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Mapping Time: Christof Spieler on Metro Bus Service and Transit When You Need It

At METRO, we are reimagining Houston’s bus system, and are proposing to complete it next year. This is one of the most transformative transportation projects in Houston right now. Why? Because it dramatically improves what Houstonians can access with transit.

When we think of transit, we tend to think of routes as lines on a map. Look at any transit agency website and you’ll see little colored lines, representing the path a bus or a train will take. Seen that way, Houston’s local bus system looks like this:

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But transit isn’t really about the path a bus takes. It is about where that bus takes people. The people on that bus represent thousands of individual decisions: Can I get there on transit? Where can I look for a job? Where can I live? Where do I buy groceries? Can I take night classes? People are not riding the bus to ride the bus; they’re riding the bus to get somewhere.

What a transit system does is create a zone of access: an area in which destinations are accessible by train or bus.

Two things combine to create that zone. The first is geography: where the transit stops are, and, once riders arrive at the stop, what kind of pedestrian (or bicycle) network connects them to their destinations. The second is time. This is invisible, so it isn’t easy to show on a map, but it is as crucial as geography is. A transit stop is no good to you unless a train or a bus will stop there soon. Having a bus run every 15 minutes is a crucial line: the distinction between transit you have to plan your schedule around, and transit that’s simply there when you need it.

Today, at midday on a weekday, the zone of access created by Houston’s frequent transit service — routes that run at least every 15 minutes — looks like this:

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There are some important destinations in that zone — employment centers, universities, hospitals, people — and some well-populated neighborhoods. But consider what’s not in that zone. Gulfton, Houston’s densest neighborhood, has no frequent service. Neither does Alief or Spring Branch, or Memorial City, with its hospital, office buildings, and retail.

Memorial City Mall — staffed with employees who work weekends and evenings — brings up another point. If you have to go to work on a Sunday morning, frequency matters on Sunday, too. And here’s what the frequent access zone looks like today on a Sunday morning:

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There aren’t many places in that zone. If you’re relying on transit on a Sunday morning, most of Houston isn’t conveniently accessible to you. That’s not unique to us — most cities see their frequent zones of access shrink, or disappear entirely, on weekends. Even many rail lines don’t offer frequent service on the weekend.

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Can we do better? Definitely. Here’s the frequent transit zone of access under the reimagined network:

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Within that zone, there are over a million jobs and over a million residents. There are jobs of all kinds, housing for every income level, medical care, a broad range of colleges and universities, retail, places of worship, and parks. Within this zone, you can use transit to do everything you need and want. Even on a weekday, this would be one of the most extensive frequent transit networks in the country. On a Sunday, it’s dramatically better than any of our peers.

There’s another improvement here too: this zone is not simply a set of lines radiating out from Downtown and the Medical Center; it’s a connected grid of routes. It doesn’t require you to go through Downtown to get from Sharpstown to the Galleria, or from the Heights to Northline. That makes trips faster — often by 20 minutes or more.

Remarkably, we can achieve these results using current resources and without shrinking the overall transit system. The number of buses needed to operate the reimagined system is the same as the number that operate the current system. Ninety-three percent of current riders will be able to get on at the same stop they use today. The geographic area covered by all transit service — frequent and infrequent — is actually larger than it is today.

This is a plan that makes current METRO riders’ trips better and makes METRO an option for more people. A greater zone of access means more opportunities for more people: more choices of where to work, where to live, where to go to school. That makes people’s lives better every day, and that is what transit is for.

For the next two months, METRO is seeking public comment on the reimagined system. Check out the plan at transitsystemreimagining.com and let us know what you think.

Christof Spieler, P.E., LEED AP is a METRO board member. He is Vice President at Morris and Director of Planning for the Houston office, working on a variety of public and private planning projects, and heads firmwide efforts on Building Information Modeling (BIM). He has spoken extensively on BIM at regional and national conferences. Spieler teaches structures at the Rice University School of Architecture and advises student design-build programs at Rice and the University of Houston. Spieler has written and spoken extensively on transit and urban planning and has helped Houston neighborhoods shape transportation projects. His articles have appeared in Cite and he served on the Cite editorial committee from 1998 to 2010, including two years as chair.

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    4 Comments

    1. 1

      I appreciate the benefits of a grid, but the reimagined system is not a grid, in the sense that it’s not lines running North to South crossing lines that go East to West. That would guarantee no more that one transfer for any given origin and destination. Instead it’s an array of separate segments meeting at nodes. The people you mentioned going from the Galleria to Sharpstown who can currently take the 81 directly, will instead transfer at the Bellaire TC. The people going from Heights to Northline currently transfer at Calvalcade & Fulton (not Downtown), very near where they’d transfer in the new system. For my own commute from Hempstead Rd to Montrose, I do transfer downtown now; I will still need to, but I’ll have to transfer again between Downtown and Hempstead Rd. While there are three routes now which don’t require a transfer(20, 36 & 85) under the reimagined system there is not a one, they all end at the nearest node, the NWTC. And it looks like that’s the rule throughout the new system: node to node – transfer at each. If the planned lines can be linked up to form long EW & NS lines it might work as you said, but the actual reimagined system looks to me like it will lead to more transfers and longer commutes for most trips. Thus ends the rant.


    2. 2

      Chris-

      All that about transfer locations is true — but those aren’t frequent routes on weekdays, let alone weekends. If you’re willing to plan ahead and risk a much longer trip if your first bus is late and you miss the transfer, the current system will get you there. Begat we’re talking about is a system that’s easy enough to understand that you don’t need a trip planner and frequent enough that you don’t have to worry about schedules or trip timing.

      NWTC is a similar case. Yes, there are through routes today. But none of tj are individually frequent, they have different hours of operation, and even the routiings vary by time of day. We’re proposing something much similar: two routes NWTC to Downrown, one express, one local, both frequent, all day, every day.

      I ride our system a lot. I’ll take a connection between frequent routes over an infrequent one seat ride. Experience from other cities shows that’s true for most riders. And, of course, people always prefer a connection between two frequent routes to a connection between two infrequent ones, which is what this plan means for many riders.


    3. 3

      The amount of time that it takes to transfer will be offset by the frequency of the buses as well as the convenient memorability of the linear bus routes. Plus, most bus riders in Houston transfer anyways so it won’t make much of a difference in the schedule of the average bus commuter


    4. 4

      […] Ed. note: See also Christof’s article in Offcite. […]