Comment of the Day: Developing at the Speed of Light Rail

COMMENT OF THE DAY: DEVELOPING AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT RAIL “Light rail has not to date really spurred development around it’s stations because it is not a speedier transit option for people along it’s route. I’m pretty sure you can drive from Main and Bell to Binz just as fast as it would take on LRT, because the trains ride in the street and also stop for cross traffic in some spots. Also, traffic congestion along Main St., or the East End is nowhere near a critical mass that driving becomes something you want to avoid. Dallas’ DART rail used railway right of ways that took the trains off the street grid, and is able to provide speedy transit down the North Central Expressway corridor. Real estate development followed around the station nodes because people are willing to eat/shop/live close to a station that lets them avoid a terribly congested highway at rush hour. METRO did own old railroad ROW’s along Westpark and the Katy Freeway, but never had anyone in charge that was willing to develop those ROW’s for rail use. They became concrete highways instead.” [ShadyHeightster, commenting on Where Downtown Has Developed, Is Developing, and Might Develop Some More] Illustration: Lulu

41 Comment

  • Dallas both sucks and blows, who cares what they did up there?
    Sorry for being childish, I’m a true Houstonian and as such I must profess my hatred of Dallas whenever the opportunity presents itself.

  • Yes. Driving your car from the intersection that you board the train to the intersection you exit the train, you get there faster by car.
    But factor in door to door transit times?
    So walking out of your door, getting in your car, leaving your parking garage at main/bell, traveling down to binz, finding a parking spot, walking to the door of whatever destination you have at binz.
    compare that against walking out of your door, walking to the nearest station, getting on, then getting off at binz and walking to your destination?
    I bet it’s still pretty much a toss up, considering you’re probably going to wait at the station for the next train for an average of 3 minutes or so.
    throw a bicycle in for comparison, and any distance within 3 or 4 miles, if time is the only factor, bicycle is far quicker.

  • It is speedier and cheaper for those not wishing to pay or search for parking. It’s seems most anti-light rail/mass transit arguments boil down to “since it’s not viable for everyone, it’s not viable at all”.

  • Ooops… hit enter on accident.
    What I was getting to though was the light rail is a success. We can say whatever we want but facts are facts, they have ridership. Now as to development along the light rail line, you’d have to point out some areas that are ripe for that, because I’ve ridden the train and I can’t say there is really a lot of places along the line to even build something.
    So maybe light rail hasn’t taken cars off the road, but maybe, just maybe it prevented some from being added. Now people have a choice between having to buy a car or being able to take some form of public transportation.
    I can tell you that Midtown along the tracks has some very nice amenities coming online soon. New park, two new apartment buildings, not to mention the bar and food scene that is already going strong and only improving.
    Come give the innerloop areas another chance, I think you may be missing a few things.

  • hmm, my understanding is METRO does still own the corridor along Westpark and was intending to use it for rail all along. thus the initial proposal for rail on westpark and HCTRA being forced to build a completely inadequate and pitifufl tollway that’s been at capacity since day one.

    i’d agree that the benefits of street-grade rail have yet to prove their benefits and that it was worth narrowing bus service to poorer/struggling communities to make all the folks moving into the gentrifying near-town hoods happy.

  • Pushing rail onto Houstonians is like trying to get everyone to attend an All Vegan BBQ party… other than a couple of malnourished weaklings, no one wants it.

  • Writing this on the rail right now.
    The rail actually has the highest ridership per track mile if any rail system I the United States.
    The problem is we are a very car-centric city and therefore people are slow to want to accept the rail as a viable form of transportation.
    I live I the museum district and work I’m the medical center. I use the rail every day and see crowded cars. We’re getting to where it is an accepted mode of transport, and a it becomes more integrated to daily life (especially with the expansion) we will see more businesses catering to rail riders.

  • It’s good to have some vision. We are getting more and more people in a world that can tolerate less and less carbon. Driving gasoline cars will become a pastime for the rich whether we like it or not. Mother Nature doesn’t care if your politics says otherwise.

