In fact, Houston's core neighborhoods grew around a 90-mile streetcar system, and the city has a higher WalkScore than Austin. "Houston is amazingly more progressive and more concerned about things like quality of life, walkable neighborhoods, and bike infrastructure than people realize," says Susan Rogers, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston.After visiting, I have to concur, although they do seem to have a long way to go yet. I had to drive myself more in those two days than I did in the last two years combined (or more). I want to talk about one technical area in which Houston is doing significantly better than Boston: at-grade transit.
|METRORail at Fannin South station|
METRORail opened as a 7.5 mile line in 2003 and has just been extended another 5.3 miles in December for a total of 12.8 miles. It is almost entirely at-grade, although there are a few places where it ducks under or flies over other roads and infrastructure. Here's the main points that it does really well:
- Signal priority or outright preemption at every single intersection it crosses. As the train approaches, lights flash, traffic signals change, and a sign lights up telling drivers to get out of the way of the train. In some cases, they use railroad crossing arms, in other cases, just ordinary traffic signals.
- Proof of Payment ticketing with modern, touchless fare card technology. I got a "Day Pass" and boarding was as simple as waving my card at a box on the platform, then hopping onboard using any door I wanted. Dwell times were consistently low, approximately 20 seconds per stop before we started moving again. Accessibility is great.
- Decent station spacing. Actually, average spacing is about 1/2 mile, which is a bit far, but there is some significant variability in that. The denser areas have shorter station gaps. At least one infill station is planned, Central Station, to assist with the upcoming expansion projects.
- A transit mall downtown, where private vehicular traffic was limited or excluded. The train had clearly been prioritized over the automobile in terms of space.
- Automatic cap on fare paid per day: with the "Day Pass" I pay $1.25 for the first trip, $1.25 for the second trip, $0.50 for the third trip, and nothing for all remaining trips of the day. The MBTA's Day Pass is $11.00, almost thoroughly useless, unless you are sure that you are taking more than 5 trips that day.
- Houston did not feel the "need" to put an awful fence down the middle of the entire right-of-way, which is a big difference from the way Boston's transportation agencies treat us ordinary folks on foot.
The result is that Houston's METRORail has a one way trip time of 50 minutes meaning that it manages a respectable and reliable average speed of 15 mph without the help of expensive grade separation. By comparison, according to the published schedule, or Blue Book:
- Boston's Green Line "B" plods along at about 8-9 mph on average, unreliably.
- The "C" branch goes 8-11 mph depending on time of day.
- The "D" branch, almost fully grade separated, manages to average 15-18 mph.
- The "E" branch does 9-12 mph, on the schedule.
- The SL5 "bus rapid transit" goes 8-10 mph as scheduled, and is slower in reality.
- The heavy rail portions of the MBTA average 19.4 mph in general, and
- The NYC subway system averages 17.4 mph overall.
Through sheer operational competence, Houston has managed to create a surface transit line, crossing many intersections at-grade, that is time and reliability-competitive with expensive grade-separated subways. Very impressive. This is an accomplishment of which the city should be very proud.
And it doesn't end there. Apparently, the original line was constructed for about $325 million in 2003 (including purchase of trains). That's about $50 million / mile in today's dollars. It has achieved approximately 36,000 rides per day, making it the 2nd busiest per-mile in the country. And at $9,000/daily boarding, it's a bargain in human terms.
So while Houston will never match Boston as a city in my view (although I wish them the best), I think we could really stand to learn quite a bit from METRO. Houston is supposedly the home of highway-centric thinking, and yet, they have a gem of a light rail line that could be held up as a model for the entire country. It's good transit in a red state, done cost effectively and operationally efficiently. METRO went up against what must have been an extremely strong motorist lobby... and won. Meanwhile, here in Boston, where we are supposedly so public transit friendly, we can't even get our city to support signal priority, all door boarding, or even respect a bus lane. What is wrong with us? Why are our public officials so cowardly? What are they afraid of? It cannot possibly be worse than the Texas Dept of Transportation.