A Simple Fix for Krystal Hersey

Houston Press leads with an article critical of Houston’s new bus network. The article spends most of its time on the plight of Krystal Hersey and other residents of the Wesley Square apartment complex, on the south side near 610 and Cullen.

Per Houston Press, Krystal’s apartment is “0.3 miles” from the old #87 bus stop, which is “right outside the gate.” Now that the #87 has been eliminated, she must walk “about a half mile.” Thankfully, there is an easy fix to this problem which doesn’t require modifying Metro’s bus grid.

Here’s the situation as it existed a month ago. Wesley Square’s sole pedestrian access is via a gate off the main entrance drive, resulting in the following walk routes for transit users:

We can reasonably assume that Krystal Hersey lives near the back of the complex. With the former Route 87 stop on Calhoun deleted, her walk route to the Route 29 stop on Cullen is this:

That’s certainly a long walk. However, the issue is less that the bus stop is too far away and more than there is no break in the fence, so residents are cut off from the most direct walk route.

Adding a pedestrian access gate to the northwest corner of the complex would yield the following walk routes:

Because Krystal Hersey lives near the back of the complex, this new gate will give her a shorter walk to the bus than she had under the old network. Other residents will have a slightly longer walk; for the complex as a whole, things will be about the same.

A pedestrian gate, video camera monitoring and a short sidewalk connection ought to cost around $2000, installed. That’s less than it costs to run a single bus for two days (assuming a 14 hour service span). Multifamily owner/brokers* are generally pretty reasonable guys. Before it starts rejiggering the bus network, METRO ought to give them a call and see if they can’t work something out.

*Wesley Square is managed by Marquis Management of Plano, and is owned by DM Real Estate, located at the same address.

Making Things Worse

Houston’s freeways were built for Downtown-bound traffic. The freeway and tollway network is almost perfectly radial, reflecting the fact that City-led freeway planning predated the state highway department’s involvement. The initial construction occurred between 1948 and 1972, when Downtown was the only game in town. Hines’s Galleria opened in 1970; Schnitzer’s Greenway Plaza in 1973.

Every freeway approaching Downtown loses about half its capacity to a series of braided ramps connecting to one-way streets. The remaining through capacity then mixes it up in a series of three interchanges. It is a robust, resilient design, which avoids having a single point of failure. Among US cities, only Los Angeles and Kansas City possess similar layouts; the same topology was extensively used in Eastern Bloc metro systems such as Prague, Kiev, and lines 1, 2, & 3 of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

A more common arrangement is to concentrate downtown traffic on a single central spine, as is done in Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, and Miami. The proposed reconstruction of IH-45 and the Downtown Houston freeway ring deletes the Pierce Elevated in favor of a much-expanded 59 and 10, essentially replicating Atlanta.

Downtown, and the Pierce Elevated in particular, are fairly congested even outside of rush hours. This happens for three reasons.

First, the assumption that half of all traffic is bound for Downtown no longer holds. As Houston has sprawled into an ever more multi-polar urban agglomeration, the Downtown freeway ring has shifted to a more regional role. Downtown has also been the primary benefactor of most transit improvements, including three light rail lines and a billion dollars’ worth of barrier-separated HOV and bus facilities. Over 30% of Downtown workers commute on transit, while the regional average is less than 4%. As a result, the reverse commute on IH 10 and US 59 is now worse than the traditional commute.

Second, the Downtown Ring was designed before modern standards for merges were developed. The original design relied extensively on abrupt center merges, and most of these have been removed. This has made the ring safer, but less able to process crosstown traffic.

Third, most of Houston’s growth in the last 50 years has occurred west of IH 45 and SH 288. The East and Eastex Freeways, which form the northern and eastern segments of the loop, are relatively uncongested relative to the region as a whole. This tends to concentrate a plurality of crosstown traffic onto the Pierce Elevated.

To visualize this, here’s Google’s “typical” traffic for 5:30pm on Friday, culled from the averages of smartphone users running Google maps.

Typical Houston Traffic, 5:30pm, Friday

All of the macro trends are visible here. The inbound Katy and Southwest Freeways are stop-and-go as traffic queues up to process through the Downtown Ring. The inbound Gulf and South Freeways are largely at free-flow, but these two have a smaller queue where traffic waits to get onto the Downtown Ring.

