BRT could be a game changer if Metro plays to its strengths


It will take 20 years to implement the METRONext plan but if done correctly, getting riders where they want to go will be the top priority and the entire Metro system will work in concert to provide the best service possible.

Metro BRT bus rendering laid over Google Maps street view of BRT construction on Post Oak Boulevard

BRT buses on the Uptown Line will run in designated lanes in the center of Post Oak Boulevard.

It will take 20 years to implement the METRONext plan but if done correctly, getting riders where they want to go will be the top priority and the entire Metro system will work in concert to provide the best service possible.

To help readers better understand the bus rapid transit (BRT) approach, Urban Edge is running a series of posts from transit experts exploring what BRT will mean for the future of the transportation system in the Houston metropolitan area. In part two of the four-part series, transit expert and advocate Christof Spieler outlines the enormous promise of BRT that can only be realized if its greatest strengths aren't bargained away.

The transit plan that Houston voters passed by an impressive margin in November outlines a system that is fundamentally different than the massive light rail systems that cities like Dallas, Denver and Salt Lake City built over the past 25 years.

That fundamental difference, though, has nothing to do with rubber tires and steel rails.

The most obvious way to describe a transit line is by technology. But the most important way is to describe its function in a transit system.

How a typical light rail system works

The typical modern U.S. light rail system is designed to do one thing: enable fast trips from park-and-ride lots in suburbs to jobs Downtown. To do that, it follows paths like freeways and freight rail lines that allow fast speeds and are relatively easy to build. Following easy paths, though, misses a lot of potential ridership. The places where most people ride transit are not car-oriented suburbs but dense walkable neighborhoods. Downtowns aren’t the only major employment centers: hospitals, universities and secondary office centers are major destinations, too. And commute trips are only a small portion of the trips we make; the transit lines that get the best ridership are those that get people to the store, the park and the doctor as well as work. These single-purpose suburb-to-downtown rail lines don’t get good ridership — Dallas, Denver and Salt Lake City all rank in the lower half of U.S. systems in ridership per mile — and the ridership they get is heavily concentrated at commute times.

The typical modern U.S. light rail system is also designed in isolation. It’s intended for people who will make their entire transit trip by rail. That doesn’t mean that people don’t take the bus to get to a rail station, but it does mean these rail systems are not designed to work with a bus network. Transit connections are an afterthought, planned long after the route of the rail line has been set. The rail system is essentially an overlay on a separate bus network.

Part three of the four-part series will run Friday, Feb. 7.
Read part one by Kyle Shelton, deputy director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

LRT’s Red Line is an integral part of Metro’s bus network

In 2004, with the opening of the Main Street Line, Houston did something very different: a light rail line that connected multiple major employment centers, that ran in the street in the middle of walkable places, and that operated as an integral part of the bus system. The Main Street Line drew new transit riders, but it was also an upgrade for bus riders who could now connect to a faster, more reliable service. That connection was only strengthened with the 2015 redesign of the bus network, which created more frequent crosstown routes that intersect rail. The Red Line is the most important route in Houston’s bus network.

What METRONext proposed — and what METRO will now build — is not a new system; it is a transformational upgrade of the current bus network. The high ridership routes on Gessner, Richmond, Lockwood and Broadway will be upgraded with faster, more reliable, more comfortable and more convenient service.

In some cases, this upgrade will come in the form of light rail. In others, it will be BRT. But if this system is what METRO aspires for it to be, that’s not what will define the rider experience. The new BRT lines will be doing exactly what the Red Line rail does today.

BRT has enormous potential

In some ways, that’s an ambitious goal. In the United States, BRT has often been sold as being nearly as good as rail. And, often, the promises that are made when BRT is planned are bargained away: dedicated lanes became buses in mixed traffic, traffic-signal priority is shut down, even off-board fare collection is abandoned. Often, when agencies talk about “BRT,” they are talking about little more than busses with nice paint schemes running reasonably frequently.

So, METRO will have to be clear on what “METRORapid” — the brand being rolled out with the new Uptown line — means. On Uptown, it means riders pay their fare at the station, wait under a large canopy, board though any door from a platform that’s at floor level, and make it to their destination quickly and reliably in dedicated lanes with signal priority. And it will have to fully integrate BRT and rail. The platform heights on Uptown are compatible with rail platform heights, and the BRT buses have doors on both sides, so they can actually share platforms with light rail. In the future, on maps and signs, BRT can be treated like rail. And on Capitol and Rusk, you might wait at the Central Station platform and see a train to the city courts complex followed immediately — at the same platform — by a BRT bus to the Galleria.

METRO’s plans include two different kinds of BRT infrastructure. Through Gulfton, Greenway Plaza, Montrose, Third Ward, East End and Northwest Houston, BRT will be in dedicated lanes in the center of the street, with stations every quarter-mile to half-mile. Along the Katy Freeway and I-45, BRT will follow freeways, either in HOV lanes or dedicated transit lanes, with stations only at a handful of major transfer points. The former maximizes access to walkable neighborhoods; the latter allows fast regional trips. Both can be combined in a single line, as they are in Uptown, where buses will run in the center of Post Oak, then turn onto an elevated flyover along 610.

The cost and complexity of that will depend on how well METRO and other transportation agencies can work together.

Along highways, BRT will cost less — and be less disruptive to build — if it is integrated with other projects. TxDOT’s I-45 project includes the lanes that the BRT line from Downtown to Greenspoint and Intercontinental will use. METRO already has funds to build the Inner Katy line from Downtown to the north end of the Uptown BRT, but it goes in TxDOT right of way along I-10, and its inner end extends through the I-45 project area. The I-45 project is not currently designed to accommodate it; in fact, it takes away the HOV lane that’s already there. The I-45 project could also offer an opportunity to transform a section of the 59 HOV into a two-way lane, removing buses from one of the region’s worst traffic reverse-direction traffic jams, but the TxDOT current design actually narrows the lane. TxDOT and METRO can partner well — that’s been a big part of the Uptown project and of the successful park-and-ride system. That partnership is key to Houston’s transit future.

There’s a lot to be done before success can be claimed

The City of Houston, too, can make BRT easier or harder. Some sections of the proposed lines, especially on the east side, are on streets that currently have more traffic lanes than they need. Converting inside lanes to BRT, rather than widening and completely reconstructing the street, saves taxpayer dollars, reduces construction impacts on businesses and makes the street safer. But that’s ultimately the city’s decision, not METRO’s.

By using BRT, METRO is able to build more miles of line — and serve more people — than rail could. It can also use the same infrastructure for multiple services. The same lane that carries BRT to Greenspoint will also carry park-and-ride buses to The Woodlands. The BRT lane through Greenway Plaza will also be used by a limited-stop bus from Downtown to Uptown outer Westheimer.

METRONext is a 20-year project, and it’s only a high-level plan, with a definition of general corridors. There is a lot of planning work to come to identify specific alignments and station spacing and to figure out how BRT fits into streets and highways. Those decisions will determine how close the BRT lines get to major destinations, how fast and reliable trips will be, how easy connections will be, and how well BRT fits into the neighborhoods it serves. That, ultimately, will be the test. If we get this right, BRT will work together with rail as the backbone of Houston’s transit system. If not, it won’t be because it doesn’t have steel wheels — it will be because we didn’t think about where people are trying to go and what quality of service they need to get there. Transit isn’t about technology — it’s about service.

Christof Spieler is a vice president and director of planning at Huitt-Zollars and a senior lecturer at Rice University. He served as a member of the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board of directors from 2010 to 2018.

Christof Spieler


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