Thursday, November 13, 2014

Caring About the Transit User Experience in Houston

I ride the local bus to and from work nearly every day, and I have to admit, I love it. When I tell people this, they usually give a second look. For me, it’s relative freedom from the grips of the morning gridlock. I can sit back, read and take in the cityscape. Stepping into a packed local bus gives a glimpse into Houston’s diverse population. Is there a better place to see the full spectrum of human nature on display than a confined space with 30 other strangers as you zip through the city?

No matter our age, profession or economic status, we need to get from one place to another. All of us want that experience to be as pleasant and safe as possible. Like urbanist blogger Daniel Kay Hertz said a few weeks ago, “Buses: They don’t have to suck.” Hertz focuses his recommendations on bus technology in Chicago such as all-door-boarding, bus pre-payment, or dedicated roadway lanes for public transit. In Houston, we might be best served to look at our ridership experience more holistically and focus on conditions in the pedestrian realm. The same applies here in Houston. Riding and waiting for the bus doesn't have to suck.

In transit, the most important issue for riders is likely the frequency and path of service.  If a service doesn't run frequently enough or is not direct enough, it's likely someone would simply drive a car. METRO will roll out their reimagined bus system next year, hopefully allowing more opportunities for ridership. We may allow more people to have access to our system, but will people use it? Will they feel comfortable using the system? What will the user experience tell someone about METRO or Houston? Will new riders give transit a try, and will long-time riders continue to support our system?

Code of Conduct

A few weeks ago Dug Begley, Transportation reporter for the Houston Chronicle, reported that METRO officials are considering a Code of Conduct for riders. It’s a considerate move by METRO officials, but is something that is likely only to be as strong as its enforcement. METRO Police are limited in their ability to travel routes to look for violations, so the code of conduct may simply serve as an instrument to deal with METRO's worst offenders.

Violations of the Code of Conduct would include "eating or drinking on buses, lying across multiple seats, littering, playing loud music or talking loudly on the phone". These are conditions that, if no recourse of action is available, make the transit experience uncomfortable. Unfortunately, when someone has a poor experience on transit they may assume that it is the norm, and revert back to using their car. Anything to change poor perceptions of transit is a benefit to riders, our citizens, and the METRO system at large.


If you've geeked out on transit and have watched any of the recent METRO Board Meetings in person or online, there are consistent examples of safety concerns. The most recent October 23, 2014 meeting is a perfect example. Here, a resident of Houston's 5th Ward cited safety concerns about arriving to their bus stop so early in the morning without the benefit of lighting. The resident noted that they actually walk further to a bus stop with lighting for increased safety. It is probably not feasible that all of METRO's nearly 11,000 bus stops will be able to be adequately lit to provide safety, but it is a consideration that needs to be examined especially as routes change and more riders rely on transfers as a result of METRO's System Reimagining.

If more people are going to use or even consider transit, we must make sure that people feel safe enough in their surroundings to use the service. To be fair, METRO officials have been steadfast in insisting they want to make safe neighborhoods for riders, but much more can be done.


A bare bones bus stop on eastbound 20th Street at Durham,
which is an intersection of two frequent routes in METRO's
reimagined bus system
At the same METRO Board meeting a citizen expressed concern over the infrastructure and pedestrian realm at 20th Street and Durham. This is an intersection that, as a result of System Reimagining, will be a transfer point between two frequent routes: 20 Cavalcade (which will provide a connection to the Red Line light rail) and the new 50 Route. As your approach Durham from the west on 20th Street, the bus stop is nothing more than a sign. There's no bus shelter, trash receptacle, light or bench. Houston's sun, heat and sudden downpours can make waiting for a connecting bus a very unpleasant experience. There are also no crosswalk signals and inadequate crosswalk painting in all of the crosswalks. In a city that's ruled by cars, pedestrians should have all the protection they can get if they must cross major thoroughfares to access frequent transit routes and transfer points.

