Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The city’s bus network transformation seems to be working.
Houston’s overnight bus network transformation in August 2015 was a transportation planner’s dream. The old hub-and-spoke system that had for decades funneled commuters downtown was straightened into a grid that cross-cuts the sprawling city, with fewer redundancies, more frequent service, and all-day, all-week service on heavily used lines. As the original before-and-after maps show above, almost every route was changed, with increasing ridership rather than service area as the guiding priority.
But not everyone was thrilled. The new network hinges more heavily on transfers, which can move people more quickly but tend not to be as appealing as a one-line commute. Although most commuters saw their routes essentially unchanged, a few neighborhoods suffered from service cuts. In response, Metro made some tweaks and rethought a route or two after hearing community input.
Now, one year out, Houston’s big bus overhaul is on its way to success by the measure it hoped to achieve. Leah Binkovitz at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research reports that Metro saw ridership on its local bus and light-rail systems showed a gain of 4.5 million boardings between September 2015 and July 2016—an increase of 6.8 percent.
According to Binkovitz, bus ridership alone showed slower growth over that period, with a gain of just 1.2 percent, while the light-rail system’s Red Line jumped 16.6 percent. But since many high-volume bus routes didn’t radically change for many riders, that’s not surprising, according to Kyle Shelton, the program manager at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. As he said in a statement, bus and rail “are mutually beneficial and improving the service level on both will likely keep ridership going up.” An increase in rail boardings also supports the new bus network’s emphasis on system connectivity.
And since some discontented commuters might have taken to their cars after the switch—indeed, weekday bus ridership actually dropped by one percent—the bump in overall bus ridership is promising.
More impressive was the growth of weekend bus boardings. “From June 2015 to June 2016 —the most recent Metro has released more detailed ridership data—local buses saw a 13 percent increase in ridership on Saturdays and a 34 percent increase on Sundays, according to METRO, with similarly strong numbers for rail as well,” writes Binkovitz. That could mean students and shift workers commuting to weekend jobs are getting more use out of the system, which was one of Metro’s goals.
Metro hopes to achieve a 20 percent increase in total system ridership within two years of the bus network’s transformation. These numbers suggest the agency is on its way, and it isn’t done yet—officials are starting to think about how to build on the new network with more specialized routes and bus rapid transit. Cities like Los Angeles that are looking to emulate Houston’s transformation should also be encouraged: Designing for ridership can actually work.