Tag Archives: Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County

August 16th: Get Ready For Houston’s New Bus Network

Anyone with a credible amount of theater experience can tell you… whether it’s costumes, staging, learning lines, orchestra cues, piano tuning or scene direction, the work leading up to a show seems like it will never get completely done.  That is, until the seats start filling on opening night.  Eventually, you have to lift the curtain, get on stage and show ’em what you’ve got.

For the city of Houston however, August 16th isn’t just “another show”.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is about to completely transfigure the city’s local bus system, and they’re not going back.  The stage is set, and early on that Sunday morning, over 10,000 “curtains” will be lifted across the METRO service area.


With so much to do, it’s no surprise that METRO is still getting ready.  According to officials, the vast majority of stops have now been replaced and bagged, with the main exception being Downtown Houston.  Anticipating the need for additional staff, the agency has held several job fairs.  And of course, there are still routing adjustments being made.  Here’s more on those last-minute changes from Dug Begley of the Houston Chronicle

Officials spent more than a year discussing and refining the plan, but as opening day for the new system nears, they are still reshaping some of the routes to correct problems riders have identified.

Among those worried about the new network are senior citizens who live east of Texas 288 near Loop 610, who face a long walk to a bus stop, and patients of the Harris Health System’s Thomas Street Health Center, which serves a large number of HIV-positive Houston residents. The clinic, off Main Street near Interstate 45 on Houston’s near north side, essentially loses front-door access under the new system.

For months, Metro officials have said the new bus system will require some to adjust their riding habits, but it will benefit most riders. The new system also is expected to lure more people to the bus system, which has seen ridership remain below 300,000 passengers per weekday for the past six years, after a decade of higher daily averages.

Most can be assured that the issues will continue, but for good or ill the prep work for these is basically done.  If you’re a bus rider, or interested in giving the new network a try,

METRO has a bevy of resources to help you plan new routes on the website.  Chief among them is the new dual trip planner… a side-by-side comparison for old and new bus routes. There are YouTube videos which walk users through alternatives for several routes Or if you just want to focus on new routes, use the updated and much improved interactive service map.  For the tech savvy, ultra-hip patrons the transit agency hopes to attract, there is much to love about the new bus network.

As part of the New Bus Network, Houston METRO will institute drastic changes to local bus service.  Some bus routes, even popular ones like the 81 Westheimer Sharpstown, will be eliminated and replaced.  

But an important question remains… has METRO done all it can to prepare and educate its current ridership about the new system?  As we know, there are many patrons that do not have access to all of these high-tech tools.

To address those patrons and any others riding the system, METRO has just announced that the new print version System Maps will be released to the public next week.  Even in 2015, the system map and route maps truly are the cornerstone information pieces for current riders, and will likely prove critical to a successful transition of the network.

If you haven’t heard yet, METRO is also doing one more thing to help riders learn the new system.  For the week of August 16th through August 22nd, all METRO local bus service will be free for all riders.  It’s an extraordinary step, but again one that is needed. This time frame also happens to be the week before most Houston-area public schools start classes for the fall semester.  Families need at least one week to figure out the particulars of their new transit routes, perhaps even more time.

In just over a week, Houston’s regional transit system will be forever affected by the New Bus Network.  The stage is set, and the nation is watching.  Let’s all hope for a good show.


Culberson, Garcia Put METRO Federal Funds, Commuter Rail On Fast Track

So last Friday, I wrote the following regarding then-unknown plans surrounding the new open-door policy between U.S. Congressman John Culberson, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, AKA METRO…

“But let’s be clear on what the Congressman did not promise.  If a new vote occurs, rail supporters can be sure that Culberson and his group will do everything in their power to defeat the measure.  The door to funding may have been cracked open, but it is far from a guarantee.”

With the details of that plan now released, I am happily prepared to eat those words.  As Katherine Driessen of the Houston Chronicle reports, the new agreement between Culberson and METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia is more significant than most anticipated…

Metropolitan Transit Authority leaders and U.S. Rep. John Culberson on Monday announced details of a new agreement to help the agency move forward with transit projects.

The Houston Republican, who has long been at odds with Metro over its plans for a rail line on Richmond, has agreed to help Metro obtain funds for a proposed commuter rail line on U.S. 90A and other projects. Rail on Richmond west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of
Richmond would be contingent on voter approval.

Culberson lauded the agreement as a “historic breakthrough” in addressing Houston area traffic congestion and rebuilding his fractured relationship with Metro.

“Above all, what today symbolizes is a new era of cooperation between Metro, under Gilbert Garcia’s leadership, and the Houston area congressional delegation,” Culberson said. “We will all be working arm in arm to make sure that metro and the elected officials in the region solve our transportation problems by looking to every kind of transit and transportation available, beginning with commuter rail out 90A.”

