Can Houston Learn to Love Light Rail?

In a city where nine in ten drive to work, the answer could reshape the future.

Image
Flickr user royluck

HOUSTON—Once every two weeks or so, in the six months after Houston's first light rail line opened in 2004, a car crashed into the dazzling fountain that flanks the tracks downtown. In the first year of operation, the light rail was involved in 67 collisions. Folks took to calling it the Wham-Bam-Tram. Some drivers never learned to coexist with the newcomer at all, opting instead for parallel side streets. With its lush lawns, large floor plans and sprawling footprint, Houston is a famously spacious city. But the roads never seem wide enough.

Ten years later, the city is in the midst of a second burst of light rail expansion. Five additional miles of track opened in December; two new lines are set to follow later this year. At the center of Greater Houston, a metro area the size of Massachusetts, two-dozen miles of track may not seem like much. (Even some supporters of the project refer to it as the "toy train.") Yet in America's fourth largest city, light rail remains a political and cultural flashpoint far out of proportion to its modest size.

To opponents, it is a prime example of government waste — a vanity project flawed not only in its execution but in its aim of enabling Houstonians to travel without cars. Houston's sprawling size is coupled with a year-round average high temperature of 80 degrees, which critics say make walkable design a pipe dream. Congressman John Culberson, who represents West Houston in Washington and is light rail's chief political adversary, recalls a 19th-century saying that still explains the local love for cars: A Texan will not walk if he can ride a horse. "People's attitudes haven't changed," he says. "You are dead in the water in Houston if you don't have a car."

But the people themselves have changed — no American metro has grown faster than Greater Houston over the last quarter-century, making it one of the most diverse areas in the United States — and they might be taking the city with them. Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, divides Houston's history into three periods: the sleepy streetcar town, the city structured by the freedom of the automobile, and the metropolis yearning for freedom from the automobile. "There's a vision: retail downstairs, residents upstairs, shade trees, sidewalk cafes," says Klineberg. "This is, in general, a city self-consciously reinventing itself for the 21st century."

At the core of this Houston 3.0 vision runs the light rail, offering a glimpse of a city where not driving can be a choice rather than a burden. In a city where nine in ten people take a car to work, it's a future not everyone thinks is possible.

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In 2003, after two decades of defeats, Houston voters approved the construction of a five-route Metro rail system. The Main Street (or Red) line, which opened in 2004, gives access to a laundry list of Houston attractions: downtown, three sports complexes, theaters, museums, Hermann Park, the zoo, the Texas Medical Center, and several transit centers that process tens of thousands of suburban bus commuters. On the average weekday in 2013, the Main Street line recorded 39,000 boardings, making it by some measures the third-busiest light rail system in the United States (behind Boston and San Francisco).

The full system plan for Houston light rail. (Courtesy Metro Transit)

The latest wave of expansion began in December, when a 5.3-mile extension of the Red line pushed into the city's Northside neighborhood. The East End and Southeast routes are under construction now and set to open, at least in part, later this year. By the end of 2014, the map of light rail in Houston will resemble the letter "K." But the future of the other two rail lines is murky. The westernmost line will be constructed as a bus rapid transit line funded by value capture; the system's crucial East-West connector, the Richmond Line, is stalled awaiting funding.

Despite this expansion of rail transit, Houston remains, in the popular imagination, the archetypal American city of the automobile era. It's said there are 30 parking spaces per person here, and for a time in the 1980s, Houston's West Loop was the busiest stretch of freeway in the world. The architectural critic Reynar Banham likened Houston's speculative fervor to a "real-life Monopoly game." Hip families in Reagan-era Austin would put a bumper sticker on their car that was a kind of spiritual predecessor to "Keep Austin weird": "Don't Houstonize Austin!"

All this is mythic, like the architect's campfire story of Houston as unplanned free-for-all. In fact, Houston's core neighborhoods grew around a 90-mile streetcar system, and the city has a higher WalkScore than Austin. "Houston is amazingly more progressive and more concerned about things like quality of life, walkable neighborhoods, and bike infrastructure than people realize," says Susan Rogers, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston.

