It's been a year since Houston METRO transformed its bus network in a switch that affected thousands of stops overnight. Lauded in transportation and planning circles, the route overhaul wasn't always seamless.
But a year into it -- and with more changes expected in the future -- the plan's architect, METRO board member Christof Spieler, said he's pleased with the results, during remarks at a press conference on the eve of the system's one-year anniversary.
From September 2015 (the first full month after the switch was implemented) to July 2016 (the most recent complete month), METRO saw its ridership on local bus and light-rail add an additional 4.5 million boardings -- a 6.8 percent increase.
The numbers are more modest when looking at local bus ridership alone, which saw a 1.2 percent growth in ridership during that period. The light-rail system's Red Line saw a more sizable 16.6 percent increase.
"METRO clearly views the buses and rails as an entire system, not separate entities, which is a really productive frame," said Kyle Shelton, program manager at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. "They are mutually beneficial and improving the service level on both will likely keep ridership going up."
Shelton said the lower rate of growth for the local bus routes was unsurprising. "Many of the routes didn’t change that much for many people, and those that did may have resulted in loss of riders -- so overall an increase is a good first step."
The plan, dubbed the New Bus Network, replaced a hub-and-spoke system of bus routes with one that looked like a grid. It also increased the number of high-frequency routes and expanded weekend service. Nearly every bus route changed.
For the most part, the current system is the one implemented August 16, 2015. "You look at the routes that carry 99 percent of our passengers – we haven’t had to change them, " said Spieler, "We’ve tweaked things, but the core of the system is what was planned, and it’s working." The new system, which focused on offering more high-frequency, highly-used routes, now sees most of its ridership -- roughly 75 percent -- on its high-frequency routes. "That original plan," said Spieler, "was a really good plan."
Joined by new METRO chair Carrin Patman and CEO Tom Lambert, Spieler cited the coordinated effort and extensive community outreach as the source of the new system's success. "One of my big surprises was actually how smoothly everything has gone, which I think is a real testament to the staff and it’s a real testament to the intelligence of the planning in the first place and the robustness of the stakeholder process."
Patman previously said that some METRO customers "have been left out" as a result of the changes to the bus network and the agency would need to find ways to restore service in areas that experienced cuts as part of the overhaul.
Case in point: after receiving feedback from riders in the Manchester Docks community on the east side of Houston area, METRO rethought its bus route plan. "Under the original plan we had discontinued bus service in the community," said Lambert. "We met with them. Their plan was better than the staff plan, so we embraced it. That came from the board making it clear we were to engage the community." The end result was a new pilot program; a route that opened in July and connects riders in the community to the Magnolia Park Transit Center and eventually, the light-rail's Green Line.
Citing the ongoing community outreach efforts, Patman lauded the new network and its implementation. "From expanded weekend service to more frequent service and better connections, the folks in this region will benefit today and beyond," she said.
"We put this network on the ground that makes people's lives better," said Spieler.
University of Houston student and single mother Caroline Vazquez said the new system improved her life."I need to get where I need to be on time," Vazquez, who works full-time, said at the press conference. With a stop now just across the street from her home, she can do that. And, she said, she's been able to plan weekend trips with her son to the zoo and other destinations.
The chart below shows compares monthly METRO ridership -- including light-rail, commuter buses and local buses -- month-by-month for the first half of 2015 and 2016. Article continues below chart.
Indeed, local weekend bus ridership is one of the new system's strongest areas, continuing a trend that begun almost immediately after the redesign was implemented. From June 2015 to June 2016 -- the most recent METRO has released more detailed ridership data -- local buses saw a 13 percent increase in ridership on Saturdays and a 34 percent increase on Sundays, according to METRO, with similarly strong numbers for rail as well.
Local weekday bus ridership actually dropped over that same time period by 1 percent. However, a 14 percent increase in light-rail ridership amounted to an overall weekday ridership increase of 3 percent. The growth in rail supports Patman's focus on the new bus system's strong connections to the growing network of lines. And she said, there's more to come for the system.
METRO's data charts boardings, and not trips. Someone who transfers once – in other words, someone who takes two buses – is counted twice. This is because METRO relies on automatic counters on buses and rail cars for these numbers. Because the New Bus Network was intended, in part, to reduce the need for transfers, then theoretically that increased efficiency could also contribute to lower ridership figures.
Overall, total METRO ridership increased from 39.5 million boardings in the first half of 2015 to 42.5 million boardings in the first half of 2016. That's an increase of 7.5 percent. Jarrett Walker, a consultant who aided with the bus network design, as well as METRO officials, have previously said the aim of the bus network overhaul was to increase ridership by 20 percent after two years of operation.
"We’re focused on better bus stops, more bus shelters [and] improved accessibility," Patman said. The agency plans to ask for funding for 25 percent more bus shelters in in its next budget.
Spieler said the agency is also in the early stages of planning for more express service. "I'm really thinking of how we built on it," Spieler said of the one-year old network. "One of the things we've talked about is adding more express service, adding more signature routes, [bus rapid transit] routes to sort of make trips faster," he said. Those routes would likely strengthen major corridors, including along Westheimer Road, the Energy Corridor, downtown and the Medical Center. "That's an overlay on the network and it's really possible because of the network," he said.
How that takes shape will be important, said Shelton, of the Kinder Institute, who said the transit agency should focus on changes that convince people to ride, including convenience, comfort and efficiency. "This means better first-last mile connections to make getting to transit easier, more investment in physical features that improve the waiting process—shelters, shade, and benches especially," he said.
The next improvements he said METRO is likely to pursue will be bus rapid transit, dedicated bus lanes or "preferred signal models" that give buses and trains a time advantage over other types of traffic.