Greg's Opinion Greg's big blog of whatnot


On Getting From Point A to Point B

» Kuff: Could you get to work if you didn’t have a car?

In the comments of this Kuff post, Robert Nagle actually beats me to the punch in answering the central question. Yes, you can live quite comfortably in Houston without a car. As long as you base where you live as a function of that and are comfortable with all the other accoutrements of your daily routine being dictated by a mostly generous METRO bus schedule.

As suggested by Robert, I choose to live in an area where there are four different routes that intersect my neighborhood. Rush hour options for getting to work downtown have never been an issue for me. I generally have had the luxury of picking the one route that is a) closest to the start of the route to ensure good seating; and b) among the faster options for getting downtown. Since I've been stationed elsewhere for the recent political unpleasantness known as Election 2012, I'm limited to one and a half routes, with the "half" being the 402 Bellaire Quickline that drops off at Campaign HQ, but not at home. It's a half option for me if I choose to stop for breakfast in the AM or make a grocery run in the PM. I just basically transfer from another bus to the 402 in the morning or hop on the 402 to the store and take another bus from there to home (or just walk from the store).

Caveats are everywhere with this, of course. I basically walk half a mile to and from the bus stop. Right about this time of year, that's more than a little discomforting. And there are rain days that either make the situation modestly discomforting, brutal beyond despair, or worth calling in to inform the boss that my street is flooded. My local retail options are a mile away and I'm about as likely to walk that as I am to take another bus for it. Dining options are either a fairly expensive Pappa's BBQ within way-too-easy walking distance or cheaper fare in extended walking distance. Weekend runs to church have been either very or fairly bus-friendly regardless of which church I've attended in recent years. And making a big monthly run at the grocery store often has me breaking down to pay a few bucks in cab fare for some lucky cabby camped out in the Fiesta parking lot.

There are certainly a number of retail options that I generally don't have the luxury of. And the biggest adjustment is that I've found that I tend to think of time a bit differently than most of the others I've worked with. The concept of "running late" is not something I enjoy since, for me, it usually means a bigger lag in time than just the amount you're really running late for. A 5 minute delay at work means little if the bus only runs every 30 minutes and you just watched one go by, for instance. Since work is focused around rush hours for the most part, that usually impacts me for Saturday church - my Saturdays are practically set to a stopwatch for that reason. A laptop and the ability to tether at my convenience helps alleviate some of the mis-allocated downtime.

Probably the biggest gain I've gotten from relying on METRO has been that I'm allowed to make better use of my commute time - either catching a quick catnap before the daily grind, reading a book, or catching up on the news. When I drove everywhere for work, I definitely did not read a fraction of what I have the time for these days. To be sure, it's also a cheaper mode of transportation. And that's even after the faux fare increase that METRO slapped me with by doing away with the daily/weekly/monthly passes.

All of those kinds of tradeoffs certainly aren't going to be for a lot of people. But I don't think the decision of going with/without a car is really what's at issue. I'd posit that there are, however, a fair number of people who could probably stand to gain a little or a lot by switching some portion of their weekly schedule to include a bus run or two.


Something to Look Forward To

METRO's plan for rail in Houston ...

The Hillcroft Transit Center would be about a mile from home. Having a straight shot to get to UH makes football, baseball, basketball, and perusing the latest required reading (albeit, overpriced) from the bookstore all the more feasible. Granted, a lot of this is well into the future. I've asked about the timeline for the Hillcroft end point and have been told that there are still too many funding contingencies - not to mention, antics by John Culberson - to even speculate. My guess is that maybe we'll have a better sense of where things stand in about 2-3 more years. Season tickets will have to wait, I suppose.

Kuff has more on the news of METRO's ballot initiative that will go a ways toward seeing some of this come to fruition.


(Still) Waiting For Something We Already Have

» Chron: An app for Metro’s bus system (Editorial)

I’m a little late to this. But I’m still smacking my head against the wall when I read it …

We’re eagerly anticipating Metro’s upcoming smartphone application, Houston T.R.I.P., which stands for Transit Route Information and Planner.

This app, if implemented correctly, could help Houstonians navigate a bus system that’s as sprawling as the city it serves.

Again, this sort of thing already exists in Google Maps. That’s a free service that I, at least, use on a daily basis on my phone. Ironically enough, I looked at how serviceable the transit info was when I landed in Fort Worth and learned that their transit agency does not share schedule information with Google. But, so far as Houston goes, the freely available Google Maps version of this service is now being supplemented with a vastly overpriced “app” that does much the same thing.

