Houston Revamped Its Bus Network and Ridership Is Down. Why That May Not Be a Bad Thing.

Andrew Keatts | Kelsey Walker | November 6, 2015

Houston METRO recently released the first full month of ridership figures after it revamped its local bus network, giving analysts everywhere the chance to jump to conclusions.

Of course, one month of data isn’t enough information to reach a meaningful verdict about the system. But it’s intriguing to see how Houstonians are reacting to the changes.

To recap: in August, the Houston-area’s transit agency made major changes to its bus network, replacing a hub-and-spoke system 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.

The latest figures show that weekend ridership has, in fact, increased quite a bit after the overhaul, as was intended. Planners believed there was demand for higher-frequency service on weekends, and they’ve got some early support for their case. Saturday ridership increased 3.2 percent, from September 2014 to September 2015, and Sunday ridership surged 19.7 percent. Both are higher than they’ve been in recent years.

But weekday ridership fell 8.4 percent to the lowest point it’s been in recent years, leading overall ridership on the local bus system to tick down 3.9 percent.

metro_ridership_09to15

 

How bad is that news for the new system? It may be too early to tell. Since the onset of the bus network overhaul, planners insisted they would need to continue making adjustments to the system after the changes took effect in mid-August.

And importantly, there were other changes in the transit system as a whole since last September.

For one, METRO opened two new light rail lines that were specifically intended to carry people who had previously relied on buses. The two new light rail lines carried 7,415 passengers each average weekday in September. Those lines didn’t exist a year ago.

Second, the overhaul also eliminated some bus lines that were too similar to the existing light rail Red Line, and ridership on that line increased by 16.2 percent, or 7,938 average weekday riders, since last year. Some of those passengers might have previously been riding buses.

Still, there was a slight decrease in overall ridership – a 1.4 percent dip – combining bus and rail usage.

(It’s worth nothing that gasoline is about 30 percent cheaper in the Houston area today than it was a year ago, another factor that maybe influencing ridership.)

As more data comes in, it will be worth keeping an eye on whether the early, positive signs with weekend ridership keep up, whether local bus ridership numbers increase as people get used to the new system, and what effect having three operational light rail lines has on rider behavior.

It’s also important to consider that these ridership numbers reflect the number of boardings, which isn’t exactly the same – or as meaningful – as the number of trips.

Before METRO rolled out its new system, patrons frequently complained that the network’s hub-and-spoke configuration forced them to travel into downtown, transfer to another bus, and then travel back out of downtown in order to reach their final destination. In almost every practical respect, these transfers were costly and inefficient. Riders had to travel a further distance – downtown is out of the way for many riders – and they had to wait for their next bus to arrive.

Riders transfer between local buses for free, so it’s not as though these transfers increased the transit authority’s operating budget. Transfers do, however, contribute to ridership counts. The automatic passenger counters on METRO’s buses count people who pass through the bus doors, regardless of whether these passengers recently boarded another bus.

Without other sources of data, it’s tough to tell if the number of trips (the number of boardings minus the number of transfers) has meaningfully changed.

It’s entirely possible that transfers have decreased. Though the new network does not promise – or even seek – to eliminate transfers altogether, it replaces the hub-and-spoke system with a grid configuration, so riders who once travelled in and out of the downtown hub on different buses may now have a more direct route. And a grid system should, at least in theory, prevent trips requiring more than one transfer.

If the redesigned bus network connects the same number of riders to their destinations with fewer transfers, a dip in weekday boardings is hardly a negative sign.

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3 Responses

  1. Nick Norboge says:

    This is another good take on ridership numbers by the consultant who led the NBN project. http://www.humantransit.org/2015/10/houston-good-ridership-news-on-the-new-network.html

  2. Rich says:

    If only Houston Metro would outsource from more than merely 1 private bus company, we could see greater innovating transpire resulting in increased ridership. And if only Houston Metro would stop charging over a hundred million dollars per mile to expand light rail, we might stop having less than a fifth of what DFW has just 4 hours north of here with its Dart / TRE / Denton / Collin counties rail system (which even connects to airport facilities, unlike here in Houston).

    Anyhow, Houston Metro gets around 80% of its budget from taxpayers so it should outsource from more than one transportation-providing company rather than compete against them. Waiting for rail to expand here is worse than watching paint dry, so buses & vans (etc.) are worth keeping on our radar. Entrepreneurs can figure out ways to increase ridership and help alleviate Houston’s famous traffic & smog issues…

    Indeed, is Metro really doing enough to inspire private capital’s greater entry into the providing of such transportation services for people in Houston? For example, is Metro adequately implementing suggestions such as these?

    houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2012/12/a-vision-for-metros-new-ceo.html

    Why doesn’t Metro use some of those dollars to outsource bus routes from more private sector bus line operators and thereby accomplish more with less? In other words, why not outsource from more cost-effective and customer service-motivated start-ups that are apps-enabled and which adapt their routes to evolving demand? If it can happen in California, why not here too?

    techcrunch.com/2015/03/17/leap-buses

    techcrunch.com/2014/11/10/chariot/
    __

    http://www.rideleap.com/

    http://www.chariotsf.com/
    __

    Houston already has private bus lines that are up for the challenge, including:

    http://www.thehoustonwave.com/

    But Houston Metro monopolistically outsources merely from apparently just one company, an out-of-state entity called First Transit.

    Why must Metro’s monopoly continue to behave so monopolistically with our tax dollars? Are the folks doing the hiring at Metro enjoying special privileges that they otherwise wouldn’t enjoy if outsourcing finally transpired? Well taxpayers can’t throw money down a sinkhole for much longer. Even Houston’s got a financial crisis brewing, because of the pension fund. Houston Metro, please wake up.

    As for rail expansion, it’s worth noting that DFW has over 4 times as much light rail as Houston in part because they reached out to the railroad industry to pursue right-of-way sharing. Is Houston Metro adequately reaching out to these local railroad folks though?

    http://www.gcrd.net/hempstead.htm

    DFW’s DART rail system connects 4 counties with airport facilities too:

    http://www.dart.org/maps/printrailmap.asp

    Not so in Houston, however:

    http://www.gometrorail.org/go/doc/2491/1323787/System-Map

    If the light rail expansion topic particularly interests you, feel free to visit:

    http://www.facebook.com/hmrdev

    There it’s explored how a major source of concern is how prices of rail expansion can be brought down in Houston from the current $100+ million dollars per mile figure. Light rail has its benefits that buses don’t offer (such as its nonpolluting nature, and ability to travel despite traffic jams nearby) but it’s hard to justify the cost in light of http://www.USDebtClock.org/ . Air pollution reportedly ages the brain prematurely though…

    well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/air-pollution-tied-to-brain-aging/

    Something needs to be done, especially for childrens’ sake…

  3. Steve says:

    Metro Rail stations in Houston continue to have no real access control measures in place. Consequently some people pay and most do not which is simply not right. We have and continue to back light rail in the city but the system is currently broken; consequently we have switched to the re-imagined bus system instead. Buses run on weekends to some of our destinations, waiting times are <15 min, and only those who pay ride.

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