Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Ride" Your New METRO Route

Nearly two weeks ago the Metropolitan Transit Authority for Harris County, Houston, Texas (METRO) released their System Reimagining proposal, arguably METRO's biggest service adjustment in its existence. The reimagining process was led by transit planner Jerrett Walker, with assistance from Christof Spieler, a METRO Board member, Kurt Luhrsen, METRO's Senior Manager for Planning, and Geoff Carleton, a Houston-based transportation consultant. A reimagined 5-year service plan can be found here.

METRO is currently welcoming feedback on the system, both positive and negative. I hope that most feedback will be positive, as the system should provide an opportunity for ridership for more people, and to a larger area of the Houston region, without an increase in costs or major infrastructure improvements! The reimagined system helps to reduce redundancies in system coverage and increases the number of "frequent" bus routes throughout the region, creating a grid-like network of bus routes where riders rely on transfers to reach their destinations. It's something that officials will hope entices those who commute by car to make a switch to public transit.

As I looked at the new routes through the Houston Heights neighborhood and how they would impact my personal commute, I began to think about the changes that METRO may need to institute to accommodate more riders and the increase in transfers that will result as a product of the proposed reimagined routes. You can examine proposed routes online to learn their physical route and frequencies, as well as documents that list major activity centers, transfer opportunities and transit center and park and ride connections.

I thought there would be no better way to examine these proposed new routes by getting out on a bicycle and taking note of the infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate new riders, and new routes. You can do the same, and then send your comments to METRO. So, grab your bike and start peddling, or put on your walking shoes and start taking note of necessary METRO improvements. It's time for Houstonians to own their transit routes.


50 - Heights / 11 Heights-Dallas


For the purpose of this analysis, I rode what would be a common route for Houston Heights residents commuting to Downtown Houston. (I did not ride the entire route, but this analysis can provide an example of how you might be able to evaluate and improve the proposed bus routes). The current 50-Heights route is planned to be replaced with the 11-Heights-Dallas route. It would no longer be a frequent route throughout the day, but would have 20 minute headway during its peak times, with a 30 minute base headway. You can examine the differences in the route by looking at the current and proposed route maps.

North 610 Loop to 20th Street


20th Street at Heights
As you follow the proposed 11-Heights route on Yale from the I-610 Loop south to 20th Street, you can notice that there are current 66-Yale route signs already posted, so a simple renumbering would be easy. This would apply to many of the METRO routes already in service. However, with an increased reliance on transfers and routes that have lower headways, riders may desire shelter from the Houston sun, heat, and downpours. There is nothing more uncomfortable than waiting for transportation without shelter from the elements. Between I-610 and 20th Street there are only shelters on 20th Street.

20th Street and Yale
20th Street is an important transfer point on METRO's reimagined system, carrying a frequent route, aptly named the 20-MLK Lockwood Cavalcade route. It also is a transfer route to METRO's Red Line light rail further to the east, providing access to downtown Houston and anywhere within the METRO Rail network. The existing shelters are good for transfer riders. The crossing at 20th and Yale is near Hamilton Middle School, a Kroger, CVS, Walgreens and McDonalds, as well as the Houston Heights 19th Street shopping district, and may see a higher volume of transfers since it is located near a major activity center. With an increase of transfer riders crossing major thoroughfares, attention must be brought to crossing infrastructure. New striping of roadway crosswalks will provide greater visibility of pedestrians, and increase drivers' attention to pedestrians, especially as they cross the streets to utilize the transfer shelters situated on 20th Street.

20th Street to 11th Street


19th Street shelters
Examining the reimagined METRO system reveals that bus service is no longer planned on 19th Street in the Houston Heights, as the current 50-Heights route will be eliminated. This means the existing bus shelter at 19th Street and Heights will no longer be needed. Given that there are no shelters between 20th and 11th streets on the proposed 11-Heights route, relocation would provide protection for riders. Shelters at 14th Street, or any other cross street would serve riders well.

Current shelters at 11th Street shall remain useful as a reconfigured 40-Pecore route is proposed to be replaced with the 17-Ella 11th Clinton route. This route will connect western parts of the Heights and the Garden Oaks and Oak Forest subdivisions to Downtown Houston and other frequent routes on 20th Street, Shepherd and Studewood.

Southbound Heights Boulevard at 11th Street

11th and Heights Boulevard

11th Street to I-10


As I worked my way south, I noticed that there we no other shelters, other than the transfer shelters on northbound Heights south of White Oak, and southbound Heights at 5th Street. These shelters could be reallocated to provide protection for transfers of the proposed 16-White Oak Quitman route. It is also important to note the changing development pattern near Yale and Heights at White Oak (6th Street). The 360-unit Alexan Heights apartment complex is currently being constructed, with others complexes, like the Alexan Yale, planned for nearby blocks.

7th and Heights Boulevard; Alexan Heights construction

Heights at 6th Street

One can presume that most of the housing being built in this area of the Heights will be luxury apartments, and will look to attract young workers who would easily be able to commute to their downtown jobs. It will be important to invest in infrastructure that can accommodate and encourage transit use. It is not enough to simply react to transit demand. In the case of low-cost infrastructure like bus shelters, benches and trash cans, it is important to provide these accommodations to entice riders.

