Illustration: Sarah Welch.
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The two kids and I depend on our Metro Q Cards and sturdy shoes.
We did have a car. The weekend before school starts, I am driving west on I-10 after retrieving my two children from summer in Alabama with their father. It’s been years since my air-conditioner worked, so I take the trip between sundown and dawn, windows down to stave off the August heat. Traffic is sparse, mostly semis and speeding pickups. The refineries loom along the way, their scaffolding bright with yellowed light, thick white smoke churning into the night air.
I’ve passed the first round of them and am surrounded by dark, mosquitoed fields when my old done-for Jeep starts to smoke. I pull off on the shoulder, at least 60 miles from Beaumont, before the Jeep bleeds out every last ounce of its transmission fluid. It wasn’t worth fixing the last several times I took it to the shop, and I’m a single parent on a graduate student stipend, so the most reasonable thing to do, when we get back to Houston?
Bus stop near Lidstone on the 28 OST/Wayside. Photo: Allyn West.
Last year, Streetsblog held a contest for its readers to send photos of the “sorriest bus stop” in the country. (The winner — or loser? — was a “stick in the ground” on the shoulder of divided four-lane artery outside St. Louis.) It should be no surprise that Houston, with a bus network comprising 10,000 stops, has its share of sorry ones, too. City of Houston planner Christopher Andrews submitted one on his route. Several of the stops on mine, the 28 Wayside/OST, could have been contenders — as the photo above illustrates.
Most of Metro’s 10,000 stops are similar to the “stick in the ground” that won the contest — lacking any protection from the elements and lacking much in the way of aesthetics, too. Though Metro says that it intends to build 100 new shelters every year, only 2,100 of Metro’s stops now have shelters, according to Pablo Valle, a program manager for the passenger bus shelter program.
The author bikes through Montrose. Photo by Adam Socki.
The new issue of Cite explores “speculative ideas for the near future,” as guest editor Nicola Springer writes in her introduction to the issue. Here, urban planner Carson Lucarelli discusses his choice to sell his car — in one of the most car-friendly cities in the U.S. To see all the content from “The Future Now,” click here.
I live in Houston, and I got rid of my car. I’ve been living carless for a few months, in fact. It’s not that I hate cars; I grew up a “gear head.” Sundays meant helping my dad wash the family vehicles in the driveway. My mom used to say that they looked like they came off the showroom floor. In high school, my buddies and I used to tinker on cars. We were known as the Greasers. We even converted a Jeep to four-wheel drive — no easy task for a couple of 17-year-olds, but it still runs today.
But as I matured and transitioned through my education and training as an urban planner, I began to see automobiles for what they really are — tools of convenience that have facilitated one of the largest shifts in urban development that the world has even seen. Some would argue that that shift is much to the detriment of humanity, community health, and the environment. But this story is not about why auto-centric development has marred progress. Instead, it’s a retrospective, autobiographical approach at how going carless has impacted a sole Houstonian.
Frequent Network Map detail. Houston METRO.
In national transit circles, Houston has received glittering coverage for its reimagined bus system. Most recently TransitCenter heralded Rice School of Architecture senior lecturer and former Cite editorial chair Christof Spieler for his pivotal role on the Houston METRO board. All this national attention came in advance of the new plan going into effect. Last Sunday, the bus system launched, and we already have some firsthand assessments. I will survey what I’ve read and finish with my near-spiritual experience.
Kyle Shelton of Rice’s Kinder Institute published a piece titled “To See If METRO’s Bus Overhaul Works, I Rode It With a 1-Year-Old.” He travels on a Sunday with his family down Montrose Boulevard to Buffalo Bayou Park on one of the system’s new 22 high-frequency, seven-days-a-week lines. He writes, “My son laughed as we watched dogs leap into the dog park ponds. Our family stopped by the Wortham Fountain and watched the mists carry off across the pathways.” In the accompanying photo, the child gives a chubby-fingered thumbs-up to a METRO bus. Shelton’s experience points to a whole new demographic and type of user for METRO — the Sunday-picnic rider. What of the construction workers and phlebotomists on their daily commutes?
Westheimer and Gessner. Photo: Raj Mankad.
