Comment of the Day Runner-Up: Houston Has Its Commuter Rail Already, and It’s Spelled H-O-V

COMMENT OF THE DAY RUNNER-UP: HOUSTON HAS ITS COMMUTER RAIL ALREADY, AND IT’S SPELLED H-O-V “(1) We have one of the best suburb-to-downtown commuter transit systems in the country in the form of the HOV buses, which METRO has invested a lot of money into (the HOV lanes and transit centers cost $1 billion or so to build, and the service is more expensive to operate per rider than either rail or local bus.) 50% of the people who work downtown and live in the areas served by the park & rides already take transit. Commuter rail would be slower, less frequent, and less convenient. The 290 study showed that a $300 million commuter rail line could actually decrease transit ridership. So why should we build commuter rail in corridors that already have park & ride? (2) Grade separated rail is great, but it’s not cheaper — cost is twice or more of at grade. Subway is 4 times or more. So the question is not if grade separation is good; the question is if grade separation is worth the extra cost. And nobody — not even Chicago — is building elevated rail above city streets, so if you want to grade separate you either need to be lucky enough to have an old rail line or a freeway exactly where people want to go or you need to pay for a subway.” [Christof Spieler, commenting on Comment of the Day: Developing at the Speed of Light Rail] Illustration: Lulu

23 Comment

  • Most the people I know that take the HOV busses into downtown love it. It is efficient and practical. However, it’s not fancy, not branded with a euro/SFO/EastCoast coolness, and cant take you to and from your fancy clubs where you like to sit around talk about how much smarter and progressive you are than the rest of this city.

  • That’s a brilliant post! “We have one of the best suburb-to-downtown commuter transit systems in the country” if you like antiquated options with run down gas-guzzling busses stuck in traffic, breaking down, and adding to already congested streets. What a waste. Those who don’t support rail, and movement into the future, just don’t get it. It’s the busses that the majority of people in Houston won’t ride on – it’s created a separation of class. Seriously, the only one of the largest cities in the county without a mass transit system, and we have one of the best commuter transit systems?

  • I meant COUNTRY, not COUNTY in my sentence….only one of the largest cities in the…

  • Dallas’ Red Line is grade separated for much of its length, and a lot of that is elevated. We’re talking miles and miles of brand new, elevated rail.

  • Russel, many busses nowadays run on natural gas or battery power. Does that make it any better?

    You talk about the lack of a mass transit system and generally degrade busses…is that what the transit debate has come to? Trains or nothing?

  • Sure. HOV bus is great, provided you live somewhere there are HOV lanes, you work within a reasonable distance of an HOV terminal, and your times of arrival and departure from work are relatively consistent and traditional. Last time we were in Chicago, my wife, who’s kind of a greenie, REALLY wanted to take the Metra commuter rail into town and go somewhere on the El. We were staying in Deerfield, north of town. Anyway, we messed with it a while, and wound up driving instead. It was really expensive and there were really long waits between trains. It would have taken three hours to get somewhere that was about fifty miles away.

  • I do agree that the HOV lane buses are efficient and practical, especially considering those 25-30 mile commutes, but the fact that single drivers are allowed to get on the HOV (or HOT) lane kind of defeats the purpose, but maybe I am the only one that thinks that.

    It would be difficult to set up a full passenger rail system, with lines galore to pearland and deer park and every burb you can think of, but I do think it is worth paying the extra money to have the more dense areas and the airports connected. 3 well planned light rail routes, an east-west from the Energy corridor, westchase, memorial, uptown, to downtown; southeast, from downtown to hobby, and north, to greenspoint, bush, to the woodlands, should be more than enough.

    It shouldn’t be rail or nothing, buses are mass transit, heck, we can even do hovercraft ferries on the bayou if we wanted to start thinking outside the box, but I do think now is time to connect the dots with the light rail.

  • @Rex:
    “However, it’s not fancy, not branded with a euro/SFO/EastCoast coolness, and cant take you to and from your fancy clubs where you like to sit around talk about how much smarter and progressive you are than the rest of this city.”