I-10 to Washington Avenue


South of I-10 Heights Boulevard has 5 bus shelters within a two block span. Riders along the route shopping at Walmart, visiting the West End Multi-Service Center or living in the Alta Heights apartments have ample protection from the elements. These shelters will be important to preserve with the reimagined routes, as wait times for buses will be longer.

Bus shelter at Heights and Koehler

Bus shelter at the Alta Heights apartments

Bus shelter on northbound Heights north of Washington Avenue

Heights Boulevard / Waugh and Washington Avenue Intersection


As you travel southbound on Heights Avenue approaching Washington Avenue, you will notice a triangular median guarding southbound traffic on Heights from traffic turning right onto westbound Washington Avenue. This median-island-type-thing could provide an area for a bus stop on southbound Heights Boulevard at Washington Avenue, which does not currently exist. The next closest stop on Heights Boulevard southbound is at Center Street, which would drop riders off one block north of a potential transfer route, 14-Washington. A stop may be able to be placed on the triangular median, providing some pedestrian refuge.

Southbound Heights at Center Street

Southbound Heights at Washington Avenue

Heights and Washington Avenue


No stop exists, and one would need to be installed on northbound Waugh just south of Washington Avenue. This would allow for better transfer to the 14-Washington route. The closest northbound stop on Heights Boulevard near Washington Avenue is currently just north of Center Street, adjacent to the at-grade railroad crossing.

Connecting to the 14-Washington route may be a better option for Heights-area residents and those traveling from the north, as the downtown portion of the route covers a greater north-south span compared to the 11-Heights route, and also connects to the Downtown Transit Center.

This is another intersection at a high-frequency line that would benefit from the installation or relocation of bus shelters. Currently, there is a stop along Washington Avenue just east of Heights Boulevard that serves as a transfer point between the current 85, 36 and 50 routes. As with most Houston intersections, it would benefit from more detailed and updated crosswalk painting, especially given the frequency of the proposed 14-Washington route.

Whole Foods


As a major grocery destination, and located along a frequent route for downtown travelers, stops located near Whole Foods may be worthwhile. There are currently no stops at Waugh and Damico Street and may serve riders well as a stopping point along their route to pick up lunch or other groceries on their way to and from work.

Damico Street at Waugh Drive

Waugh Drive at Dallas Street



Waugh Drive crosswalk at Dallas Street

Dallas and Waugh Intersection


The intersection at Dallas and Waugh will serve as a dividing point between the 10-Kirby Dallas Polk and 11-Heights Dallas routes. For Heights-area residents travelling to the Medical Center, this would be the appropriate transfer point to access The Medical Center Transit Center.

This intersection is also closest to the soon-to-open The Sovereign apartment tower, which will serve as a foundation for the planned Regency Square mixed use development and city district. The apartments will be marketed to "well-paid 25- to 45-year-old professional singles and couples". This is a demographic that may desire public transit access to commute, as opposed to driving their cars.

This intersection currently has no crossing signals, which is a danger to transferring pedestrians. There is currently only one shelter at this intersection, southbound Waugh just north of Dallas, serving the current 34 route. With an increased number of pedestrians, bus shelters, trash cans and benches become needed amenities.

Dallas and Montrose Boulevard Intersection


As you ride along Dallas between Waugh and Studemont, poor curb cuts that make for difficult sidewalk accessibility to bus stops. As the corridor continues to increase in its density and add multifamily properties, it will be important to ensure accessibility to all transit riders. Modifying curb cuts is one place to start.

The Dallas and Studemont intersection will be another important transfer point between two frequent routes. The proposed north-south 54-Airline Montrose route provides access for east Heights residents to The Medical Center Transit Center, the Northline Mall Transit Center, with connection to the Metro Rail red line, and points in between. Bus stops on both southbound and northbound Montrose Boulevard will need to be installed at Dallas Street.

This intersection also lies adjacent to the site of the Axis Apartments at 2400 Dallas that were slated to open this spring, but suffered a destructive fire in late March. It should be expected that the site will lay vacant for some time, but will eventually be rebuilt as a multifamily property. With this in mind, METRO would serve riders well to install shelters at the stops along Dallas, as well as at the required new stops along Montrose Boulevard, north and south of Dallas.

Axis Apartments - Dallas at Montrose

Montrose at Dallas intersection

Montrose crosswalk at Dallas

As a transfer point between two frequent routes, pedestrian crossing signals will need to be installed. There is crosswalk painting on Montrose and Dallas, but it will need to be refreshed, providing a better signal to drivers of the crosswalks at the intersection.

Dallas between Montrose and Downtown Houston


Dallas continues toward the east, reaching downtown Houston after passing through what is known as the Fourth Ward. This stretch of Dallas some of the nicest views of the Downtown Houston skyline, flanked by multifamily properties with small setbacks, creating that tunneling feeling seen in most other large cities. The land use along the corridor is becoming more intense, as multifamily properties and townhouses have taken place of single family and long-time vacant properties. As the population along the corridor increases, public transit to Downtown Houston will be important, as Houston's central business district is just a short ride away.