Once this traffic has merged, things flow smoothly. The northbound Pierce Elevated flows well past the merge from 45/59/288, while the southbound Pierce flows well once the traffic from Houston Avenue and Allen Parkway has gotten on board. How bad is this bottleneck today? One way to answer this question is to compare the lane count approaching downtown with the lane count passing through. By neglecting the myriad ramps to “Downtown Destinations”, we can have a rough measure of the downtown ring’s ability to process crosstown traffic. At the south end, this looks like so:

Three lanes of 59 enter after the Spur leaves the mainline, while four lanes of 288 merge in. The inbound Gulf Freeway loses two lanes to the 59/288 system, but future construction will relocate the 59 connection to the existing high-level collector-distributor, freeing up the ability for three lanes to continue. We can subtract an additional lane for traffic from 59 and 288 bound for the outbound Gulf Freeway, leaving 9 total entering lanes and 7 receiving lanes.

At the north end of Downtown, the situation is similar:

Four lanes of the North Freeway mix with four lanes of the Katy Freeway. Where 10 and 45 traffic merge into 10, three lanes continue. 45 picks up more, but loses several lanes to downtown, leaving three heading into the dual-sided merge with Houston and Allen.

The current proposed schematic for the reconstruction of IH 45 envisions a redo of the Downtown Ring (large PDF). This design promises to relieve congestion by adding lanes around Downtown. The problem is, it adds more lanes coming into Downtown than it does going around it. The upcoming 288 Managed Lanes project will add still more radial capacity. As a result, the percentage of lanes available for use by crosstown traffic is actually reduced.

Here’s the north end again:

By connecting the existing HOV skyway into a new crosstown managed lane, and by converting the existing exit-only to 45 north into an optional lane for 45 north or south, the current schematic brings the number of approaching lanes on IH 10 to six. Adding managed lanes on 45 likewise brings that number to six. However, both 45 managed lanes are connected to the existing Milam Street ramp, with a one-lane connection to the mainline provided in the southbound direction only. Still more lanes are diverted into the Downtown Connector, a mirror of the 59 Spur which preserves the direct ramp to City Hall.

By the time all of these ramps have left the building, only six free lanes plus the managed lanes remain. This reduces crosstown capacity to less than 60%. The south side isn’t much better:

The current schematic eliminates the inbound 59 bottleneck at the Spur, by continuing five lanes through Midtown. However, the same bottlenecks are kept downstream; there’s a short weave with 288 traffic before two lanes go onto 45 north, merging with two lanes from the Gulf Freeway and then tapering down to three – virtually the same configuration as today.

Any transport improvement will bring with it some “induced demand.” The improvements represented by the 45 managed lanes, the 288 managed lanes, and the removal of the 59/Spur bottleneck will lead to more cars entering the Downtown Ring. If the past 20 years are a guide, an increasing number of those trips will be crosstown and reverse commuters. By substantially increasing capacity into Downtown without a commensurate increase in capacity through and around Downtown, we are creating tomorrow’s bottleneck.

It’s hard to stop a train

As has been mentioned here before, an interesting transmogrification seems to have taken place whereby the Texas Central Railway, a private group backed by major industrial concerns seeking to provide a premium service to principally business travelers – in other words, the essence of Dagny Taggart Capitalism – has nonetheless been parsed by some rural folk as an urban, liberal, Democrat sort of thing.

The initial opposition to the line was spearheaded by a young couple with a small patch of farmland in the path of a high-speed bypass of some curvy BNSF track. This is the most understandable form of NIMBYism, and in response TCR got out in front of the release of the Federal EIS to announce that they preferred the Utility Alignment, a straight shot that would parallel existing pipeline and power transmission easements.

However, by this point the opposition had coalesced in the form of HB 1889. Sponsor Will Metcalf says he thinks rail is a waste of money when we need more funding for highways, although he hasn’t stated how canceling a privately-financed railway will accomplish that goal.

HB 1889 takes an extant and arcane section of Texas law meant to give cities some amount of control over the routes of old-style interurbans, and repurposes it by expanding the scope to county governments and classifying HSR as an interurban.