  • The evidence is that light rail HAS spurred development… hard evidence, as in steel, concrete, and glass along Main Street downtown as well as in the Museum District. Not to mention less hard evidence in the form of much higher land prices along the corridor than away from it. The op’s argument is based more on “should”… “the light rail should not have spurred development, because in my opinion it is a slower transit option.” Ideology rather than facts is what’s driving this argument.

  • and you can already see what’s happening here with the comments. those in support of the rail will support it blindly and state it’s success is clear as day without even referencing any proof that the debt and interest payments currently negating further mass-transit developments in Houston were worth the cost to replace well-serviced mass-trsnit routes with light rail. I know i’m being snarky here, but i really really would like to see some references showing it to be a success. my transit times and every other cars has increased quite a bit through these rail areas and i’m not sure the lost productivity of the more numberous car traffic and increased pollution from further intersections is worth the benefit.

    there’s a very simple solution here though. we all agree that rail does not benfit the majority of Houston. this is clearly a service that should be de-coupled from sales tax receipts and paid for by the end users.

  • Apparently I’m a malnourished weakling. Good to know. I do know the train is standing room only every morning.

    Some factual corrections:

    (1) There has been a lot of development along light rail. Consider just Downtown: MainPlace, J W Marriott, Skyhouse, the Pavilions are all directly on Main Street. We have as much TOD as Dallas; we just don’t call it that.

    (2) METRO never owned any right of way along the Katy Freeway.

    (3) The right of way along Westpark is still preserved for transit.

    (4) To echo what Brandi said, Dallas’s light rail trains may be faster, but they aren’t as effective as Houston’s. Dallas has 85 miles of light rail — more than 10 times what Houston has. But they only carry 2 1/2 times as many riders. Why? Because in order to go fast, those trains actually miss the places where people want to go. The speed that counts (as Toasty rightly says) is door to door. not light rail station to light rail station. And Houston’s light rail gets closer to the door of more destinations than Dallas’ does precisely because it runs down the street.

  • If you can’t get to very many places on it, it’s not going to be very useful to very many people, the time of the commute notwithstanding. The appeal of the automobile is that you can go anywhere you want. The amount of time it takes to get there only matters because the fact that you can get there at all has already been answered.

  • Slight of hand trick, thats all it is. Metro Rail ridership just replaced the bus ridership along Main Street. When the train was put in, many bus routes that ran on Main Street were terminated at Wheeler Station or eliminated. I would not credit the rail for increasing Metro’s overall ridership. Ridership was just “shifted” from one mode to another.

    Also, it was said when the railroad tracks were removed from Westpark and along the Katy Freeway, that someday they would be replaced with Mass Transit rail….I doubted it then and now… The only way we will get great mass transit is when Metro builds a system that accomplishes 5 things….(1)Rail separation from traffic, such as an elevated track, (2)services high populated areas, such as the suburbs, (3)is faster then driving, and (4)more economical then driving, (5)direct routes are not altered by a select few or Politians(Culberson on Richmond rail re-route)

    In addition, elevated rail with Maglev technology is more cost effective to install then street level rail. (someone tell Metro) Some of the benefits to elevated rail are: Minimal need to relocate underground utilities, T-columns supporting the rail can be located in existing esplanades, not requiring use of existing traffic lanes, Completely eliminates collisions with vehicles, trains can travel much faster, With Maglev technology less energy is required to move the trains, since the entire system does not need to be energized, just the location where the train is traveling.

    Metro can call me anytime when they really want to know how and what to put in to create a mass transit system that the people will buy into…..Lets get a mass transit system, not a toy train….

  • Common sense says that underground or elevated rail would always be more of a success because it’s quicker. I do agree with Joel that hardcore supporters will support it blindly, but I also know some hardcore non-supporters that will never support it even if it picked them up at their front door and drop them off at their office. To each their own, I guess.