It’s something that should probably be avoided most of the time, but today, Hyperbole is warranted.  The new understanding between METRO and Houston’s Congressional delegation not only fosters new hope for a University Line, but puts Commuter Rail along the US90A corridor on the fast track.  The planned route would connect Houston’s inner loop (most likely via the south end of the existing Red Line) to Missouri City.

But wait… there’s more!!  Like back-door Federal funding for the East End Rail Line (originally built entirely on local funds) can now be used as “transfer credit” towards the Commuter Rail? Wha huh???  Here’s an excerpt from the full letter of agreement between Garcia and Culberson…

Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so
that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the
local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail
capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond
Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Also included is another $100 million payday for METRO to improve its bus fleet and transit infrastructure (again some of which is already being done as a result of System Reimagining), and a recoup of funds diverted to the Southeast and North lines that can be put back into general maintenance and improvement projects.

Of course some of this has yet to materialize, but given how Congressman Culberson was the most vocal opponent of previous initiatives, there’s little reason to think that all of these plans can’t be realized.

All told, today is a great day for transit in Southeast Texas.  And Houstonians have Chairman Gilbert Garcia to thank for it.

Could Culberson’s newly-discovered love for transit spread to other Republican Lawmakers, and result in significant new transportation investments nation-wide?  Only time will tell.  But if today is any indication, Obama’s “lame duck” period may not be as lame as we once thought.

US90A Commuter Rail

Though not the finalized route plan, here is one proposed route for the US90A Commuter Rail project.  


Houston METRO “Approves” System Reimagining Plan

In a 4 hour meeting that became heated and personal at times, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County took another major step towards the agency’s System Reimagining plan.

With State Representative Borris Miles, and other elected officials and community leaders present, the plan was approved pending a 60-day intensive study with further recommendations to come back before the board in November.  Basically, METRO is now fully committed to System Reimagining, but has not yet finalized the new routes.

“In reality we will not lock any of this in until March”, board member Christof Spieler said.  “We are required to hold full hearings [on the Reimagining Plan] once schedules have been written, and to allow the public to look at those schedules before this moves forward.”

Before the vote, testimony was given with citizens speaking both for and against the new plan.  Joetta Stevenson, a member with Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood Civic Club, had some very specific concerns.  “System Reimagining is going negatively impact 19 percent of Seniors in the Fifth Ward community. You cannot single out minority and poor areas for less service.”  She noted that residents like herself will lose direct coverage routes to centers like LBJ Hospital and Ben Taub. She also had some issues with the new Flex Zone plans, preferring to keep fixed route service in her area.

In response, Spieler pointed out that the new plans will actually help a large number of Houston’s poor residents by expanding services in under-represented, high-density areas.

“The areas that benefit the most from the this plan are minority and low-income areas.  If you look at population density, [Gulfton] is by far the largest concentration of low-income residents in the area, and they have been dramatically under-served by our system for decades.”

Thus the decision behind METRO’s approval today… move forward with Reimagining, but keep making adjustments to the routes.

Houston has the distinction of being the both one of the nation’s largest and most sparsely populated cities.  In recent years, the city has experienced rapid densification in certain areas, but it’s still a long way off from the density of cities like New York, Chicago, or even Los Angeles.  It’s these challenges that have caused the need for System Reimagining, and also the reasons that residents are so worried about the changes.  It’s important that the region move forward and find ways to improve the transit system, so for that residents should be glad for METRO’s step this week.  Change is rarely easy, but as long as the agency and community continue to dialogue, Houston and Harris County will get the transit they need for the 21st Century.

As Board members made clear, this week’s vote is not the final say for the ambitious Reimagining project. But it does make clear that the days are numbered for the area’s current system. Even with difficulty, change can be a good thing.



Examining Houston METRO’s ‘Reimagined’ Flex Zones

Throughout the summer, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (aka METRO) has been meeting with communities to provide information about the new system reimagining plan. In most cases, the plans have been well-received, and left citizens hopeful that they will see vast improvements in service.

This was certainly the case for a meeting that I attended on July 17th at the Third Ward Multi-Services Center.  Residents mostly listened, and had questions specifically about how the changes would affect their specific travel needs.  Not surprisingly, Flex service was mentioned very little by the METRO representatives, save for questions which I asked after the presentation.  Basically at this point, METRO is not sure how all aspects of the Flex implementation will go.

For starters, there are some questions about the justification for Flex service, especially regarding the 52 Hirsch route.  When combined with its southern counterpart the 52 Scott, this bus service is one of the 10 highest-performing routes in METRO’s current system.  52 Scott does indeed have higher ridership than Hirsch, but between FY 2013 and FY 2014, Hirsch’s ridership actually increased by 3.6 percent, while Scott decreased 0.9 percent.  For a route in what METRO refers to as “an area of declining ridership”, 52 Hirsch is bucking the trend.

