Whither the Limiteds

Tonight, let us bid adieu to the 44, the 56, and the 79. All of these buses have long provided local service through North Houston, in the “second ring” between the Loop and the Beltway, before running express to Downtown through one of the nation’s first HOV lanes.

Not for much longer. With the formal adoption of Metro Reimagining, these routes will have their nonstop legs cut, instead being combined with other local routes. For 79 riders, the pain will be weakest; the scheduled travel time on the rail is only 4 minutes longer than the bus, and the old 79 was notoriously late.

For 56 riders, it’s worse. The limited makes it from Airline @ 45 to Downtown in just 17 minutes*, courtesy of the Independence Heights HOV ramp. But with the route diverted to Northline transit center, riders get to experience a transfer penalty, additional rail travel time, and additional bus travel time. All told, that’s an 18-minute hit**. That’s over a half-hour lost every single day, more than a weeks’ worth of waking hours every year.

As for the 44, time will tell. Though originally planned to end at Northline, the 44 is now proposed to take over the Main Street local route, formerly route 9; no rail transfer will be possible. The 9’s scheduled time from Tidwell/Montgomery to Downtown is 43-45 minutes, compared with 30-36 on the Acres Homes Limited. But with no transfer penalties or diversions, this may prove to be the least-worst option.

The Northline rail extension currently carries a bit over 4000 people, whereas the 56 and 44 buses combined carry 7300 daily boardings. When the dust settles, we might end up with a rail line that has increased average travel times.

How Did This Happen?

To understand how the commute-lengthening Northline extension came to be, it helps to look at the development of the rest of the system, including the original, spectacularly successful Red Line.

Metro’s Early Rail Success

The principal operational advantage of fixed-guideway transit is the ability to replace many small vehicles with a few larger ones. Rail costs more to operate per vehicle-hour, but that vehicle can carry a lot more passengers.

Prior to METRORail, the TMC-Downtown corridor looked like so:

Texas Medical Center, from a January 2002 system map

Of the 8 routes in the image, all but #1 and #34 were deleted/curtailed on rail opening. As of 2000-2002, they had the following frequencies:

002 – 10 peak-hour trips, 4 off-peak trips
004 – 3 peak-hour trips, 3 off-peak trips
008 – 4 peak-hour trips, 4 off-peak trips
015 – 6 peak-hour trips, 4 off-peak trips
170 – 5 peak-hour trips
291 – 8 peak-hour trips

This schedule (36 peak/15 off-peak) was replaced by 10 hourly trains, a clear efficiency gain. Moreover, the San Jacinto/Fannin alignment is largely 35mph trackage; scheduled speeds for METRORail in 2015 are 3-5 minutes faster than the equivalent 2000-2002 bus routes. And while the #1-Hospital bus route was preserved for institutional reasons, Reimagining will remove its four hourly trips from the schedule. Peak-hour trip counts in the Downtown-TMC corridor will have been reduced from 40 to 10, a 75% reduction.

You just can’t argue with that.

Heading North… Slowly

Now we return to the Northline extension. Here’s the Downtown-Northline corridor, again from the same 2002 system map:

The IH-45 corridor, from a January 2002 system map

The implication is clear; Metro should run trains along Interstate 45 (or a similarly fast parallel alignment), removing a majority of the myriad bus trips that operate along the freeway.

Instead, the rails got sent up Fulton, replacing the #15 bus route. The Northline LRT extension has provided some support for the concept of rail bias, nearly tripling ridership over the #15. Problem is, that’s still only 4200 daily riders, or 815 riders per mile. This is well below the systemwide average for New Starts LRT lines, but does have the distinction of beating out Hampton Roads, VA.

But why have travel times increased? To understand that, let’s take a ride along the line and find out. Operating speed through the Burnett area is 15/20mph. Rolling through the Near Northside, we pick up speed, only to come across this 10mph corner (4:05 in the video):

Main @ Boundary, 10mph curve

Notably, most of the land on the inside arc here is vacant. A 20mph curve*** could have been constructed for a bit of grass and this bungalow.

