On a typical weekday morning thousands of commuters pour into downtown Houston. Most of them are alone in a personal vehicle.
But how many of those commuters would be willing to take the bus?
We asked Lisa Kelly, who like 80 percent of Houston commuters, drives to work by herself. As for switching to the bus, Kelly says she’s just not sure.
“Essentially I don’t know where the bus is,” says Kelly. “I have two little kids. I’m driving home to them so I’m going to go home fast.”
Kelly is one of the people Metro hopes to attract as it launches a major redesign of Houston’s bus network.
The transit agency hopes to increase slumping ridership by about 20% over the next two years. Metro currently has close to 80 local routes. Some of those routes will see more buses. Others will see cuts.
To help draw those new routes, Metro brought in transit consultant Jarrett Walker. He’s worked on similar projects around the country.
Walker admits some people will never get out of their cars, but there are others who are thinking about it, and those are the people Metro needs to reach.
“The way transit grows in relevance is starting with people who don’t have any particular cultural aversion to it, who don’t use it right now simply because it’s useless to them,” says Walker.
So how do you make the system more useful?
Walker says for one, you have to stop funneling riders downtown to make transfers. That means getting rid of the radial system and creating more of a grid. There’s also the issue of frequent service.
Walker says people are more likely to use the bus if they know they can catch one every few minutes.
“We select routes where we can run relatively fast, where we can run relatively frequently, and where when we go down this particular street, there’s going to be lots of people wanting to travel,” Walker explains.
When it comes to boosting ridership, Houston’s isn’t alone. Another city that’s made changes is Jacksonville, Florida.
With a population of about 842,000, Jacksonville is less than half the size of Houston. And it only has about 40 bus routes.
But the city has some similar issues.
Jacksonville Transportation Authority spokeswoman Leigh Ann Rassler says service was so infrequent on some routes that it affected people’s ability to work.
“We’ve heard from people who would actually ask their boss at their place of employment if they could stay the night there because they could not get home and now they’re able to,” says Rassler.
Rassler adds they also beefed up weekend service, and improved connections by not forcing everyone to ride downtown. And she says it appears to be paying off.
“We are to date at about 6.4% increase in ridership,” says Rassler. “And much higher on Sundays, it’s like 22.9%.”
But in a car-loving city like Houston, it may take a few more incentives to get people on the bus. Jonathan Brooks is a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
“People that drive tend to have the most control over their mode of transportation,” says Brooks. “And so using an alternative there’s some additional risk that your trip may be delayed and it’s outside your power.”
In a recent study for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Brooks says they did see strong interest in transit, but people would be more likely to use it if they got something in return, like a break on their car insurance rates.
“Tax benefits or cost assistance is another highly motivating incentive,” says Brooks. “Those are often the domain of the private sector, or the employer, whether public or private, providing bus fare assistance, parking incentives, something along that nature.”
Houston’s new bus network goes into effect this Sunday morning.