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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    Electric Scooters Aren’t a Transportation Revolution Yet

    New data show a staggering rise in shared dockless e-scooter use nationwide. But commuting habits have seen little change since the dawn of micromobility.

  2. a photo of a man surveying a home garage.
    Transportation

    How Single-Family Garages Can Ease California's Housing Crisis

    Given the affordable housing crisis, California cities should encourage single-family homeowners to convert garages into apartments and accessory dwelling units.

  3. Transportation

    Will Ottawa Ever Get Its Light Rail?

    Sinkholes, winter-weary trains, and political upheaval have held the Confederation Line light-rail transit back from a seriously overdue opening.

  4. Equity

    The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed

    Manhattan’s new luxury mega-project was partially bankrolled by an investor visa program called EB-5, which was meant to help poverty-stricken areas.

  5. Maria Romano stands behind one of her three children, Jennifer, 10, as she gets something to eat in their Harlem apartment in New York Thursday, June 3, 2005
    Equity

    Why HUD Wants to Restrict Assistance for Immigrants

    A proposal by Ben Carson’s agency would eject immigrant families from public housing to make way for the "most vulnerable." Housing advocates aren't buying it.