As for the one new thing that is genuinely worth looking forward to, the Chron still seems a bit behind the times:

But the real game-changer in Metro’s app is the promise of using GPS to let riders track buses in real time. Waiting for a bus in Houston can be a thoroughly miserable experience: the 100 degree weather, the lack of street-level businesses in so many neighborhoods and the unnerving sensation of being stared at by drivers like you’re some deviation from the natural order.

GPS tracking will let riders know where their bus is and when it’s going to arrive, minimizing the amount of time riders need to spend at bus stops. By reducing uncertainty and waiting time, this new app should make Metro feel more like a convenient carpool than the current exercise in patience.

Furthermore, the GPS tracking will remove any doubt as to whether a bus has already arrived or is merely running late, an important issue for buses that run every 30 minutes, or when the bus in question is the final bus of the night.

Of course, no system’s perfect: Not everyone has a smartphone. But perhaps Metro can program a system that allows riders to text their bus line and stop number, and receive back the arrival time for the next bus. Then nearly all riders could benefit from Metro’s GPS tracking.

Text service notwithstanding, the real game-changer would be to have METRO develop an API that allows third-party developers to create their own tools and let the most productive tools rise to the top. See here for how that’s done well. Standardizing and freeing up the data on METRO stops/boardings/etc would also be a worthwhile step. It would be a lot more cost-effective than paying a five-figure sum to an “app” that already does what the free service you’ve been supporting does.


Tuesday (and beyond): METRO Forum on US90A/SW Rail Corridor

Starting tomorrow, a series of public forums on the proposed extension of the existing light rail line into Missouri City. I'm not sure how much excitement to expect, but I may try and catch one of these if time permits.

The dates for this round of public input are as follows:

February 15, 2011 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Waterside Café
TMC Commons Area
6550 Bertner, STE: 1
Houston, TX 77030

February 15, 2011 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Missouri City Community Center
1522 Texas Parkway
Missouri City, TX 77489

February 16, 2011 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
The Power Center
Southeast Ballroom
12401 S. Post Oak Rd.
Houston, TX 77045

February 22, 2011 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Westbury High School Atrium
11911 Chimney Rock
Houston, TX 77035


How Houston Commutes

I'm not sure how long it'll take before I get this project done as exhaustively as I want to, but since there's some interesting nuggets of information on the early findings, I thought I'd share it at this point. The map you see below identifies the aggregated areas of the greater Houston area, with the data being the mode of transportation to work of people 16+ years old, taken from the 2005-09 American Community Survey data put out by the Census Bureau in December. The hard numbers are below the map if you prefer that. The options are as follows:

- Drove alone
- Carpooled (I split this into two groups - those who carpool with one other person and those that carpool with 3+ passengers)
- Walk
- Bike
- Public Transportation
- Work at Home

Once I get the entire county clustered, I may package all the findings together in a handy little presentation. But for now, here's some of the items of interest:

The Solo Drivers ... This is an obviously large portion of the population. But there are some very interesting variations in the extent to which different parts of town score on this count. In general, usege of this mode generally follows wealth and there's some obvious high points where Metro's reach isn't as extensive as it is in other areas. What caught my eye in looking at this group, however, was the differences in some of the areas in the far northwestern part of the county. You can get a sense of that from the aggregate numbers, with the Memorial cluster clocking in at 85% and Third Ward clocking in at 60%.

The Carpoolers ... Some very interesting findings here that may send me out to do a bit more number-crunching. The three areas that show up very strongly here are Northwest, East, and the Southwest-1 region that includes Gulfton & Sharpstown. Can you think of a few similarities here? Yeah, I'll be going back and measuring Hispanic population in these clusters, as they should be high in each. But what's even more interesting here is the ratio of those who carpool with one other versus two or more other passengers. In the three carpool-heavy clusters, nearly 40% of carpoolers are in 3+ passenger cars. In most other clusters, that percentage is under 20%. The operating theory from this is that the whiter you are (and/or the wealthier you are), the likelier you are to travel with only one other person. I can't help but wonder if there's either some implication for policy there, or there's some causality from something else that I'm not thinking of.

People Working at Home ... This is what captured my interest to the extent that I thought it was time to create some clusters within the county. What I wanted to measure was whether some of the Census Tract level patterns that showed up were still evident if we viewed the regions in larger clusters. I'd mapped this out at the Census Tract level and saw that the Anglo side of the Inner Loop had a high share, but that this view also showed that some of the drop in Solo Drivers in the far northwestern part of the county were due to "Work at Home" scoring well enough to account for much of the difference. And while I don't have a cluster yet for that NW part of the county, the high levels of "Work at Home" seen in the Heights (6.2%), Loop-West (5.3%), and Loop-SW (6.1%) side of town demonstrate the level of difference that exists. I'll ultimately do four clusters in the area outside of the Beltway, between 290 and 45. Looking at a sampling of the Census Tract numbers, I'd expect the numbers for the two clusters furthest north to be very similar to those numbers from inside the Loop.

