I recently returned from a “Mobility Solutions Summit” in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I would like to share a few takeaways from the trip.

1) Houston’s new bus network is considered a national model.

That’s right. A national model. Urban planners and transit advocates are visiting Houston, calling up METRO staff, and flying Christof Spieler, the METRO board member who led the “reimagining” of the bus network, around the country. I wrote about the national attention the switch to grid-based, high-frequency routes garnered when it launched and almost three years later the attention has only intensified. This month in CityLab, Laura Bliss writes, “Look at all of the cities following the example of Houston, which overhauled its bus route network in 2015 and saw a 15 percent Saturday ridership spike in the first year; Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City are all taking their cues.”

The weekend spike aside, Houston’s reimagined bus system has not yielded a transformative increase in ridership. Single-occupant cars still dominate Houston's “mode share” with about 2.5 percent of people in the region using transit. Yet, we are among a handful of cities including Seattle and Milwaukee that have seen no drop in ridership. That Houston of all places, with its lethal streets, funding constraints, and political limitations, managed to buck a national trend of declining ridership is getting attention.

I was flown to Grand Rapids to provide the perspective of a daily bus commuter on a panel headlined by Spieler and METRO planner Kurt Luhrsen. (Disclosure: Spieler is a former editorial chair of this publication.) As you can imagine, most panel discussions about transit are sleepy affairs. Spieler received three rounds of spontaneous, mid-panel applause from an audience of elected officials, commissioners, community activists, designers, and governmental staff. His impassioned words about bus networks that provide reliable, frequent service throughout the week — and the evidence to back those words up — are reverberating across the country.

Grand Rapids Central Station. Photo: Christof Spieler.


2) Grand Rapids has some lessons to share with Houston.

With a population of 200,000, Grand Rapids is the second-largest city in Michigan. The Rapid, which is the regional system centered on Grand Rapids, doesn’t have the budget and number of riders Houston METRO does. Their bus routes mostly converge on a single station adjacent to Downtown and the departure times are coordinated in a single pulse. All the buses lining up and then driving off at once is a surprisingly beautiful ballet of sorts, far more orderly looking than what you would see at a METRO transit center. But that type of system with routes that run infrequently converging on a single node has major limits. The Central Station only has so much capacity and the streets around it get congested with every pulse. In addition, while Grand Rapids has a Downtown that is still the main place of employment, they too have dispersed neighborhoods, job centers, schools, parks, and churches. In their current system, making cross-town trips is difficult. Grand Rapids can learn from METRO's frequent, grid-based network. At the same time, they have a bus line we can learn from too.

The standout component of The Rapid is their Silver Line. It was planned by Kenneth Sislak of AECom, who also presented at the Mobility Summit. This bus route has some but not all of the features associated with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Most notably, it does not have a dedicated right of way that keeps the buses out of traffic. With the relatively uncongested streets of Grand Rapids, the bus moves along fine. What distinguishes the Silver Line are the stations, which are about as nice as our light rail stations. An accessible ramp leads up to a platform. You can board the bus without having to step up or lift anything. You buy your fare from a machine at the station instead of on the bus, which makes boarding faster. It’s a useful and symbolic investment in shelter that signals to riders that the quality and reliability of the ride will be high. The route runs nearly 10 miles and has 34 stations. It cost $40 million. Arriving every 20 minutes, the bus would not qualify as frequent in our system but the ridership has grown every year since it launched in 2014 while the ridership of the other buses in The Rapid system declined.

Houston METRO Quickline on Bellaire. Photo courtesy METRO.

Houston could benefit from the high-quality but not budget-busting approach to the Silver Line. We do have the Bellaire QuickLine, which has better than average bus stops but not level boarding or fare machines. Moreover, the spacing of the stops on the Silver Line seemed just right. In Houston, most lines have stops too bunched together in places, slowing the bus and other traffic down, or, in the case of the Quickline, the stops are so far apart you often have to opt for the non-express bus.

For the past year, METRO has been engaged in longterm planning and the board is considering a range of capital projects. They are weighing the advantages and disadvantages of major investments in infrastructure. Should METRO build a commuter rail option to Missouri City? Should it find a way to connect Uptown and Downtown by rail or Bus Rapid Transit? Unless the state legislature and the Texas delegation to the U.S. Congress were to work to create more funding options, METRO has only so much money it can ask for in a bond election — nothing close to the 2016 game-changing $50 billion bond passed in the Seattle area.

 Houston METRO Quickline Stop. Photo courtesy Huitt-Zollars.

What if Houston METRO doubled down on what has gained it national attention — the bus network? Perhaps the 20 high-frequency routes could get the Silver Line treatment. The 82 Westheimer would get better stations, stop spacing, and signal prioritization to speed up the trip inside Loop 610 within the existing and limited right of way. Outside Loop 610, the 82 could get a dedicated lane. If the City of Houston and METRO worked collaboratively on street rebuilds, a combined budget could address many needs at once (including drainage and safety for people driving, bicycling, and walking).

In Houston, we have a relatively stark differentiation in quality of transit infrastructure. On the one hand, you have METROrail, the Uptown Bus Rapid Transit under construction, and the commuter buses that have dedicated rights of way and stops that provide adequate to superb shelter. On the other, with the city buses, whether on one of the new frequent routes or the low-frequency ones, the experience of waiting for and getting on the bus is often harsh. Perhaps the focus should be on moving the experience of more people into the missing middle range.

Raj Mankad is editor of Cite.


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