Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Yes, the city does have a mass transit system. And it will need it.
Hurricane Harvey hit one of the most famously auto-dependent places on Earth: nearly 91 percent of the commuters in the Houston metro travel alone by car to get to work. Somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million cars were destroyed by the storm, the most of any natural disaster in U.S. history.
Now, waitlists for rental cars are vertiginously long, gas prices are spiking, and the 32,000 who escaped flooding in shelters are now fanning out to other forms of temporary housing. Many Houstonians are grappling with how they’ll get to their jobs, their shattered homes, and to their children’s schools, minus car keys.
“I keep hearing on the radio that people won't be able to get anywhere,” says Janis Scott. “But this doesn’t need to be end of the world. Now is the time to get with METRO.”
Scott is known as Houston’s “bus lady.” In a city known for car-oriented design, the 65-year-old native is as passionate a transit advocate as they come. She greets her bus operators by name, helps fellow passengers navigate newly redesigned routes, and speaks out at every public meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County that she can. Before we spoke on Thursday, Scott had hung up with a METRO staffer, to whom she’d suggested offering up ride vouchers to those in shelters.
“People need to know they’ve got options,” she says. “From what I'm hearing, buses are not even on the brain.”
Yet METRO has emerged among the heroes of Hurricane Harvey. After discontinuing service just before the storm made landfill on August 25, the agency gamely positioned vehicles on high ground to ready them for emergency response. Operators transported some 8,000 individuals evacuated from dangerously flooded neighborhoods to shelters around the county, according to METRO CEO Tom Lambert. Paratransit operators fielded emergency calls during the storm. Bus drivers coordinated quickly with firefighters and police officers to rescue stranded drivers.
“I’m extremely proud of how our colleagues have worked in hand in hand with our partners to support this community,” says Lambert.
As rescue turned to recovery, METRO has positioned itself as a resource for storm victims. Through social media, local news channels, and directly to shelter staff, agency staffers are spreading information about bus routes, light rail lines, and park-and-ride services. Before the storm, METRO undertook a complete overhaul of the bus network, shoring up high-frequency routes helped pick up sluggish ridership numbers. Along the lines of Scott’s suggestion, the agency is working with state and federal relief agencies to distribute schedules and loaded Q cards to those in shelters and other government-paid housing.
“The cost of getting a new car can be such a huge hit,” says Christof Spieler, a member of METRO’s board of directors and a lecturer in architecture and urbanism at Rice University. “If we can help people out by letting them do what they need to on transit without having to borrow money at exorbitant rates to buy a car that may very well be unreliable—then that’s one of the things we want to do.”
Spreading the word about METRO in the face of a staggering disaster is a magnification of the challenge the agency faces every day, though. One recent survey showed a majority of Houstonians hadn’t stepped on the bus once in the year prior. “It’s amazing how few people are aware of some of our services,” says Spieler.
Misinformation doesn’t help: In dissecting local officials’ decision not to evacuate Houston ahead of Harvey, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tweeted that there’s “no mass transit” in Houston, echoing a sentiment shared by many Houstonians themselves—and ignoring the nearly 300,000 daily riders who depend on the METRO network.
Now, “there will be people who will suddenly find themselves dependent on transit when they weren’t before,” Spieler says.
After nearly a week of service at a standstill, METRO started running buses along some of its regular routes on August 31. “We carried 43,000 boardings when we brought on limited service,” says Lambert, METRO’s CEO. The system is expected to be almost fully operational by September 5, Lambert notes, and METRO will be closely monitoring boarding numbers to add capacity where it’s needed.
Not everyone who lost a car in Harvey will find it easy to switch to transit. METRO only covers about two-thirds of Harris County, and some areas outside of it. Even for those in the service area, “just the reality of having to locate routes and find ways to the locations they need to access will be a logistical challenge,” says Kyle Shelton, a fellow at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, where he leads its Urban Development, Transportation and Placemaking program. Many of the communities hit hardest by Harvey, like northeast Houston and Sugar Land, aren’t served by transit all. Particularly for lower-income families who only had one vehicle to begin with, getting around “is going to be really problematic for a lot of folks,” says Shelton.
But once the agency resumes normal service, officials say they will begin to look at how METRO can assist communities that have long lacked transit. With Houston Independent School District starting classes on September 11, “we’re working with all of our partners to see how we can get those kids to school, in particular,” says Lambert. “Whether it’s with buses, Uber, Lyft, or the yellow cab companies, we’ll be working to develop a coordinated plan to bring normalcy as fast we can.” Shelton notes that he hopes to see METRO ramp up paratransit services to lend extra help to qualifying riders.
Transit should also take on a more important role in the region’s long-term recovery, Spieler and Shelton say. With affordable housing stock destroyed throughout the area, discussion will soon turn to where infrastructure investments should be targeted, and whether future floodplain development should be limited. “Do we rebuild in places where there is good transit?” says Spieler. “Can that be part of the discussion?”
Encouraging development near transit connections isn’t just about encouraging more Houstonians to opt out of driving alone: Robust transit can help neighborhoods recover from faster from shocks and disasters.
“You discover in an event like Harvey that there are development patterns that are more resilient than others,” says Spieler. “In neighborhoods where it’s easier to use transit or walk or bike”—whether it’s downtown Houston or a well-planned suburb—“not having gas in your gas tank or having your car flooded isn’t as big of a deal, because you can get around in other ways.”
Now that bus routes have been redesigned with frequency in mind, “Maybe the next set of investments needs to have a greater equity lens,” says Shelton, “where service is improved in areas with lower car ownership rates or less-frequent service now.”
There will always be limits on the quality of transit in a city like Houston. So long as employers choose to locate in suburban office parks, and residential developers plot homes on endless cul-de-sacs, decent bus service in those areas will be a pipe dream. Money is a challenge: Without voters approving major bonds, the agency won’t be able to do much more than it already is.
But a wave of new post-Harvey riders may mean more support for Houston’s workhorse buses. “If folks can begin to remove the worry of whether a bus is coming or not from their list of concerns each day, that lightens the load” of Harvey’s immense burden, says Shelton. “If [METRO] can get folks where they need to go consistently, that will have an additional positive impact for them in terms of ridership, I’d expect.”
Scott believes another kind of transformation is possible for Houston transit. Perhaps buses can shed their reputation an option of last resort, especially for those who can afford to drive. “Some of those people are going to have to learn to live without their cars,” Scott says. “If that involves riding METRO for the first time, and you’re apprehensive, ask someone for help. You meet the nicest people on the bus.”