Conditions are a bit better a block to the east at Shepherd and 20th Street, but one stop is without shelter. I looked at the intersection of Yale and 20th Street soon after System Reimagining was announced and found the infrastructure to be fairly inhospitable to pedestrians as well. It's an issue that intersections all over the city are going to face. If more people are going to use or even consider transit, we must make sure that people can wait for their connecting buses in as much comfort as possible, and be able to safely cross major thoroughfares.

Perceptions of METRO and Transit in Houston, especially among millennials

At the most recent Houston Downtown Management District board meeting on November 13th, a report was given that summarized the District's business development planning. As part of this report, the District met with a group of 15 millennials (20-somethings) and asked questions about Downtown Houston's development and attraction as a destination. As part of the conversation, transit was a topic. The major takeaway was that there is a need for significant investment in public transit.

Millennials noted that they wanted to see a light rail line extend to the west of Downtown Houston, and that "solving Houston's mass transit questions is a critical step in developing a sustainably vibrant downtown." Most importantly, it was found that "There is a perception that the bus system is unreliable, unsafe, and unpleasant." And, listen to this; "The participants were willing to have their opinion changed!" METRO, it's your turn. There's a captive audience. People are watching and willing to change their perceptions about our region's bus service.

Some other notes include:
  • "Being able to use public transit to get downtown is a huge deal for me."
  • "There's better public transit from DC suburbs to downtown than in Montrose."
  • "The people on the light rail are typically not professionals - lots of homeless people."
  • 'The bus is not dependable and not a nice-feeling option."
  • "Having a frequent, reliable, recognizable, clean, spacious bus would work though."
  • "Houston needs to make METRO cards easier to buy."
  • "Homeless presence is significant at METRO stops."
  • "People don't always feel safe taking the METRO after dark"
  • "METRO bus from Downtown to Montrose actually tends to be lots of young professionals."
Now, some of the items above are not the fault of METRO, but probably just a lack of awareness. METRO Q-Cards are easy to buy, and I have yet to ride a bus that is unclean or unrecognizable. But with the number of people that are moving to Houston from other cities that have much better public transportation, the expectations of our transit system will only grow higher. People want to ride transit.

Resource Allocation and Cooperation

With the change of routes as a result of the System Reimaging, METRO will be forced to reallocate their resources. Bus stop shelters and trash receptacles that will no longer be located on routes would be great candidates for relocation and would be welcomed along new routes. The current 50 Heights route, which will be abandoned for the new 20 Cavalcade route, and is a perfect example, has a collection of shelters and trash receptacles on 19th Street in the Heights that can be easily relocated a block to the north.

A bus shelter and *two* trash receptacles at a bus stop on 19th Street in the Heights

Most recently the Houston City Council did its best to define the city's core services, settling on “public safety, water and waste water, streets and drainage and solid waste management”. Sadly, I wouldn't expect the core service of "streets and drainage" to include the sidewalks and infrastructural of the pedestrian realm. At least not yet.

The METRO Board notes that they intend to continue to ask the City of Houston for increased cooperation as they embark on improvements to bus routes. Both entities must continue to work together to address needs of citizens along major transit routes, possibly encouraging developers with projects along major transit routes to contribute to the street's pedestrian realm. Finally, the City of Houston should make it as easy as possible for METRO to make modifications to existing bus stops in the public right of way. Providing accessible concrete slabs, lighting and shelters for transfer points along frequent routes should be given express review.

All of these things are on METRO's radar. As the System Reimagining launches and new riders are welcomed into the system, it is important that METRO continues to hear your concerns. You know your routes and the conditions you face riding the bus each day. You are the travel expert for your route. Make sure METRO, the METRO Board, and your local elected officials, especially your Houston City Council members, know your concerns. If we want a quality bus system that will be used by more citizens, we need to make sure that we have quality infrastructure that provides transit users a favorable experience.