Every day for almost a year I caught the 5:00 a.m. 53 Briar Forest Limited bus from a stop close to Downtown, and I rode it all the way to the end of the line, getting off at Westside High School, where I started my day as a science teacher. The two-hour ride got me home by 6:30 p.m. Eat, sleep, rinse, repeat, every day for months. This commute was by necessity: several years before, I had been in an accident that left me with severe traffic-related anxiety, making driving all but impossible. Sound tiring? The truth is that I became part of a community of fellow riders.
Every morning, my work began when I got on the bus, when I got out my laptop to work on that day’s lesson plans. The first few months went by in a blurry haze. Planning on the ride to school, followed by lesson setup, followed by teaching, followed by grading, followed by an exhausted ride home, in which I tried to let my mind switch off. This turned into its own rhythm. On the dark bus ride in the morning, we were a group of regulars, quiet as we geared up for another day. The ride home was noisier, filled with the energy of students. As my mind became accustomed to the particular stops and turns, I began to look forward to a specific moment on the ride home, after the bus turned from Gessner onto Westheimer. As the bus began jolting its way down a long stretch of road, the entire city of Houston began opening up in front of me. Looking at the long stretch of road with a clustering of skyscrapers, I saw Houston as a city of possibilities.
A packed 246 Bay Area commuter bus. All photos: Raj Mankad.
I reached the sea without getting in a car. Over the course of my journey, which began at Rice University and ended at Stewart Beach, I took one light rail train, four buses, and walked about three miles. Every three or four minutes, I took a photograph with my phone and I compiled a video embedded below.
If the various local and federal pots of money that paid for the two major legs of the trip had been used in a coordinated manner, as part of a regional system, the $7.50 trip would have taken about an hours and a half instead of four.
1920s Houston streetcar on Mandell Line headed toward Montrose.
City-wide gridlock. Long stretches of highway that look like parking lots, not at rush hour, but midday. Welcome back to traffic panic, Houston. In the past we have given ourselves brief reprieves by widening our highways, but there’s little appetite for swallowing up whole neighborhoods for right-of-way and no money to do such a thing. Can light rail save us?
Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.
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:
End of East End Line at Altic Street. Photo: Allyn West.
The East End Line is split in two. One section stretches along Harrisburg Boulevard from Downtown and stops at Altic Street; the other picks up at 66th Street and ends at the Magnolia Transit Center. Between them is a gap of six blocks — with two sets of freight railroad tracks cutting across the middle — that have frustrated residents and business owners since at least 2008 and have delayed the line’s completion.
Some have wanted Metro to build the line over the tracks, some under. Last week, board members voted to go over. The unanimous vote came after two hours of exhausting testimony from some of those East Enders and other disinterested (so they claimed) parties, along with four statements pleading for another month of debate from city council members Ed Gonzalez and Robert Gallegos, state representative Carol Alvarado, and Senator Sylvia Garcia — all of which Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia presided over as a kind of King Solomon with a stopwatch. During her three minutes, one Eastwood resident, a former Metro employee who’s in favor of the underpass, urged Garcia: “Do not desecrate our neighborhoods.” And then a business owner who runs a used car dealership on Harrisburg pleaded with him: “We want it to go over [just] to get it done with.” Another business owner added: “You’re killing us.”
Photo by Chris Andrews.
Nearly two weeks ago METRO released the System Reimagining proposal, arguably the biggest service adjustment in METRO’s existence. METRO is currently welcoming feedback on the system. I hope most feedback will be positive, as the reimagined system should provide an opportunity for ridership for more people, and to a larger area of the Houston region, without an increase in costs or major infrastructural improvements. The reimagined system helps to reduce redundancies in coverage and increases the number of “frequent” bus routes throughout the region, creating a grid-like network of bus routes in which riders rely on transfers to reach their destinations.
I looked at the map of new routes and how they would impact my commute, and I thought about improvements needed to accommodate more riders and transfers. Examine proposed routes yourself to learn their physical coverages, frequencies, and surrounding conditions. I could think of no better way to examine the proposed routes than by bike. You can do the same. Then send your comments to METRO or attend a public meeting. It’s time for Houstonians to own their transit routes.