To Boost Ridership, Houston Revamps Public Transit System
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The nation's fourth-largest city just got a new public transit system. Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority has overhauled every bus route in a big push to get people to ride after years of declining numbers. As Houston Public Media's Gail Delaughter reports, the hope is that improved service will change attitudes in a city where most people drive solo.
GAIL DELAUGHTER, BYLINE: The sun isn't even up yet, but buses are already rolling into the transit hub at the Texas Medical Center, just south of downtown Houston. Some riders wear scrubs. Others are in business casual. And they're being met by customer service representatives armed with big colorful maps showing Houston's new bus system.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I want to go to (inaudible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Got you, OK. Well, that bus has been moved over to Fannin South.
DELAUGHTER: Everyone who's here took a different bus than the one they did on Friday. The old numbers and schedules were discontinued 24 hours earlier. One rider trying out the new system is Michelle Garrett. She's taking the bus to a large public hospital, where she works at the information desk. She worries how changes in familiar patterns will affect other riders, like the elderly.
MICHELLE GARRETT: Where at one point, like, they would come to the hospital and realize they're at the wrong hospital, and I would be able to say, hey, just go out here, catch that one bus. They have to catch three buses now, and it's just - it's going to be really difficult.
DELAUGHTER: Facing years of declining ridership, Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority says it had to make a change. Under the old network, most buses funneled everyone right into downtown Houston because, traditionally, that's where most people worked. The 600-square-mile city now has many business centers outside the urban core, so that system no longer made sense. Transit officials from around the country are watching what happens here in Houston as they consider similar changes for their own bus systems. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker helped draw the new maps.
JARRETT WALKER: The way transit grows in relevance is starting with people who don't have any particular cultural aversion to it, who don't use it now simply because right now it's useless to them.
DELAUGHTER: So how do you make the system more useful? Walker says you create a grid with long, straight routes that crisscross the city, so riders can head in one direction, but don't have to come downtown. And, he adds, the key to making it work is frequency. Under the new network, some of the busiest routes will have service every 15 minutes. He says people are more likely to use the bus if they know they won't have to wait long. In a city where three-quarters of people drive to work solo, it may take more than speed to get people on the bus. Jonathan Brooks is a researcher with the Texas AandM Transportation Institute.
JONATHAN BROOKS: People that drive tend to have the most control over their mode of transportation. And so using an alternative, there's some additional risk that your trip may be delayed and it's outside your power.
DELAUGHTER: In a recent study of Houston commuting habits, Brooks says they did see strong interest in transit. But people would be more likely to use it if they had a financial incentive, like a break in their car insurance rates. Back at the transit center, Mary Dixon was on her way to work at the VA Medical Center. Dixon says her route has totally changed, and she got up extra early to figure it out.
MARY DIXON: Well, it's kind of new to everybody at the moment, but I think once we get the new route and which way it's going, it's going to be fine.
DELAUGHTER: Metro says a goal of the new system is to increase ridership by 20 percent over the next two years. To encourage people to try the new routes, they're offering free rides for the next week. For NPR News, I'm Gail Delaughter in Houston.
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