  • exactly Christof, the rail will certainly increase land prices and development, but we need to see the rate of commercial investment and land appreciation along the rail routes as opposed to the general surrounding in-town areas as the main st. rail generally corresponded with the economic/energy booms we’ve been lucky to have. any increased productivity of those using light rail is negated by those having to navigate the rail by car.

    need to take those rates, make some assumptions and decide as a city if the return on investment was really worth it. has anyone done anything similar yet?

  • christof for got to mention these:
    the Savoy redevelopment and Central Bank Building redevelopment are both underway.
    The midtown superblock is becoming more apartments and a park, the alliance downtown apartments on main, all those new bars on main.
    Two residential towers proposed by Hines are within a block of the rail.

    The Tourist and heritage center, the 4 new convention center hotels that are going up are all on the rail line. The new apartments near the ball park on the old Ben Milam hotel site.

    The new HSPVA, the proposed 609 main and the proposed capitol tower, all on the rail line.

  • BG Group Place, JW Marriott, Green Street, Skyhouse, Venue Museum District, Hines’ new office proposal, 2222 Smith, Superblock in Midtown, the two blocks around the Continental Club, UH Downtown classroom building, Memorial Hermann Medical Plaza, Methodist Hospital Outpatient Care Center, Prairie View ATM College of Nursing, Texas Woman’s University Health Science Center, Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women and Children, BBVA Stadium, UH Cougar Village I and II, UH’s new football stadium, UH School of Optometry, UH Sophomore Housing Dorm, hundreds of townhouses, and thousands of other apartment units have been built along the rail corridors so I am not sure how anyone could say with a straight face that rail hasn’t spurred at least SOME of that development.

  • Parking at Fannin South and riding the rail is easier and cheaper than parking almost anywhere near the rail line, provided you’ve got the time and don’t have to go somewhere outside of walking distance.

  • “…standing room only every morning.”, and no doubt with a bunch of malnourished weaklings.

    Thanks, but no thanks, I’ll keep enjoying the air conditioned 3/4ton SUV for my travels around Houston.

  • “……hundreds of townhouses, and thousands of other apartment units have been built along the rail corridors so I am not sure how anyone could say with a straight face that rail hasn’t spurred at least SOME of that development.”

    Rail is probably a factor is a few of those that are very near it, but development won’t happen unless normal factors are aligned so rail is probably only a sub-factor.

  • @dufuss that is simple they deny that all major construction has occuried within a mile of the rail. They deny that many developers have sighted the rail line as playing a part in them putting a business or apartment in a certian area. There argument being that development would have happened in those areas anyway given how close they are to downtown. They do this while ignoring direct quotes from deveolpers like the company who is building hotels along the rusk line, or even hines itself. The rail was never ment to be fast it was ment to be a people mover. I love how all the anti rail people have forgot how many street at the close of business use to be a parking lot 90% of the time.

  • Since Christof Spieler is here, I will reiterate my complaint that the University Light Rail Line wont extend past the Hillcroft Park & Ride to reach HBU. I suppose I’m the only one to see the irony in the fact that the University Line will start at a university, but won’t end at one.
    That said, lots of people are really hoping for the Route 90A / Southwest Rail Corridor.

  • So highway construction used to spur development is bad but rail construction to spur development is good?

    Funny how that is seemed to be acceptable yet makes no logical sense.

    The only good thing about light rail in Houston is the snail’s pace it is being installed. The slow install means we only build what maybe needed verses doing the horror of rail development in most cities.

  • There is little argument that Houston is experiencing a strong period of development. Whether that development has been spurred by rail in certain areas can be debated at length, and ultimately the hard core pro and anti rail people will never agree. The question will likely be answered within the next couple of years. The Southeast line has positioned a station in one of the worst neighborhoods in Houston, with substantial drug activity and a recent drug related murder which resulted in a Chevrolet pickup temporarily residing in an old gentleman’s living room. This area wouldn’t develop on it’s own accord in the next 15 years… if we see residential/commercial quickly develop around this station, then the debate is over!

