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How Houston's Bus Network Got Its Groove Back

A short documentary gets viewers up to speed on the system’s overnight transformation.

Not long ago, Houston’s bus service befit a version of the city out of the 1950s. Despite decades of decentralized urban growth, most bus lines still zig-zagged into one small section of the downtown core, where only 25 percent of the region’s jobs are located. Route redundancies were rampant. And despite the all-day transit needs of university students and low-income riders, frequent service (meaning buses arriving every 15 minutes or faster) was mostly limited to weekday rush hours.

But as a new short documentary from Streetfilms recounts, one Sunday morning in August 2015, Houstonians awoke to a completely re-envisioned system—the first that the Metropolitan Transit Agency had undertaken in four decades. A less redundant, more grid-like network of routes “vastly expanded the reach of frequent service” and offered all-day, all-week service on several key lines, according to Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker, who worked with the city as a consultant on the redesign. Houston Metro was able to transform the system largely by trimming and tightening unnecessary routes, with no significant additional costs. The original before-and-after network maps are fairly breath-taking:

One fact the film excludes about the city’s huge overhaul is that, inevitably, not all Houstonians were or are supporters. Because transit officials focused on cutting redundant bus service with low ridership to open up capacity for heavier-use lines, some riders saw their walks to the bus stop get a little longer. “[W]hy take away what people are doing now that's working fine?" one frustrated rider wondered to the Houston Chronicle in August.

But so far the data suggest that the changes, even with their pain points, were worth it. “The early results are looking really good,” Christof Spieler, secretary of the board at Houston Metro, tells Streetfilms. Weekend ridership leapt up virtually immediately, as did numbers on Houston’s light rail system thanks to more complementary bus routes. By the third month of service, local ridership was up 8 percent. And transit experts believe that more people are poised to discover the new system as the months and years roll on, bumping up ridership more over time.

“Every city should do a ‘system reimagining’ of their bus network,” writes Streetfilms. And some are: L.A., with the second-largest bus fleet in North America, is considering following Houston’s lead.

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