Sunday, June 5, 2016

METRO Houston's New Chairwoman, Carrin Patman; Blogger Luncheon

On Thursday METRO Houston hosted a blogger luncheon, allowing a number of Houston's transportation, design and urbanist bloggers to meet with Carrin Patman, METRO's newly appointed chairwoman. The group included Raj Mankad from Rice University's Cite, David Crossley from Houston Tomorrow, Ryan Holeywell from Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Charles Kuffner from Off the Kuff, Tory Gattis from Houston Strategies, Raised on the Rail, Andrea Greer, and myself. This was certainly a group with a wide variety of perspectives, interests and personalities, but there's no question that transit is important to every one of us.

Patman was appointed chairwoman on April 7, 2016, and is taking over METRO during a period of time where the agency has done a lot of good work in the near past, finishing rail projects (not on time, and, almost finished except for one last bridge on the Green Line), reimagining the agency's bus routes, and repairing relationships with government officials and the community. As Patman rides further into her leadership, she'll be faced with a number of challenges, including light rail and commuter rail conversations, the building of a BRT line in the Uptown, further modifications to the recent New Bus Network, as well as improving commuter experiences on both buses and rail lines.

Last month Patman spoke with Houston Matters, providing some perspective on her first few weeks as chairwoman. This interview gives a great background of the goals that Patman will be setting for the agency under her leadership.

During yesterday's luncheon Patman was joined by members of METRO's Executive Leadership Team, including President and CEO Tom Lambert, as well as Jerome Gray, the agency's Vice President and Senior Press Officer. Kurt Luhrsen, as well as members of METRO's communications team. Patman laid out her major goals as chairwoman, with METRO staff proving more in depth insight as to the status of current or planned agency projects. She highlighted three main goals:

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it's inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston's Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston's fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO's Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It's worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that's a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO's service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an "on-demand" service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland's now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki's north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It's important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman's final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO's bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users. Charles Kuffner has started posting a series of suggested improvements, one specifically aimed at marketing. Kuffner cites using transit applications to crowd source improvements, essentially depicting a story of transit users and comparing their commutes to those in cars. Kuffner notes that many people claim their trips on transit seem to take longer, but that many probably underestimate the time it takes them to walk to their cars, drive, park and walk to their destinations.

This is likely true, as people crave the personal autonomy of a car, and still may have stigmas about public transit, especially bus service. I mentioned my perspectives regarding the seemingly lingering stigmas of public transit in Houston, where people see the bus system as somehow less sophisticated than rail. METRO is gaining ridership thanks to the New Bus Network, so it seems that this stigma (hopefully) is eroding. METRO's April 2016 ridership levels were down 6% on the local bus network, down 16% on park and ride, totaling a 1% decrease from April 2015. (April also included the Tax Day storms, which closed many METRO routes. The 1% drop in ridership also accounted for a 30% jump in light rail ridership in April 2016, primarily bolstered by the Final Four.) It's still difficult to convince some riders, especially with the condition of some bus stops and rail stations. Continued METRO Police and Fare Inspector presence would be of benefit.

One of the ways METRO can continue to build ridership and market itself, especially among those that bike, is partnering with local bike shops to provide Q-Cards to those that buy a bike during a specific time frame. In 2013 the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico established a bus pass program that provided free bus passes in exchange for the purchase of a bicycle and/or bicycle equipment. This program was aimed at decreasing the number of Santa Fe residents that need to rely on their cars, allowing more residents to use transit. This might allow more residents to fill the gaps, or provide better transportation for that "last mile".

With regard to technology and collecting user experience metrics, METRO can mimic the MuniMobile "Rate my Ride" feature on their mobile ticketing application. For riders, this is a great way of providing instant data related to the comfort of routes or specific buses, as well as trip time and the etiquette of fellow passengers. METRO uses the same software developers as San Francisco's Muni, moovel transit, so the work has already been done. METRO should certainly look into using this technology themselves. Leah Binkovitz at the Kinder Institute provided an update as to the use of METRO's Q Mobile application, noting that in April it accounted for 3 percent of single-day trips. Later this year the application will be able to be used for Park and Ride trips as well.

As the agency looks to serve as a complement to future transit systems, such as the Texas Central Railway, it may be smart in determining how METRO's Q Mobile application may interact with DART or Texas Central, allowing riders to use one application to pay for each service without multiple applications or loading of fares.

Raj Mankad stressed again the need for essentially bridging gaps between adjacent transit agencies to allow longer commutes, such as being able to get to Galveston using METRO's park and ride, along with Galveston-area transit providers. Tory Gattis also talked about the potential for connections between Space Center Houston, arguably Houston's top tourist attraction, and Downtown Houston and Galveston.

In thinking about the physical ridership experience, it is important to remember there are other systems that feed into a transit system, such as sidewalks and the public realm. When the System Reimagining project was announced, I took a little tour of what my new bus commute was going to be. Because much of the New Bus Network would be comprised of a more-frequent grid pattern, that meant passengers would need to transfer buses more often. In my "Ride Your Route" experience I found many of the intersections of frequent routes to lack amenities that make taking the bus comfortable. Houston's unpredictable rain patterns (especially in 2016), as well as the heat, make shelters, sidewalks and proximity important. My largest take away was, "Most importantly, METRO and the City of Houston must focus on improving the pedestrian realm along frequent bus corridors and at transfer points." I think this holds true still today. When we look at crosswalks and the connections between transfer points, adequate shouldn't be the norm when people need to cross major thoroughfares to access their bus routes.

Tom Lambert, METRO's President and CEO, reiterated METRO's desire to work with the City of Houston, as well as TIRZs and management districts, who have a tremendous amount of funding to complete infrastructure projects. Lambert also shared that METRO will be adding an urban design position to their staff. This should allow the agency to better analyze how the public realm, developments, and the bus network interact and contribute to a rider's travel experience.

Lambert also noted the possibility of a pilot project along Westheimer, outside the 610 loop, that would allow buses priority signaling, as well as off-bus fare collection at certain stops. It sounds like the beginning of BRT along Westheimer, which would be of great benefit to many. There's certainly a great deal of roadway to work with, and a number of people to move.

For Heights residents, there was no mention of the Heights Transit Center, and I wasn't able to as about what might be happening with the land and the building. I've always thought this was a great spot for a park, considering the building would already be able to serve as a pavilion.

I continue to be impressed with the leadership of METRO in desiring to hear from their riders, and from bloggers like us. I'm sure each of us there yesterday would love to continue to play a small role in providing our transit perspectives, allowing more people in Houston to travel using public transit.