METRO Carves Out Extra Space on Light Rail, Cyclists Pleased

Commuting by light rail can be tough for Houstonians with baggage. Bicycles, strollers, wheelchairs and other large items aren’t usually popular in confined spaces. To address this, METRO has removed a number of seats from its trains on a trial basis. The transit authority wants to find out if the extra space will be a hit with passengers.

The KUHF NewsLab’s Wendy Siegle took a ride on one of the trains to see what people think about the extra space.

METRO installed handles
METRO installed handles

(Sound of train approaching).

On their usual ride along the red light rail line, passengers took note of the missing seats. Jim Cooper was on his way to the Medical Center, where he studies nuclear medicine. He didn’t need to use the space himself, but he likes to see there’s extra wiggle room.

“I think it’s a great idea, because all your wheelchairs are sitting right here in the middle and bicycles, and nobody can get through. So, by moving that, that allows them to get out of the way, and everybody can move traffic.”

METRO is trying out this new configuration on 11 out of its 18 trains, for thirty days. The agency pulled out four seats in the front and four seats in back to give more room to riders with bicycles, strollers, wheelchairs, or other over-sized baggage.

(Sound of bike getting on train).

Cedric Johnson takes the train a lot. He says he likes to bring his bike on board, but sometimes, there simply isn’t enough room. Now, he says, he’ll have a better chance of being able to do a combination of cycling and riding the train to get to and from his pro-wrestling practices.

Cedric Johnson and Paul SoRelle
Cedric Johnson and Paul SoRelle

“Now I don’t have to bump nobody; I can get right in, get right on time. ‘Cause usually when I get on here, nobody wants to move; they’ll sit there like… this makes it a whole lot easier.”

METRO made the decision to remove the seats through talks with cycling advocacy group Bike Houston. Member Paul SoRelle says the move has signaled a change in the agency, one that shows a willingness to accommodate people who prefer to cycle as part of their commute. He says it’s very hard for cyclists to walk their bikes inside the train when the seats are in the way.

“It was very hard because you either had to sort of stand in the opening in the doorway or you could flip up the wheelchair seat and kind of put your bike halfway in there, and then halfway the bike was sticking into the opening. So this is a much better arrangement to make it easier for people to get on and off the cars.”

At METRO’s headquarters downtown, acting vice president of operations Andrew Skabowski says the bike racks on METRO’s buses have been popular, and he figures the added space on the light rail line will be too. He expects the extra room will encourage more people to consider riding their bikes in conjunction with the train to get around town.

“It’s METRO being more mobile, if we can. The biking community is saying, ‘Hey, we’re not just a recreation anymore; we bike to work.’ And that’s important to that community, and we’re there to assist and get people to work.”

After the thirty day trial period, Skabowski says METRO will evaluate whether the majority of light rail passengers — those who need the space and those who don’t — are in favor the change. If it’s deemed a success, METRO may remove the eight seats from all of its trains. Skabowski says the downside is that there are eight less places for people to sit down. But there will be more standing room, he adds, which means the trains can accommodate more passengers.