The Walkers ... Two extremely high points in those who walk to work (or, in this case, school) are the Census Tract that contains Rice University (79%) and the University of Houston (54%). I think it's fairly easy to figure out the commonality there. Everywhere else, you'd be hard pressed to find many Census Tracts where the number clocks in at over 1%.

The Bikers ... If I can summarize the areas of relatively heavy bikers to work it would track heavily with proximity to employment centers, the list is pretty obvious: West U, Bellaire, Rice, Braeswood, Montrose, Near East End. Most of those, however, are at about 1-1.5% of the population. The Med Center area has the absolute peak numbers, at around 4.5% and 5.8% in the two Census Tracts that cover it.

Public Transportation ... A lot of this, again, tracks with income levels. This time, in a negative correlation - lower income areas use more public transportation. There is, of course, one very notable exception. That would be the DT/Rail cluster (13.9%), which has a share of users that compares very favorably with the FourthThird Ward cluster (15.8%). If you compare the DT/Rail cluster to areas where income levels are more appropriate, the comparison looks like a lights-out argument for the advantages of light rail - 3-4X more usage and taking something on the order of 10% of the population out of cars that might otherwise travel by that means.

If you have any other curiosities from the findings or would like me to fast-track any future clusters, feel free to drop a comment or send me an email.


Harris County Cluster Definitions:
Click the individual cluster for details and naming of each. The colors are only intended to differentiate, not to signify any particular differences in mode of transportation.

Harris County Cluster Aggregates:


Free Metro: Bill King Responds

Good to see Bill King keeping the discussion going on his Free Metro proposal. King drops by the comments of my second post on the idea and it warrants some promotion, so here ya go ...


I want to let you and readers know that my free-fare proposal was not made flippantly. There are a number of free-fare studies in the transit literature. Most are ambivalent as to the probable benefits. These studies rely on standard elasticity models that projects a 3-4% change for every 10% change in the fare amount. Thus, those articles conclude that eliminating the fares will result in a 30-40% increase. I also had HGAC run its sensitivity model which came out in the mid-20s and had TTI and Bob Stein at Rice check my numbers. San Francisco shows increases of about 50% on its free-fare days. All of the ridership numbers for Metro came directly from them.

I have copies of the internal reviews that Austin did after there roughly 15-month experiment in 1990-1991. Their internal report shows a 76% increase in ridership during that period. It also shows a 200% increase security incidents in the initial months. By the end of the free-fare trial, the security incidents were down to about 20% more than the pre-free-fare period and actually lower on a per rider basis. I talked to several individuals familiar with this attempt and they indicated that had Capitol Metro better anticipated the security issues, they would not have been such a serious problem.

Austin discontinued the service based on several factors. One of the principal reasons was that while the program increased ridership, it did not bring many new riders to the system. That is, the increase was mostly from existing customers using the buses more frequently. Since one of Capitol Metro's principal motives was acquiring new riders, they did not consider the experiment a success. This combined with bad publicity from the early security problems and financial pressures convinced its board to start charging fares again.

It seems less significant to me if the increase in ridership comes from existing riders or new riders. Either way it is one less car on the road. I think it is also critical to note that at that time Capitol Metro did not offer a suburban-oriented Park & Ride system as does Metro. The models seem to suggest that most of the increased ridership (and congestion relief) would come on these lines. It also seems unlikely that these lines would have the kind of security issues that Austin's primarily inner city bus service had.

I have a lot of respect for Rad and read his column regularly. However, this is a subject that I have been studying for months.

As I said in the editorial, we clearly do not know exactly how this would play out. It might be a boon or a boondoggle. But we won't know unless we try.

Bill King

I appreciate the comment. There's still several good reasons Sallee mentioned that might deflate the idea that aren't covered here (namely, the stake of federal funding). And I should add that I'm not necessarily in agreement that we won't know if it's a boon or a boondoggle unless we try it. We might want a few more inquisitive minds studying the topic in more detail. We may not know with certainty, but we might at least have a clearer idea how it might turn out.

UPDATE: Still more Bill King in the comments herein ...


Fatal error: Call to undefined function xwp_footerx() in /nfs/c01/h12/mnt/4748/domains/ on line 18