A couple blocks later, we come across another 10mph zone (5:50). This tight-radius reverse curve avoided a McDonald’s, which was constructed in 2005:

Boundary @ Fulton, 10mph reverse curve

A few more blocks and one finds a 15mph left-hander (7:55). Here the alignment shifts from one side of the right-of-way to the other, resulting in track curvature that is actually tighter than both of the adjacent travel lanes:

Fulton between Hays and Irvington, 20mph curve

What do we get out of this serpentine alignment? Principally, better neighborhood service – and better potential for redevelopment. Some stops, such as Cavalcade, are better-positioned to generate infill than a similar station along the freeway would. Other stops, such as Lindale Park, likely wouldn’t exist on an IH-45 alignment.

East End Local

The East and Southeast lines will not replace any freeway flyers. The downside is that they won’t be able to experience the ridership boost that Northline will get when the 56 is cut back. The upside is that nearly everyone who rides them will see improved travel times.

The East Line will serve as a drop-in replacement for the 50-Harrisburg bus. It’ll start with an installed base of 3000-3500 transfer riders, who will have a forced transfer at Magnolia. Transfer penalties will be minimized by takt scheduling; the shortened Harrisburg route will run on 12/18 minute headways, and meet every train.

The Southeast Line is even more solid. Initial transfer ridership will come from the former 5-Southmore, 30-Cullen, 77-MLK, and the outer tails of the 40-Telephone; all of these will be reconfigured as crosstown routes. Additional riders may be poached from the current 52-Scott, which remains largely intact (but still loses to rail travel times).

Finally, the campuses of UH and TSU provide the option for some induced demand, as the Southeast Line provides a one-seat train ride from the dorms to Downtown. This may also displace some trips that are presently made by taxi, Uber, or bumming rides with friends.

Ups and Downs

Ultimately, METRO is an executive agency in a strong mayor town. METRO has pursued a policy of slower, neighborhood-oriented rail lines which do a good job of serving inner-core trips.

Where these lines replace local bus service, transit service is generally improved. The usual cost/benefit arguments can be trotted out to argue for or against the rail line, but from the riders’ perspective, things are good.

Where these lines replace limited or express bus service, transit service is worsened. Slow, surface LRT provides inferior service to riders from the second ring and beyond who are trying to get downtown.

For the time being, the Northline extension stands alone in paralleling an existing freeway HOV facility, which means the negative effects are contained. However, future LRT construction in existing HOV corridors may have similar deleterious effects. Before more rails are laid, we ought to consider the impact on existing transit riders in the second ring and beyond. Urban redevelopment is a worthwhile goal, but not at the expense of reduced service quality.


*Some rush-hour trips are scheduled to take as long as 19 minutes; midday and evening trips are scheduled at 15. 17 seems an appropriate weighted average.

**Additional route distance from the Airline timepoint is 4200′, which is a bit over 3 minutes’ travel time at a 15mph average speed. Scheduled LRT time to Pierce is ~9 minutes longer than the current bus, and average transfer wait time is 6 minutes. Walk time from the Northline Transit Center bus island to the LRT platform is neglected, since some bus routes may relocate to curbside post-Reimagining.

***For the purposes of this and future posts, any light rail curve speed expressed without qualifications will be based on 4 inches total superelevation. This is conservative; most New Starts agencies allow 5 or 6, while FRA regulations for mainline rail (which have been lambasted by many a transit blogger) allow 7.

At issue is spiral length. Bi-articulated LRVs don’t like short super transitions, so many operators hew to a 1:500 relative grade. Design criteria supplied to me by various New Starts agencies also reveal a preference for limiting unbalanced superelevation to a portion of balanced/actual; this is very similar to the AASHTO “Method 5” tables which most state highway departments incorporate by reference.

One thought on “Whither the Limiteds”

  1. Slow LRT curves are the worst. No one would design a modern freeway or arterial road with random 10-20 mph curves thrown in, and the same should go for LRT unless there are extremely extenuating circumstances.

    PS… the hordes request a Twitter presence 😉

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