West Dallas


This stretch along Dallas is home to one of METRO's loneliest looking bus stop shelters, located on the south side of Dallas between Bailey and Wilson streets. Given the surrounding land uses, I am curious as to the justification for a shelter along this block. The block between Bailey and Wilson is completely vacant, with a cemetery located just to its east. There are townhouses that continue to be constructed in the area, but the closest multifamily property is located a block and a half away. This is another example of a relocation of resources that can better serve METRO riders.

West Dallas Street at Bailey Street

A contender for METRO's loneliest inner-loop bus stop


The route makes its way into Downtown Houston turning along McKinney Street, making its way east, looping around Discovery Green before heading west again along Lamar Street. If the route continues to utilize the same streets, it will be a route that travels along the planned reduction of Avenida de las Americas. The area between Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center is proposed to be turned into a pedestrian plaza, with areas for retail and recreation, almost acting as an extension of Discovery Green. The plan is proposed by Houston First, which aims for completion of the project in time for the 2017 Super Bowl.

Conclusions


  • For Heights residents, the proposed 11-Heights route will be a great connection to parts of Montrose, Whole Foods, Discovery Green and Downtown Houston. However, given the largely east-west route, transit riders may find that transferring to the 14-Washington will provide better coverage to Downtown Houston.
  • Riders from the Heights may also find it convenient to take the proposed frequent 20-MLK Lockwood Cavalcade route to the METRO Rail red line into downtown. It's easy to see that there are now more transit options for Houston residents as a whole, with options that allow riders to travel a greater distance.
  • Reallocating resources will serve METRO well in providing comfort and convenience for riders, especially now that many more riders will depend on transfers and may be waiting at stops they normally would not have had to stop at when compared to existing routes.
  • Most importantly, METRO and the City of Houston must focus on improving the pedestrian realm along frequent bus corridors and at transfer points. This includes adding striped (zebra) crossings and crosswalk signals. METRO and the City of Houston can seize this opportunity to create driver awareness, and possibly a bit of civic pride by using some creative crosswalk designs, with relatively low overhead in simply painting and updating crosswalks. It's amazing what a new coat of paint can do for some intersections.
  • Houston is known for its ambition. Certainly not in transportation, but in technology, energy and exploration. If you've ever been to METRO's headquarters downtown, or traveled on almost any other major transit system in major U.S. cities recently, you will see realtime transit updates. METRO provides this information through their RideMETRO smartphone application, but METRO can be even more ambitious in providing this technology at high-volume transfer points, as well as expanding the technology along METRO Rail routes to provide riders with information about bus transfer routes.
  • Houston drivers are already the least courteous and some of the most dangerous drivers in the United States, so pedestrian accidents and close calls, like this one along Allen Parkway, will continue to be the norm. In fact, a study recently released by Smart Growth USA entitled "Dangerous by Design", ranked Houston as the 7th most dangerous city for pedestrians. City officials say that certain intersections have adequate crossings, but adequate shouldn't be the norm when a transit system is going to make more people cross major thoroughfares to access their bus routes. 
Crosswalk in Redmond, Washington

Houstonians, own your city, and own your transit. Take a walk, a drive, or a grab your helmet and take a bike ride and document the necessary improvements that will make your commute, and those of other Houstonians, more enjoyable, efficient, and safe. Gather your thoughts, and be sure to send your feedback to METRO. Go ahead, and ride your route!

I hope that METRO continues to promote this reimagining effort and uses all the tools at their disposal to educate riders of the changes being made, as well as the benefits of public transit. This is a large overhaul of a transit system that many people depend on, even when many people question its credibility. Certainly, ridership on METRO's system is not because of a lack of advertising, but probably due to a lack of credibility among riders because of unreliable or uncomfortable service. METRO has a golden opportunity to educate Houston-area residents of the goals and benefits of the reimaging, and how it may affect people's commutes and daily lives. METRO may also seek to take an approach much like Chicago's Metra commuter rail system, or the Orange County (CA) Transportation Authority, educating the public and "taking viewers along for the ride aboard vanpools, carpools, trains, buses and bikes" in their recent Adventure Series.


Bonus Route: Portion of 14-Washington


Washington Avenue and Houston Avenue and Washington Avenue and Sawyer Street
Both intersections serve as transfer points to other less frequent routes, and are not served well by bus shelters. There is one shelter along eastbound Washington Avenue before Sawyer Street that currently serves the 50-Heights and 36-Kempwood Lawndale route, and currently no other shelters, or even bus stops at the corners of Washington Avenue and Sawyer. Stops would need to be added on the northwest, northeast and southeast corners.

Lack of stops at Washington and Sawyer

Current stops on Washington Avenue at Studemont

Studemont crosswalk at Washington Avenue

A stop needed at southbound Studemont at Washington Avenue


The Washington Avenue at Studemont intersection is another intersection of two frequent routes, where bus stops would need to be added on northbound and southbound Studemont, and a shelter added on westbound Washington Avenue. There is adequate crosswalk signalization and painting, and will serve riders well.

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