The Houston approach to Light Rail is the best one.

In Boston, they’ve got a turn of the century streetcar system that has some new vehicles on it. It’s not appreciably faster or more convenient than it was 80 years ago.

In Phoenix, they’ve got a city with top-notch highway infrastructure and extremely low density zoning regulations. In theory, they could do without LRT – but they’re a growing city, and sleek trains gliding along main streets add some cachet. By stringing together a mall, the airport, downtown, and multiple institutions of higher learning on a single line, they’ve pulled in some very decent ridership. But the city outside this “starter” corridor is much, much sparser, and it’ll be very difficult to justify further extensions.

In Portland, which was in the 80’s a very low-density city, they started an LRT system as an intentional decision to pursue trains instead of and in lieu of roadways. The LRT system, which is geared towards suburb-to-city commuters, is nice enough. But extensive street running and frequent stop spacing makes MAX impractical for crosstown commutes, and leads to some heinous backups as workers in the West side’s tech industry try to return home to their affordable houses on the city’s eastern flanks. Any attempt to add even a smidgen of additional highway capacity is heavily politicked.

In Dallas, they started building LRT about the same time Portland did, but without the attendant anti-freeway politicking. Dallas’s DART is also focused on suburb-to-city commuter markets, mostly following old interurban or freight rail rights-of-way. Dallas has built an impressive, extensive LRT system. But a focus on suburban commuters paired with continued highway expansion has led Dallas to have the lowest ridership per mile of any US light rail system.

In Houston, the city expanded as far and as long as it could on highways. Reversible HOV lanes were piggybacked on existing freeways; Houston’s park and ride buses carry about half as many people as Dallas’s DART does. The first LRT line hit so many major destinations that it now has the highest ridership per mile of any post-WWII LRT line. The plan for expansion calls for a thick network within the Inner Loop, oriented towards a multi-centric city – some lines, like the University and Uptown, won’t touch Downtown Houston at all.

Houston’s LRT isn’t ideological, a triumph over the evil of cars. Nor is Houston’s LRT an “alternative,” designed to be just another “option” for suburb-to-city commuters. Rather, Houston’s LRT is a tool. Developers aren’t blind. The inner loop is a treasure trove of unrestricted reserves and expired deed restrictions, just waiting to be redeveloped at more and higher densities. But this can’t and won’t be accomplished by building more and wider freeways. Those are fine for the periphery, where their construction continues apace. But for inner-ring density, at some point, you need the capacity that only comes from rail.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the approaches these other cities have taken. But I like Houston’s the best, because it provides the strongest refutation to the troglodytes who snipe “boondoggle” articles off of CRT monitors in sleepy, stale towns. Houston is a city that grew up on the auto, that took much of its prosperity from the oil industry, that continues to grow with cars as more toll roads open up more land to more single-family development. Yet at the same time that its edges sprawled out, Houston allowed its cores to rise up, and in doing so has found the approximate limits of a strictly auto-based transport system.

9 thoughts on “The Houston approach to Light Rail is the best one.”

  1. Having lived in Boston, I can tell you that locals with any semblance of a brain avoid the Green Line at all costs. If you can take the Orange Line (a real subway) instead, you do, because it’s much faster. The Green Line’s problems are many: 100-year old track alignments, ancient signals (some still 25 Hz), the MBTA’s crippling debt burden, the desire of local pols to build more transit but not allow any more density, etc.

    I confess to knowing nothing about Houston’s LRT system other than having just looked at the future map on their website. I think LA’s long term plans are also very good… the Regional Connector will create a good system downtown, while others like the Westside Subway and Crenshaw/LAX will serve other centers. There are also plans for lines that don’t go near downtown, in the SF Valley and along the 405. Not sure what the situation is in Houston, but funding is always a big question… even with Measure R, LA still has a lot of transit it would like but can’t fund yet.

  2. Have you not tried Seattle’s? My mother and I used it for one day we had a stopover in Seattle and taking it from the airport to downtown was a blast. It was easy to access, moved very swiftly due to its somewhat grade-separated nature, and hits a lot of good areas.

    Houston’s is all right. Used a couple of times. Stations are generally nice, interiors and exteriors are fairly good, and the route is decent. Just wish the new lines were up and running, TVMs could operate better, and there was more fare policing to ensure everyone pays.

    I’m still of the opinion for a city like Houston, grade-separated rail (monorail) or a bad-ass bigger network of BRT would help the region much more. It also doesn’t help that our drivers managed to make headlines of being the most prone to light rail crashes.

