is true of most North American cities, Houston’s car-centric transportation system has many other downsides as well. Maintaining a 25,000-mile road network is difficult and costly. Public health suffers; a 2012 study by local authorities recommended making streets more pedestrian- and bike-friendly to counter obesity and related challenges.

Downtown sidewalk

Rhapsodies in concrete

Houston wasn’t always a car town. For much of its early history, residents enjoyed access to a robust transit system. Streetcars crisscrossed the city from 1868 until well into the 20th century, enabling the growth of the first suburbs.

A streetcar runs on Houston's Travis Street around 1920

Travis Street around 1920

The 1901 discovery of oil 85 miles to the east transformed the local economy and landscape. Taking advantage of cheap gasoline and newly paved streets, residents rushed to join the modern world by purchasing cars.

Streetcar service ended in the early 1940s, a period that witnessed major shifts in US transportation policy.

Houston trolley memorial

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 announced the government’s intention to connect all major cities with a cross-continental road network. Houston’s Gulf Freeway was the first showcase project to come out of the bill. Considered a tremendous success when it first opened (the local press called it a “50-mile Rhapsody in Concrete”), it drew admiring visits from transit planners across the country.

The new freeway, combined with the city’s postwar population explosion, encouraged the development of land far past the original streetcar suburbs. “The freeway started a revolution for Houstonians,” wrote historian Tom Watson McKinney, “as many traded the congestion of neighborhood streets for the smooth Portland cement of the Gulf Freeway and a shorter commute to and from downtown.”

Promotion for 1958 Houston freeway bond issue

By the late 1960s, however, rush hour traffic had made freeway commutes seem less freeing. As was the case in most US cities during this period, Houston’s solution for congestion was more roads.

Today, three beltways ring the city, with the new 180-plus-mile Grand Parkway almost halfway complete.

Interstate 610, Houston’s innermost beltway

The road-to-suburb spiral

The land-use patterns established during this era continue to shape Houston and other North American cities today. “The increased amount of suburban housing development served to reinforce the necessity of a commuting lifestyle, as the distance between job and home continued to increase,” wrote McKinney. More suburbs meant more commuters, which created more congestion, which led to more roads, which incentivized developers to build more suburbs.

Site of future development

The result has been an exponential growth in Houston’s land area. In 1945, the city occupied just 17 square miles. Today, the metropolitan area covers 8,778 square miles (and climbing), making it larger than the state of New Jersey. In comparison, the five boroughs of New York City, the nation’s most populous city, fit into just 305 square miles.

Uptown traffic

The suburban expansion led to the decentralization of commerce as well as housing. Today, much of the city’s workforce commutes to suburban office parks or one of the seven satellite commercial zones that ring the city.

One of these commercial zones, Uptown, now ranks among America’s largest business districts outside of a historic core. The upscale community is eight miles west of downtown, just beyond Loop 610 (the innermost beltway). It houses 23 million square feet of office space, 33 hotels, one of the nation’s biggest shopping malls, and more than 180,000 residents. The area’s many restaurants and bars have made it a popular destination on nights and weekends.

Aerial view of Uptown

Poorly served by transit, its congestion ranks among Texas’s worst. “Uptown has become a place where people live, work, and play,” Steve Clark, the leader of Arup’s transportation group in Houston, told me. “But not only is it difficult to get there without a car, once you’re there it’s difficult to get around.” Off-duty police officers hired to direct traffic during rush hour have made only a minor dent. With more large developments in construction or on the boards, it’s clear that traffic will worsen unless significant changes are made. Uptown leaders fear that clogged streets could dampen the area’s otherwise strong growth prospects.

Post Oak Road, Uptown’s main thoroughfare

Rail debates

For a time, rail seemed to be the answer to Uptown’s traffic concerns. In 2003, voters approved a major extension of the city’s light-rail system, with one of the planned corridors running through Uptown. Houston’s first light-rail line, the Main Street Red Line, opened in 2004 after having been proposed by the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO) in the 1990s. A northern extension to the Red Line opened in 2013; two additional lines are scheduled to debut this spring.

Anti-rail sentiment runs strong in some Houston communities, however. The most common criticism is that its initial capital costs demand significantly more of the public purse than other modes of transit. Many, although certainly not all, transportation experts in Texas and beyond sympathize with this argument.

Some skeptics refer to the city’s light-rail as the “toy train,” claiming that its track length and ridership numbers render it effectively irrelevant. But the numbers don’t bear this out — in fact, the Main Street Red Line consistently ranks at the top of all US light-rail lines in terms of daily passengers per mile. “I don’t know where people get the idea that nobody uses the Main Street line when it consistently carries upwards of 40,000 people a day between downtown and the Texas Medical Center,” Clark said.

