The Works

How Houston Could Increase Bus Ridership by 25 Percent

Credit: MTA

When public transit authorities approach Human Transit author, blogger and consultant Jarrett Walker about redrawing bus routes, he tells them about the tradeoff between routes that get high ridership and those that serve broader areas while guaranteeing far-flung areas little more than the bare minimum of service.

While he avoids making value judgments, there is, Walker notes, always a tension in relatively low-density U.S. cities without huge transit budgets between giving everybody basic levels of service and making routes useful to the most people. It’s up to the agencies to decide what emphasis to place on each type of service.

Until now, Houston had split its resources evenly between high-performing routes and routes that maximize geographical coverage. But according to an article in the Houston Chronicle, the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority hopes to change that:

Increasing the number of buses on key routes and running faster service in fewer places could increase ridership as much as 25 percent, consultant Geoff Carleton told a Metro committee Tuesday. Refocusing 90 percent of resources on ridership areas, would leave fewer than 2 percent of current riders without a bus stop within a half-mile of where they live, he said.

The new figures, Carleton said, show Metro will see greater ridership gains for less sacrifice than estimated when discussions started in September. By adjusting some bus lines and, essentially, redrawing all the routes, planners found they could cover more area than initially thought, while keeping bus service close enough to where more riders live.

Jarrett Walker + Associates is working with Geoff Carleton’s Traffic Engineers, Inc. and the city on possible changes to the bus network.

Also on the table is a more modest 75-25 or 70-30 split between ridership and coverage goals — which “most” transit officials prefer, according to the Chronicle. Metro estimates this split would bump ridership by between 12 and 15 percent.

The idea of shifting service to maximize ridership rather than geographical coverage isn’t new. Portland introduced a high-frequency grid, which seeks to maximize ridership at the expense of some coverage, in 1982, as did Oakland’s AC Transit around 1990. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, with their strong street grids and relatively high-ridership routes inherited from old streetcar companies, have always had such high-frequency grids.

More recently, Salt Lake City’s Utah Transit Authority did a similar reorganization, seeking to get more ridership out of an unchanged operational budget by increasing frequency along well-traveled routes while cutting service on meandering, suburban routes. The authority expected a 12 percent increase in ridership over three years due to the changes, which went into effect in 2007.

Daily weekday ridership on UTA buses ended up growing from 77,500 in 2007 to 88,700 in 2011, an increase of 14.5 percent.

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Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

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