Friday, January 15, 2016

METRO Houston's January 24, 2016 Service Changes; Blogger Luncheon

Earlier today I had the privilege of attending a METRO Blogger Luncheon, where METRO officials continued to highlight the service changes that they would be making later this month. It was a time for a number of Houston bloggers, who regularly discuss their transit experience or work on creating dialogue surrounding solutions for Houston's transportation headaches, to ask METRO officials about changes to the bus network, how the New Bus Network is performing, and what other technological changes METRO is making in the coming months. Others at the luncheon included Charles Kuffner from Off the Kuff, Anastasia Hansen from It's Not Hou It's Me, Tory Gattis from Houston Strategies, Andrea Greer from nonsequiteuse and Kate Adams from Raised on the Rail. (It was great to meet everyone!)

The changes presented to us, and to the rest of Houston over the last few weeks, are in response to METRO's New Bus Network, which launched in August of 2015. For some, the changes were of great benefit. For others, the changes have brought about longer commutes.

It's a real balancing act for METRO officials to continue to provide services without spending a greater amount of money, something that transit riders frown upon. Many Houstonians depend on transit to commute, and a change in routes, frequency and running time can really throw a wrench into someone's routine. Given the sprawling nature of Houston's more-suburban areas, which are still serviced by local bus routes, allocating resources is hard. I will say, METRO is taking ridership very seriously. They're listening to rider needs and working on solutions. Their response has been great. As previously mentioned, METRO will be making a number of changes to their network on January 24, 2016. Many of the changes deal with frequency, and are primarily small route changes.

As METRO continues to learn about the habits of its riders, it's anticipated that tweaks like this will continue to happen. With only a few months of data to draw from with respect to ridership on the New Bus Network, there will likely be more service changes ahead. METRO will want to continue to adjust to rider demand, especially as new areas of Houston grow in density and intensity of land use, as well as when new attractions, such as office complexes, schools, colleges or public health and service facilities are built. That was a challenge with the previous bus system, as small changes over time left the system with many outdated routes that may have only served a few people. (The 50 via Detroit route comes to mind.)

There wasn't much talk about infrastructure, but I can guess that will be a topic in the future. Kurt Luhrsen, Vice President of Planning at METRO, and METRO Board Member Christof Spieler did made it a point that  METRO had made things a bit more comfortable and informative for riders when they added the directional signage to each bus stop sign. For instance, signs for a particular route may be across the street from one another, but it was not always intuitive where the route would head from each stop. Adding benches, bus shelters, sidewalks and lighting will be continued topics of conversation. (Look for a Rice Design Alliance article from Allyn West on METRO's bus shelter design and construction process coming soon. Spoiler: bus shelters cost way more than I expected.)

Transfers are going to be easier for riders come January 24th. On that day, riders will no longer buy a single trip ticket. They will essentially buy a 3-hour pass, allowing for an unlimited number of transfers in any combination of directions. (This is only for the same level of service, so, this wouldn't allow a local bus rider to transfer free to a Park and Ride trip.) This makes it much easier for those who are visiting Houston to use the system, and for residents that use transit for errands or pleasure. Now, trips can be made there and back, as long as they fall within a 3-hour window.

METRO also recently released the MPD Connect mobile application, which allows riders to report situations to METRO's police department. I had wondered why METRO did not roll this into their existing TRIP application, but was told that "MPDConnect was developed in-house & we wanted to launch it on its own before trying to integrate it with other apps."

METRO is also working on mobile ticketing. In December of 2015 METRO asked riders to participate in a beta-test of their Mobile QTicketing application. At the luncheon METRO Chief Technology Officer Randy Frazier noted that the application would be launched soon, likely in late February or early March.

We also learned today that METRO's TRIP application would be receiving an update. It's been good for riders since its launch, but an update will be welcomed. Also, it may be wise for METRO to combine the MPDConnect, TRIP and QTicketing applications. Separate applications for each function seems a bit inefficient for users. Even if that doesn't happen, the technological advances METRO has made in the past few years is welcomed for those using transit.

Finally, METRO is working in integrating Houston Transtar information into service notices for specific routes. For instance, if your route is affected by an accident causing your buses to be delayed, METRO can send you a notice so you're not left wondering whether your bus is simply late. I'm sure we'll hear more from METRO about this in the coming months.

A few loose items:

For Houston Heights residents, the Heights Transit Center was approved as surplus property at the last METRO board meeting. The process can be found in METRO's December 2015 Board Meeting Minutes Packet (large file). The 38,411 square foot site had been purchased in 1990 for $206,766. Now that the New Bus Network does not utilize the center, METRO has decided to unload it. It is not clear whether the property will be acquired by a local government agency, or sold by bid. It still looks as if there are a number of days before

METRO may look to make continued attempts to capture ridership, especially in the form of cyclists. A recent program in Santa Fe, New Mexico partnered with local bike shops to provide monthly or yearly bus passes based on particular purchases. A program similar to Santa Fe's Bike Purchase Bus Pass Rebate Program, even for a short time, may help to boost ridership. Perhaps Houston bicycle retailers such as Bikebarn, West End Bikes, Blue Line Bicycle Lab, or Daniel Boone Cycles would partner.

The luncheon was a great opportunity for some of Houston's outspoken transit and lifestyle bloggers to learn more about METRO's continued improvements, and to ask questions of METRO staff. METRO wants to make it as easy as possible for new riders to enjoy the benefit of transit in Houston. With these improvements, they're well on their way. if you're skeptical of the bus or rail, please resolve to try it once. And then, maybe again. It really is freeing watching your city from a vantage point other than from behind a steering wheel.