    Silly talk. As far as it being a Euro/SFO/East Coast thing… Dallas has rail to its suburbs. Dallas. Also the conservative paradise of Phoenix has 20-mile 20-mile light rail to Tempe and Mesa.

  • Marmer, I’ve taken the L train from the airports to downtown Chicago many times. The wait is usually less than 5 minutes and it’s only $2.50 per trip. Not sure how you get the idea that it’s expensive…a taxi or rental car would cost at least 20x that. A bus has to wade through traffic lights and traffic jams. Even our HOV lanes get crammed up from accidents, which doesn’t make for very dependable service timetables.

  • Copy Los Angeles. Keep the HOV bus idea. Make all HOT lanes 24/7/365 both directions. Rebrand calling it Metro Rapid. Give routes colored names. Make a system map that includes both LRT and BRT together (with squares and circles). Buy articulated buses with fender skirts. No one will be able to tell the difference between a BRT route and a LRT route. Suddenly our “Rapid” system (including both BRT and LRT) is one of the largest in the country. Don’t reinvent the wheel, just copy LA, it works there.

  • Yes. What Houston needs more than anything is more freeways. And bigger freeways. And more far-flung communities named after the things that were clear cut in order to create them. Houston simply needs more pavement. It’s 2013 . Let’s join the revolution and build more HOV lanes and then open them up to single occupancy vehicles. Such a great solution going forward. You can always count on the concrete, highway, and developer lobbies to save the day!

  • With a population of 9 million people MSMA. We must start commuter rail connecting to light rail. Or just go to a train station Downtown. We cannot build any more roads. If we do not start now, we will choke with our traffic. We must start now for the future or it will hurt our growth. Companies will see that we do not have a reliable transit system. No connectors to the airports, The Woodlands, Sugarland. The city, county, and the state should find a way to fund these projects.

  • I think many of the powers that be could care less whether downtown is connected to anywhere. The model of transportation they would like to see is like the LA freeway system, a little freeway or toll road going every direction, like spaghetti thrown on the map. That way they open up more land to build more houses and strip centers, continue to build little individual office cities with no connection to anything, and turn every part of our hinterland in to an auto drivers paradise. To get wise planning, you first need wise leadership. To get wise leadership, you need wise voters….

  • FWIW, I like Thomas’ branding ideas.
    The park and ride system has done a lot with the little amount of dollars METRO has invested in it. Christof says it’s nearly a billion, I think that the real number when you take out TXDot’s share is several hundred million less. However, I see the bus service as less efficient than rail because each bus carries about 50 people, but a full tilt commuter heavy rail train easily moves 700-1000 people at a time. So, if you assume a 20 minute headway on rush hour rail, you would need at least 14 buses to move the same amount of people in the same time period. The way we’ve built the HOV lanes, they are grade-separated ( unlike our LRT),and only dump you downtown, so there is no flexibility involved to shuttle people over to the TMC, Greenway, Post Oak, etc. So please don’t tell me about how inflexible rail would be
    Chicago’s METRA charged me $6.50 to take a train about 35 miles last summer. The trick is that frequencies are scheduled for the rush hours, with very little service in between.

  • It’s true that the system as it stands pretty much only dumps people downtown, but there’s no real reason the park and ride couldn’t be expanded to give more point to point access if the ridership were there. You wouldn’t even really need any new construction to send buses down 610 and Sam Houston. Here the small capacity of buses can be an advantage of sorts. There might only be 50 people every 15 minutes that want to go from Katy to The Woodlands, but that could still be enough to fill a bus.

  • In this matter, Christof speaks the truth.

    But then, go figure…as a self-appointed mouthpiece for METRO, he obviously has to be very careful to always be its cheerleader. (I’m convinced that this is the only reason that an otherwise intelligent person would favor LRT.) He certainly wouldn’t want anything that he says to be used by someone like Culberson as an excuse to quash a federal appropriation, even if that appropriation was in the furtherance of a suboptimal system. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” after all.

    Re: Maglev, I could imagine a scenario where it makes sense to develop Maglev between the four big cities in Texas rather than high speed rail. Its harder to imagine a scenario where it makes sense for local transit except possibly as an airport connector with a spur to downtown and the beach. But that’d be mostly beyond METRO’s purview, I think.