  • “Dallas both sucks and blows, who cares what they did up there?
    Sorry for being childish, I’m a true Houstonian and as such I must profess my hatred of Dallas whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
    I knew we could not get past this stupid rivalry and this sums it up. God forbid anyone in Houston could look to Dallas or anywhere else for a better idea. The fact is
    DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) did not try to replace an intown bus line with a train. Its mission is to get cars off the road for longer commutes which is why most routes go out to the suburbs. Metro’s mission seems to be to make transit as inconvenient as possible on short haul routes. Their buses which run half empty tear up the streets, impede traffic when the driver decides to take a coffee break, and the trains stop and start like a bus while delaying cross traffic. We need a Metro new board, new politicians with some vision and a new paradigm to make a VIABLE mass transit system here

  • We only have significant ridership on the light choochoo because Metro changed or removed routes to require using it to get between places. The light rail fans are being played for pawns.

    What Houston really needs is commuter rail through existing corridors. Get trains coming in from Katy, Richmond, Fake Pearland, Clear Lake and Galveston, Kingwood, and the Woodlands and you’d see people fall all over themselves to get on it. Get them to a transit center down town and have light rail to/from the galleria, greenway plaza, the med center, and UH.

    I bet if you leave Houston Metro to its current asinine plans and have a separate authority run the above commuter rail, metro buses and trains would turn into ghost towns and you couldn’t buy trains fast enough to keep up with demand on the commuter rail.

  • First of all, I’m a proponent of rail mass transit, so it’s kind of interesting to see how some people could take my criticism of METRO rail as thinking I am against it. I’ve ridden the line, and it is useful for getting to the medical center and or events at Reliant Park. I know that ridership is there, and that is growing. I just wish it were a faster means of transit.
    When I referenced the lack of development around rail, I wasn’t really referring to downtown, and to be honest, I think most downtown development has and will occur regardless of whether trains run there or not. Is it an amenity that can be used to market your property? Yes it is. Do those developments depend upon rail bring people to their doorsteps? Probably not.
    What I’ve found to be sad is that it has not really sparked much development immediately around the midtown stations such as Ensemble or Wheeler stations. Yes the Continental Club and Tacos a Go Go are nearby, but there’s still a huge amount of parking lots and derelict/abandoned buildings in those areas. The Mockingbird Station development in Dallas contains residential, a cinema, and restaurants. Or look at the development of office towers, apartments, retail, and restaurants that has popped up over the last 15 years around Washington Metro’s Orange line corridor through Arlington, VA. All of that is there because the rail has sparked demand, and brought customers to those tenant’s doorsteps.

  • @ Joel:

    Counterpoint 1: If end users of rail have to pay the full cost of riding rail, then end users of roads (i.e. drivers) need to pay the full cost of driving. The federal fuel tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon since something like 1993. If you add in state fuel taxes, tolls, and other driving fees, drivers only pay for about half of the cost of building and maintaining roads. The rest comes from federal and state general funds (i.e. MY TAX DOLLARS and YOUR TAX DOLLARS.)

    Counterpoint 2: The thousands of cul-de-sac streets across the area don’t exactly benefit a majority of Houstonians either – each one may only benefit the one to two dozen residents who they serve. If we all are paying for these relatively useless

  • Many good points in the comments above so I won’t rehash everything. One thing that would really help development near the METRORail in Midtown is moving the Greyhound Bus Station to north of downtown near AMTRAK. That block is such an eyesore. I believe if the bus station could move the modern Midtown development we see today would grow across Milam, Travis, and Main.

  • (er . . . I hit space and somehow my browser posted my response in mid typing.)

    Counterpoint 2: The thousands of cul-de-sac streets across the area don’t exactly benefit a majority of Houstonians either – each one may only benefit the one to two dozen residents who they serve. How is paying for these streets that serve relatively few Houstonians better than paying for light rail that supposedly serves relatively few people either?