The light rail project rides that same wave of interest in car-free life. "Rail used to be a negative word around this town," says Tom Lambert, head of Houston's Metro transit agency. "It's not anymore."

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On a recent Thursday morning, the kind of crisp, sunny day that maximizes transit ridership, I went downtown to meet Christof Spieler, a Metro board member and vice president at Morris Architects. Ebullient and nearly omniscient on the subject of downtown development, Spieler lives in a nearby apartment building and takes the train to work. He'd be a perfect advertisement for transit-oriented Houston if he weren't also, in an official capacity, one of its spokesmen.

The Main Street Square stop of Houston Metro's Main Street line. (Henry Grabar)

"One of the things that makes me happy is seeing the amount of street activity," says Spieler, as we pass a park a block from the tracks. "If you had come here fifteen years ago, you wouldn't have seen it." In the 1980s, more than a third of downtown Houston was surface parking. But the resurgence began in the '90s, "as if Houston had stretched out so far that its sprawl began doubling back on itself," wrote the architecture writer Joel Barna in Rice's Cite magazine. Three professional sports teams moved downtown between 2000 and 2012, and the area's first grocery store opened in 2010. Pedestrians aren't yet a fixture — many still use the 95-block underground tunnel network (old habits die hard) — but cranes and jackhammers certainly are.

As we rode the Red Line north then south, past the Main Street Square fountain, once so visceral a symbol of car-rail conflict, past striking street sculptures and medians planted with tulips and daffodils, Spieler ran through the roster of developers and restaurateurs who have settled along the tracks. We passed the transfer points where the system's second and third lines will branch out toward residential neighborhoods to the east and southeast. The train car filled up as we headed south, through midtown (itself making a comeback) and towards the Texas Medical Center, an employment center by itself the size of downtown Cleveland.

From the inside of a train car, it can be hard to perceive the extent to which the city's entire transit network lies in the ripple effect of light rail. The train lines will operate in concert with both the local bus network, in the process of a much-awaited redesign, and a park-and-ride bus system reputed as one of Houston's best-kept transit secrets. These commuter buses have a 10 percent share of Houston transit trips (versus 15 percent for light rail), but they're limited by a lack of connections inside the Loop, the city's primary ring road. Light rail will function as "the spines that funnel the bus system together," says Spieler, and greatly increase the appeal of a carless commute in Houston.

As light rail makes its first forays into Houston's residential neighborhoods, there are grander hopes as well. The history of Houston is one of westward movement facilitated by roads, rubber tires, and a landscape void of natural obstacles. As many people live in the hundred square miles west of the Loop as inside the Loop itself. But the light rail system, in the most optimistic projections, should slow that centrifugal growth, enabling dense, mixed-use corridors in central Houston. Nearly half of new housing permits in Houston were issued inside the Loop in 2012, though the area is home to only 450,000 of the city's 2.1 million people.

Every two years, on the Kinder Institute's Houston Area Survey, Stephen Klineberg asks which type of neighborhood Houstonians would prefer to call home: single-family residential or mixed-use. The percentage of Houstonians opting for the latter has hovered near 50 percent since 2007, and nears two-thirds among Houstonians living inside the Loop. "Half of all the people are saying, 'I want an alternative to total dependence on the automobile,'" Klineberg says.

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Few people are more skeptical of that vision than Paul Magaziner. When I met him at a hot dog chain on Richmond Avenue, a few miles west of downtown, sheaves of documents on Metro were piled high on the table, destined for the office of the district attorney. Hounding Metro is practically a second job for Magaziner. He claims to have been responsible for alerting the Federal Transit Administration to the agency's Buy America violations (part of the deal to buy light rail cars from Spanish manufacturer CAF). He estimates, conservatively, that he has spent 5,000 hours working to expose the organization's shortcomings.