  3. I think where something like monorail comes in is in densifying the second ring, between 610 and BW8. But you can’t really start talking about that until you have your core network in place. Finishing all five LRT lines also starts to make commuter rail a viable option, whether you’re talking about FRA-compliant trains to Galveston or Stadtlers next to the Westpark.

    As far as Seattle goes, that’s a heavy rail system with four miles of street running thrown in the middle just to fool you.

  4. Houston, interesting piece, not the usual take on Houston, comments/questions: 1. How does ridership on the light rail line in Houston compare with Los Angeles’ Blue Line from Downtown Los Angeles through South LA to Long Beach? I’ve often heard that described as the busiest in the country. Overall, if Houston is successful with rail transit, I think LA will be the model for it, although LA is actually a higher density city in the central areas of the city than Houston.

    2. If the first light rail line in Houston hit so many destinations, isn’t there a danger of the Phoenix problem you describe, with few places left to reach? 3. I think you underestimate Portland’s MAX. Much of it serves in-city riders within the surprisingly large city of Portland. MAX too was a tool, for transit-oriented development, and has been successful. The street running sections are relatively short, and not as slow as in many cities–try riding the San Jose light rail sometimes. And they only effect passengers riding from one side of the downtown to the other, but not the many passengers riding into the downtown.

  5. 3. MAX’s street running is indeed brutal. Rush hour trips take a full half-hour to travel from Lloyd Center to Goose Hollow, a distance of 2.9 miles. That’s an average speed of less than six miles per hour, scarcely more than a walk. While this might be acceptable in a vacuum, once you consider how poor auto connectivity is between the east side and west side it’s inexcusable. By building MAX and not expanding crosstown roadways (PDF), Portland has created some very nasty commutes, which give a lot of ammo to the Cox/Poole/O’Toole contingent when they go out and argue that light rail is part of some nefarious plot to force you out of your cars.

    2. Houston has a lot more regional centers than Phoenix, and they’re bigger. Typically you hear of Houston’s “five downtowns” of which the Main Street line hits only two. On the whole you also have higher residential density. Of course Phoenix and surrounds could go this route if they decided to start upzoning. Certainly the roadway infrastructure is already there.

    1. LA Blue Line is highest in absolute terms. Houston is highest in density. So for LA you have 89,000 over 22 miles of track or 4100 riders/mile, while Houston you have 36,000 (PDF) over 7.5 miles of track or 4800 riders/mile. LA Blue Line also gets the benefit of having been a former PE line and having development already oriented around that. Whereas Houston’s LRT south of TMC is entirely postwar suburbia that was merely lines on a map when the Red Cars were running.

  6. Thanks for the replies. The Blue Line comparison is interesting. The Blue Line goes through some long stretches that are just warehouse/ distribution, no generators.

    The Cox/Poole/O’Toole contingent would argue that light rail was a Communist Plot no matter what conditions were in Portland or anywhere else. They don’t even have the intellectual honesty to support parking charges–somehow the supposed market logic they use elsewhere doesn’t apply to parking. But in any event, I think many Portlanders would be happy to say they’re trying to shift travel from cars to transit. The first MAX line was built, after all, with funds transferred from a planned freeway that would have ripped though what are now some of the trendiest neighborhoods in Portland.

  7. Yeah, you’d figure that Reason and Cato would be the ones flogging Donald Shoup, but instead it’s the same planning outfits that gave us euclidean zoning and architectural design review. We live in bizarro-world.

  8. LA Blue Line has a great ROW most of the way, but the piece on Washington and Flower can be very tough. Once Regional Connector, Expo 2 to Santa Monica, and Gold Line 2 to Montclair are finished, Flower St is going to be a total cluster. The combined LA light rail lines (Blue, Green, Gold, and Expo) are already second only to Boston’s Green Line for light rail ridership in North America. When the above projects open it is only a matter of time until LA passes Boston, especially given that NIMBYism has made it practically impossible to build anything in Boston.

  9. It’s an interesting assertion you’ve made, goes in the face of a lot of (IMO asinine) urban planning sense- that multiple centers are better for transit than one big CBD and a commuting belt, that density is an ultimate result, and that you needn’t stop building highways to achieve it, but highways also aren’t end-all be-all, and that a city can have both.

    I like it. I like (personally) what portland did, too. It’s a bit balkanizing, but it seems to me to be the obvious backlash against Robert Moses-type planning.

Comments are closed.