  • Lee Brown/METRO and all of the other mucky shmucks totally sucked ( and not in a good way) when they wanted ground level trains. Look at the ELEVATED trains in Chicago,NYC,etc. No car traffic congestion to deal with. Of course, this being half-ass Houston (and I’m a native,so don’t try to revoke my native Houstonian pass),the powers that be just wanted to build the cheapest train as fast as possible. And they should have ELEVATED the whole damn thing. Thereby avoiding the street flooding, car wrecks & hitting pedestrians issues.Among others.

  • Just wait until the three new LRT lines open next year. Inner loop residential housing boom in progress??… we haven’t seen anything compared to what’s coming. Rail is a game changer of Houston’s urban landscape because it created a constant development momentum that will not be stopped. The speed of the train compared to car travel is not vital, it’s the convenience of letting someone else do the driving, someone else paying the high cost of gas, parking, insurance, registration, inspection, maintenance, etc. It’s not the impact of any one project that will be significant, it’s the shear magnitude of the change that will occur. Ten years ago would suburban middle class families with children even consider moving to the Northside Village, or the East End, or the Third Ward? Not even for a second. Ten years from now these neighborhoods will be even more desirable than Klein, Cypress, and Katy for middle class families because amenities will be close, car trips will be short, transit will be a viable option, HISD will have money to spend, and HPD will provide better coverage than the county ever could. The unincorporated county will be the realm of the stagnant lower class–with poor education, poor police protection, and a lack of civic opportunities. The Great Inversion is upon us–Don’t blink, you’ll miss it.

  • 1. I guess the post should have just said “Light Rail … Go.”

    2. There are a dozen major variables in developing light rail. There will always be complainers who harp about the values of the variables post implementation.

    3. Houston’s initial 7.5 mile red line had no intent of serving residential areas. Comparisons to Dallas’ 66 miles of light rail and 18 miles of commuter rail relating to “spurring development” are laughable.

    4. (but now that we’re on that topic …) Transportation infrastructure should never be used to “spur development”. Especially when it’s freeway lanes or “grand” parkways.

  • Really what we need is a commuter rail that transports people from the burbs to the core city like Chicago’s Metra Rail
    in conjunction with an in town rail system that supports the inner city like Chicago’s L

  • less subjectiveness and more numbers folks, otherwise things like this will continue to remain on the forefront:

    “However, as of December 2011, the Main Street Line ridership had fallen to a little more than 25,000 daily riders, which is only a couple of thousand more than we had riding the buses in 2003. And of course, this marginal increase has come at an enormous cost. Just the construction cost of the Main Street Line was about $400 million. That is a cost of about $200,000 per new rider, not even counting the ongoing operating costs. The riders would have probably appreciated it more if we had just bought them a Bentley.”

    we all understand the benefits of rail, but we need to discuss costs as well. there’s no shortage of things we need to be spending money on in this city.

  • “I will reiterate my complaint that the University Light Rail Line wont extend past the Hillcroft Park & Ride to reach HBU.”

    I agree that the best westwards extension of University would be southwestwards, to HUB, the hospital, and the connection to bus service on Bellaire. But we have to get the first part of University built first…

  • Two more comments:

    (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 taker 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.

  • HOV buses and BRT don’t have the cachet or swag of rail but get the job done efficiently. Houston will redefine “world class city” this century.

  • @joel:

    “However, as of December 2011, the Main Street Line ridership had fallen to a little more than 25,000 daily riders, which is only a couple of thousand more than we had riding the buses in 2003.”

    Do you have a citation for that? Because the First Quarter 2013 APTA report says the average weekday boardings on the Main Street Line was 41,500:

  • Thanks for the response, Christof. I just hope the University Line extension doesn’t become Houston’s version of New York’s Second Avenue Subway – long promised but never built.
    Have you seen the construction that HBU has planned? It’s pretty amazing. Worthy of a light rail terminus.

  • one issue i see with our light rail is that i don’t see how it has room to expand. the stations only allow the two small cars. anyone that has seen heavier rail knows the trains are very long. if people are standing up today and each train is packed (as some claim), what will happen if our light rail use goes up significantly as some predict. we can’t add additional cars . . .