The road-or-rail question will go a long way toward shaping Houston's future. (Henry Grabar)

Even for a transit agency, Metro inspires an unusual degree of antagonism. In the late '80s, a general manager had to promise that Metro harbored "no grandiose ideas about eliminating the automobile." A series of unforced errors — including the Buy America scandal — has not helped matters. Allyn West, the assistant director of communications for the Rice Design Alliance and a former real estate reporter, described local opinion of Metro as follows: "If they did something right, it was the exception that proves the rule. And if they did something wrong, it was 'Here come the wolves.'"

Magaziner introduced me to two other members of his wolfpack, Daphne Scarbrough and Sam Akers. All three have been small business owners along Richmond for years and were united by a common pursuit: preventing the construction of light rail on their street. Richmond Avenue, the route for Metro's major East-West line, is widely perceived as the keystone of Houston's five-line rail plan. It's currently in limbo for lack of funding; Rep. Culberson (whom Magaziner calls "our guardian angel") has inserted language into the appropriations bill barring federal money for rail on Richmond Avenue, over the opposition of fellow Houston GOP congressman Ted Poe, property owners, and local residents. Many people in Houston doubt it will ever be built. 

The opposition that Magaziner and company harbor for Metro goes far beyond the Richmond rail plan. One complaint is that the transit agency has abandoned bus riders in the pursuit of rail. It's true that bus ridership has fallen by 25 percent since 2006 (Metro blames a bus network that hasn't been updated in decades). Another is that Metro has spent its budget surplus building light rail. This too is true (Metro contends that spending its money on transit improvements is its mission). Generally, Magaziner and company feel Metro has misplaced its priorities, and see light rail as part of a municipal mission creep to make Houston more like Portland.

"They're hoping they can get people out of cars and force them to walk and bike," says Scarbrough, who sued Metro in 2007 over the Richmond Avenue plan. (Her claims have been largely dismissed.) "You have your anti-car people. We have planners working for the city who say, 'We look forward to the day we can not give you a permit for a garage inside the 610 loop.' "

Magaziner pointed to Scarbrough: "You're sitting across from someone who will be dead before she lets rail be built on Richmond Avenue."

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Even as Metro planners struggle to change the status quo, the Texas Department of Transportation works frantically to preserve it. Texas spends twice more on new road construction than any other state. Greater Houston spends $330 per capita on roads, most of the ten largest U.S. metros. The granddaddy of recent Houston road projects is the $2.8-billion expansion of the Katy Freeway, Interstate 10 heading towards San Antonio. This 23-mile highway widening cost more than twice the initial estimates for the 73-mile, five-line light rail system. It is Culberson's signature achievement.

Near Northside will be a testing ground for transit-oriented Houston; a light rail extension opened there in December. (Henry Grabar)

When I visited Culberson's office in Washington, D.C., he urged me to compare the spectacle to that of light rail on Main Street. Drive downtown, he instructed, and "look at what they've done." Then I could drive his "ideal solution" to the region's transportation problems. Leaving Houston, the Katy Freeway is indeed a magnificent spectacle: at 18 lanes, it is as flat and wide as a river. Big box stores, office complexes and subdivisions line its banks. Twenty-five miles from downtown, its onramps soar to connect with a recently completed segment of the Grand Parkway, Houston's fourth ring road, which may one day form a 180-mile circle around the city.

For now, the Katy Freeway appears to have taken the sting out of the West Houston commute. According to a 2013 report from the Texas Transportation Institute, the wider road cuts 14 minutes from the average peak-direction afternoon commute. But transit advocates believe this improvement is temporary, and that Houston's mind-numbing traffic will eventually overwhelm the city's current transportation system. If there's a starting point at which Houston will slow the self-perpetuating cycle of road construction, it is somewhere far beyond Katy.

Could the alternative emerge at the center of this sprawling region, like a diamond formed under great pressure? An early testing ground for transit-oriented Houston will be Near Northside, where the Main Street line extension opened in December. No part of that line looks as much like the rest of Houston as this neighborhood. Brick bungalows sit in the shade of live oaks and pecans; rain-stained concrete strip malls crouch behind long parking lots.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del's Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston's transit experiment, but she has doubts. "Houston is a vehicle town," she says. "They love their cars. It's going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking." Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

Top image: Flickr user royluck.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.