A year after rerouting Houston’s bus network overnight, Metro is celebrating an increase in ridership and pondering how to get more people on board. According to the agency, the period between September 2015 and July 2016 saw the largest growth in Houston transit riders in a decade. Since the new bus network launched on August 16, Metro has seen 4.5 million more boardings on local bus and light rail, a 6.8 percent growth. Bus ridership alone increased by just 1.2 percent.
“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, on Kinder’s blog Urban Edge. “They are mutually beneficial and improving the service level on both will likely keep ridership going up.”
At the time of the redesign, Metro said the goal was to increase total ridership by 20 percent after two years in operation. Right now, total ridership is up 7.5 percent, and Metro is looking at a number of strategies to keep those numbers going up. Urban Edge reports that this July the agency opened a new pilot route to connect a neighborhood that lost bus service during the redesign to the light rail’s Green Line.
And according to Houston Public Media, Metro is looking to bus shelters to attract more riders. In its next budget, the agency plans to ask for a boost in bus shelter spending of about 25 percent. A single shelter can cost as much as $17,000, according to Metro CEO Tom Lambert, so Metro will consider new designs that could bring down the cost. He hopes to put up 125 new shelters over the next year.
“We’re going to try to speed up the whole movement of buses, so we need to make sure that the experience is good at the front door as well as when people are getting off the back door,” Lambert said.
According to Metro’s website, a bus stop can qualify for a shelter if it scores 35 or more points in a ranking system designed to calculate a bus stop’s popularity. A transfer awards two points, proximity to a light rail system nets five, and proximity to a hospital earns a whopping 15.
Shelton, of the Kinder Institute, also told Urban Edge that Metro’s next steps should consider accessibility. “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. Further improvements he’d like to see include bus rapid transit and dedicated bus lanes or “preferred signal modes” that give transit vehicles an advantage at traffic signals.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.