  • There is no better evidence that Swanplot if full of a bunch of know-it-all goobers than the comments to this post. Christof is a Metro board member and you are doubting him on the cost to construct the Park & Ride system, as well as completely ignoring the fact that Dallas’ elevated rail has been a financial boondoggle.

  • OK, fine. I don’t want to threadjack this into being about Metra. All I’m saying is that we really wanted to do that, spent a fair amount of time researching timetables and station locations, and couldn’t even come close to making it work. We were disappointed that we had to drive. I can certainly believe it that it slacks off out of commuter times, this was Saturday afternoon if I recall correctly.

  • I’ve already expressed my concerns about the a university Line Terminus, and I certainly hope that a westward expansion to HBU happens soon after completion of the rest of the line.
    I’d also like to see a re-working of park & rides so that they connect better to neighborhoods. The Brays Bayou Hike and Bike Trail sails right past the West Loop Park And Ride. It sure would be nice to connect the two. The Hillcroft and Westwood Park and Rides are similarly isolated for pedestrians on nearby streets. These two are in dense, urban neighborhoods despite their distance from Downtown, so better connections are really important.

  • Well they would be great, but there are several huge problems with it.

    First, they only go from satellites to down town (well a couple go to the med center, but those are very limited). There’s no easy way to get to greenway plaza or the galleria area (and metro’s street buses are too unpredictable and janky to rely on to get to work on time every day.

    Second, there’s little consistency in the park and ride lots and where they’re placed. They’re often hard to find.

    Third, HOV lanes are already congested (and now they’re taking the HOV lanes and letting the highest bidder add to the congestion) and it’s way too easy for a single wreck to shut down the lane. Then buses can’t get around, and you’re stuck on a bus with sixty of your closest friends, sometimes with standing room only, often for an extra hour.

    Fourth, the buses stop running WAY too early. Last I checked, the last bus out of down town was at 21:15. So if you take the bus in that morning and want to hang out, get some drinks, and make an evening of it, you either leave early and drive your car back up, or beg for a ride. Oh and there’s limited (or no!) service to the lots in the middle of the day. And NONE on weekends. Lame.

    Fourth and a half, the buses don’t use the HOV lanes except at peak hours. So a ride from down town to the bay area takes about an hour each way, since the bus stops at every park and ride on the way (which, given low ridership, isn’t a dumb thing). But it takes a long time to do that, especially when you have a huge bus on little side streets.

    If I were going to fix it, that’s what I’d address first. I’d make the park and ride lots more visible and make sure they have enough parking. I’d make sure there is consistent service at least once an hour except during dead hours (say midnight to five on weekdays, three to eight on weekends, and adjust to demand?). I’d make sure that the buses have HOV lanes that are only shared with buses and other HOVs (screw your toll lanes). Some amenities would be nice too, like wifi on the buses so I can work while I commute.

    Trains are a great idea, but we’ve already torn up so much rail that we’d have to rebuild. But if we could get elevated tracks and semi-automated/remote driven trains that ran regularly to the edges of the county (or farther – I’m looking at angelton and Galveston!), they’d have a chance.

  • @Jordan: Yeah, I have to agree that the public transportation stopping early is a problem. Rice U students who live along the light rail have expressed their concerns about not being able to use the line b/c of how early it stops, but I’m guessing that the transportation is probably shut off at that time b/c it’s not economically feasible to keep running it so late.

  • @ 19. Metra is designed to efficiently move large numbers of weekday commuters. In the early 90’s, trains arrived like clockwork every 20 minutes during peak commuter times and were full–not packed–but every seat taken and those standing were getting off at the next stop. On the weekends and evenings, the schedules were always cut back.

    At the time, a monthly pass from my close-in suburb was 60.00/mo vs. 12.00/day Loop parking, not to mention the expense of just having a car. So daily commuters enjoyed an appreciable savings, while daytrippers probably felt that it was a bit expensive. There was also the added health benefit of 3 miles round-trip walking, whether I wanted to or not.