Light-rail station at Texas Medical Center

Over the years, Houston’s anti-rail groups have won major victories. Prior to the construction of the Main Street Red Line, a local US representative oversaw the passage of legislation prohibiting the use of federal money for the effort. (He has since softened his stance.) In 2012, a municipal voter referendum refocused METRO’s direction from rail to bus operations. (It also diverted a portion of the agency’s sales tax-derived revenue from transit projects to street maintenance.)

Bus rapid transit comes to Houston

With the future of Uptown’s light-rail line unclear, the district’s leaders discussed other options for reducing traffic congestion. They ultimately chose a model that has proven highly successful around the globe: park-and-ride transit centers connected via bus rapid transit (BRT).

The decision was inspired by Houston’s existing park-and-ride system, which was implemented decades ago as a response to the heavy congestion and lack of parking that were driving many downtown offices to the suburbs. Today, buses carry passengers from 34 sites throughout the region to Houston’s primary employment centers and back. Bypassing traffic jams while cruising down high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, they remove an estimated 20,000 cars per day from the road. Thanks largely to this service, only about half of all downtown employees drive to work by themselves, compared with 80% for the region as a whole.

Park-and-ride station

Uptown leaders decided that creating a BRT connection between park-and-ride centers could bring similar benefits to their district, combining the speed and convenience of light-rail with greater flexibility and a lower price tag. The area’s proximity to downtown would also allow them to plug into the existing system relatively easily. “Park-and-ride services go by the freeways that bound the north and south of Uptown,” said Clark, “and if we put in transit centers there and connect the two through Uptown, then we’ve just created a very logical transit option that allows people to come to Uptown and get around without having to bring their cars.”

Authorities approved the initiative in September 2012 and appointed the consultant team (which includes Arup) shortly thereafter; the first passengers will board in 2019. Plans call for two dedicated BRT lanes — Houston’s first — to be added to the center of Uptown’s main thoroughfare, the six-lane Post Oak Road. BRT will offer passengers a quick, streamlined journey between a planned transit center in Uptown’s southern region to an existing facility off Interstate 10, with eight stops in between.

Rendering of Post Oak Road development

Everyone who travels through the area should benefit from the new system. More park-and-ride commuters will mean fewer cars on the road. Drivers will have a smoother journey thanks to local buses being channeled into dedicated center lanes, preventing them from blocking traffic in the right-hand lane. Streetscape improvements will make walking a more attractive option.

Although BRT infrastructure is less complex than rail, the project’s challenges are substantial. The team has spent several years working through the design and real estate implications of acquiring the land necessary to widen two miles of roadway. Sequencing the 30- to 36-month-long construction is another major feat; scheduling the project to minimize disruption requires careful thought and planning.

Rendering of Post Oak Road development

Overall, however, many believe that the BRT approach holds great potential for the rest of the city. “There are a number of other business and residential centers where this model could be used on a larger or smaller scale,” said Clark. “It’s an interesting hybrid model of managing suburban sprawl. You’re not going to convince someone to sell their house in the suburbs just so they can use public transportation, but if I could drive someplace where I can park my car and get public transportation to get around, and it was easy to do, that would be nice.”

It’s an interesting hybrid model of managing suburban sprawl

District by district

Whether other neighborhoods will be able to take advantage of this or other congestion-reducing measures remains to be seen. With tight federal, state, and municipal budgets, Houston districts often turn to internal resources to pay for transit improvements. Uptown’s BRT project is partially funded by the neighborhood’s tax increment reinvestment zone arrangement. Another major employment center, the Energy Corridor, has invested in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, among other mobility solutions. Although this system works well for higher-income communities, it can leave others with fewer options.

Bike trail near the Energy Corridor

Several current citywide programs should improve mobility across a broad swath of the city. A major realignment of the local bus network, which accounts for 76% of METRO’s ridership, promises to provide better service throughout Houston. In the East End and Southeast districts, the opening of new light-rail lines will likely attract more people seeking alternatives to car-dependent lifestyles — intensifying the gentrification that has begun to reshape these neighborhoods in recent years.

Changing perceptions

But in important ways, a victory for transit anywhere in Houston is a victory everywhere in Houston. As is true in much of the United States, stigmatization of mass transit as the option of last resort has held back its development for decades. “There’s a perception that transit is transportation welfare, which is obviously completely unfounded,” said local landscape architect Scott McReady.

Busy park-and-ride center

As more Houston communities embrace park-and-ride shuttles, light-rail, bike lanes, and other alternatives to the car, this perception is changing. “Choosing to use public transportation because you can and not because you have to is increasing in Houston,” Clark said. “We have many people who choose to take a bus or train instead of using their car. And as our demographics change and we get better services, more people are going to do that.”

Photographs by Cameron Blaylock.

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