Where METRO has seen growth potential with its fixed route services, especially that are already high-ridership, the system reimagining either leaves those routes entirely in place (ex: the 82 becoming the 8), or modifies them with close alternatives centered around major thoroughfares.  But this is simply not the case with the 52 Hirsch… a high ridership route that has been greatly reduced with the Flex system.  Where the 52 Hirsch used to run every 15 to 20 minutes during weekday service, that run time will now be cut back to once an hour.

When I asked the METRO representatives how they could justify such substantial cuts on a high-performing route, they actually questioned their own ridership data about the 52 Hirsch, saying it was probably erroneous due to bus driver entering and exiting the bus at layovers.  Texas Leftist asked METRO board member Christoff Spieler about the disparity via Twitter, but has yet to receive a response.

Beyond the one issue with the 52, it’s just important for communities in the Flex areas to understand that their public transit service will change drastically.  What was once predictable, even if sparse fixed route service will now be replaced by this new hybrid system.  To get a visual of how these changes look, I turn to the transit blog HoustonOnTheGo, which has done some stellar work discussing the proposed Flex Zones, and their potential impact on affected areas. These maps originate from HoustonOnTheGo, but were combined them into a side-by-side comparison.  On the left shows bus coverage before reimagining (overlaid with the Flex Zones), and on the right shows coverage under the proposed changes.  Be sure to view the original work, which includes information about all of the Flex Zones.

Flex corridor northeast changes


Under system reimagining, fixed route services will be lost.  



In some cases, citizens will now be forced to walk several miles if they want to reach fixed route service in the system, and are must follow procedures similar to the mostly home-bound customers that use MetroLift… a call-in service.

To be fair to METRO, they do distinguish Flex from MetroLift in a couple of very important ways.  First unlike a MetroLift van, Flex vehicles would stay in a relatively small service area, therefore giving them the ability to respond to call-in requests in a much faster time frame.  If a customer requests pick-ups from a Flex driver, they should already be in the area, and therefore available much sooner to provide rides.  Even with this likely scenario, it is still difficult to reason how the Flex call-in service will work with people whose travel needs far outweigh those of a typical MetroLift customer.  If the system gets overwhelmed, does that mean the person just cannot complete their trip at all?

These and other questions still need to be addressed before Flex is implemented.  Let’s hope that METRO is doing all it can to see these issues get resolved.


Testing Houston METRO’s T.R.I.P. App

As noted in a previous post, Houston transit ridership has been experiencing some significant growth over the past year. More residents of the Bayou City have discovered the Mass Transit system, and are using bus services throughout the city. As transit usage grows, so too does the expectation of safe, predictable and reliable service.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (abbreviated at METRO) has been working to address these higher expectations. Just last April, the agency unveiled the METRO T.R.I.P. app… a smart phone app that locates nearby transit routes, matches GPS technology in the smart phone and links it to GPS technology on the busses, and thus provides real- time arrival information for the next bus or train. As a result, this app potentially gives users more flexibility over their schedule, as they will know when to catch busses down to the minute. When working properly, the T.R.I.P. app represents a significant, potentially transformational upgrade in Houston’s transit operation.

But any frequent user of the T.R.I.P. app can attest that it sometimes doesn’t work. I’ve used the app on several occasions where it says a bus is due, and the bus doesn’t show up for another 10 or even 20 minutes. This leads many to wonder if METRO’s busses and trains are all outfitted with the proper GPS technology. I decided to test the app over the course of a full week, using the METRO rail, and bus routes 42, 68, 81 and 82.

First up were the 42 and 68 routes. Out of 20 total tests, the T.R.I.P. app successfully predicted bus arrivals 16 times, down to the minute. Both busses that seemed to be lacking the GPS technology were on the 42 route… all 68 busses were located. The 81 and 82 route was even more successful. Out of 20 total tests on that route, the T.R.I.P. worked properly 90 percent of the time, missing only 2 out of 20 busses. METRO rail however was a different matter. Out of 20 tests, the T.R.I.P. had 0 successful predictions for train times. No real-time information was even available. With the busses, it’s also important to note that these 4 routes are not necessarily a good indicator of service-wide accuracy, but meant to serve as a sample. 

Given this result I decided to ask METRO to provide some answers. Can Houstonians reliably use the T.R.I.P. app?? Here’s the response…

So at this point, real-time arrival information isn’t available for all busses, and isn’t really helpful for train times. But nonetheless, it’s an important first step toward improving mass transit in Houston and providing commuters with alternative options to their cars. Hopefully they will work to get busses to 100 percent soon. If you are a frequent bus rider, try out the T.R.I.P. app and see how well it works for you.