Last weekend my family couldn’t get to Buffalo Bayou unless we drove. We live just a few miles away, but our son is too young to be towed on a bike, and we fear he would melt if we walked in the summer heat. Driving to the bayou always seemed a fruitless effort. It took as much time to drive and find parking as we spent on the path walking.
Still, last weekend, driving was our only viable option. There was no bus service on Montrose Boulevard on Sundays. Not infrequent service. There was just no service at all.
But this weekend marked the arrival of METRO Houston’s long-awaited overhaul of its bus routes, dubbed the New Bus Network. Every 15 minutes, seven days a week, buses now pass along that route in both directions.
We were still a bit skeptical, though. As relatively new parents, my wife and I are always nervous that if we take transit, we’ll get stuck waiting on a bus and our son (or I) will have a meltdown from exhaustion, hunger, or overheating. Sometimes no manner of prep can prevent those fits. And as a family with the luxury of owning a car, we often default to the ease of a self-managed schedule.
The New Bus Network, though, promised to alleviate those concerns, especially for riders on frequent routes. The idea of the overhaul is that travellers can simply show up and ride, since the wait times are so short.
Putting our trepidations aside, we ventured out.
We arrived at our bus stop at 8:11. A southbound 56 bus, headed in the opposite direction, rolled by as we approached the curb. The northbound – the bus we wanted – was running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but given the massive overhaul of an entire system of buses that had begun just a few hours earlier, we were patient. Ultimately, we only waited about 10 minutes for our ride.
I noticed that as our bus arrived a second southbound went by. Those buses were less than 15 minutes apart, yet on the same route last week those gaps were closer to 30 minutes.
We rode for free, since METRO is offering complimentary rides all week on local buses and the rail line to promote the changes. Our route took us within steps of the Bayou. We walked across the Montrose pedestrian bridge and watched dogs in the nearby dog park. Our outdoor trip also took us along pathways to Waugh Drive. We grabbed a coffee at Whole Foods and ultimately did a circuit back to Montrose Boulevard.
Our walking route was about the same distance that we cover in our neighborhood most mornings. Only this time, we got to do it along one of Houston’s best landscapes. And we didn’t have to worry about parking.
As we started our walk along Dallas Street back toward Montrose, I saw a southbound 56 bus – the one we needed to take – roll by. Last weekend I would have cursed under my breath knowing that the next bus wouldn’t rumble past for at least 30 minutes. This weekend we just kept walking knowing another would be there soon.
We were at the stop at Dallas and Montrose for no more than three minutes before the next bus arrived. We were home in five more minutes. Our son was down for a nap almost exactly one hour after we left the house to catch the initial Bayou-bound bus.
In the time that we were out, I counted six 56 buses going north and south, including the ones we rode in each direction. Assuming I missed a few when we did our Whole Food circuit, METRO was right on pace with its promised frequency of a bus every 15 minutes.
One of the goals of the reimagined network is to increase ridership overall. That means encouraging Houstonians to take transit beyond their daily commute. Frequent buses off-peak and on weekends makes it easier for riders to leave their cars at home for trips to amenities. And it increases the likelihood that more people will use transit.
Of course the New Bus Network will also streamline and shorten trips and wait times for many Houstonians who commute on transit daily. And the agency is still working to get the message of the changes out to riders. There are those for whom commutes have changed, become longer, or won’t have improved substantially. The agency will continue to tweak routes and address needs as they arise, as evidenced by last-minute changes to the network made in the final weeks before the rollout on Sunday.
Massive rethinking and improvements of public agencies are rare and complicated. METRO and its consulting partners have done an incredible job with the new system. It’s important to acknowledge the grand arc of the changes recognize the millions more jobs now closer to METRO stops.
But on a more personal level, my family’s trip tells me all I need to know. My son laughed as we watched dogs leap into the dog park ponds. Our family stopped by the Wortham fountain and watched the mists carry off across the pathways. We enjoyed one of Houston’s best resources on our schedule. And we took the bus home.