I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice, but it seems to me that Metcalf’s proposed rewrite misses the forest for the trees. Interpreted in context, the language in 131.014(d) is not a broad prohibition on interurban construction, but a minor limitation on an otherwise broadly-worded section and chapter intended to grant interurbans great leeway in route and alignment choice.

Chapter 131 was originally written to clarify that interurbans possessed all of the same powers that had been granted to steam railroads by previous case law, as well as a few novel ones – such as the ability to condemn existing street railway tracks to reach a downtown core.

Adding “county” to part (d) without striking the other portions of the section thus forces one to interpret the statute in its entirety. Which means that, to my untrained non-legal-opinion-offering eye:

—TCR can build across private property without the consent of the county; the Porters’ farm isn’t “property of [Montgomery] county,” it’s the Porters’.

—TCR can build “on or across” a TxDOT facility without the consent of the county, since the state isn’t named in the expansion of 131.014(d)

—TCR can overpass a county road without consent of the county, because 131.014(a) enumerates “across” and “over” separately, while 131.014(d) only restricts crossings “on or across” municipal property.

In order words, the bill is toothless, because Shinkansen trains don’t have grade crossings. It could conceivably be applied to railways with 100mph level crossings, such as are sometimes found in Germany and Eastern Europe, but no one is proposing to build that sort of line in Texas.

Is Studemont Next?

One of the quieter actions of the late Parker administration has been to slowly alter speed limits from 35 or 40mph to 30mph. These reductions aren’t based on an engineering study or field measurements, but on a creative interpretation of state law. Texas sets the default urban speed limit at 30mph in lieu of a study justifying higher speeds. The City is interpreting that to post 30 on roadways which were formerly determined to be safe at 35 or 40.

An endangered species?

I first began to notice this about a year ago, and had it confirmed by sources within PWE last summer. Thus far, it seems to be restricted to thoroughfares inside the Loop. The existing signage is allowed to disappear (through collisions, failure, theft, etc). When most of the old 35/40 is gone, the road is re-signed at 30. This provides a more gradual transition period than simply changing the signs out overnight.

Recently, I noticed that all of the 35mph signage is missing between Allen Parkway and IH-10.

Status of Montrose & Studemont limits as of 3/19/15

Will Studemont be the next street to be reduced to 30?

Bank Grand Central

This past weekend I had the chance to visit friends and family in Fort Worth. The Cowtown folks have recently opened a pleasantly serpentine radial tollway, the Chisholm Trail. While construction only finished recently, some of the right-of-way was acquired nearly 30 years ago. You can see it in historic aerial imagery, in the arcs of apartment parking lots and residential streets, now bounded by the new highway.

In transportation engineering this is called right-of-way banking; the act of acquiring land now so it’ll be available for some use later.

Right-of-way banking works for highways. We ought to be using it for trains, too. And in Houston at least, one spot in particular stands out: Grand Central Station.

Grand Central, 1959. c/o the Railroad and Heritage Museum, Temple, Texas

Originally constructed by the SP in 1934 (replacing two older terminals at the site), Grand Central Station was torn down in 1959 to make way for the Barbara Jordan Post Office. 55 years later, USPS no longer needs the site, but it hasn’t moved despite several years on the market. The recent announcement that downtown PO boxes will be moving to Midtown suggests the postal service is following a common Houston development strategy, “raze it and they will come.”

If the Grand Central / Post Office site passes to a private developer, it will be lost as a potential rail station site. And this would be a shame, because the Post Office site is the best spot for a rail station in Downtown Houston.

Why should trains stop at Grand Central?

It’s the closest to Downtown

Other proposed rail station sites are far outside the core business district. A ten-minute walk from Metro’s former North Intermodal Terminal (now rebranded as Burnett Transit Center) gets you to Buffalo Bayou, while a ten-minute walk from the East End light rail station at Capitol and Paige doesn’t even get you to 59. But a ten-minute walk from Grand Central gets you well into the core downtown business district.

Grand Central Station; 1/2 mile walkshed based on actual walk routes, not GIS circles

Moreover, the site is very close to the Downtown tunnel network. Existing entrances to the tunnels at the Alley Theatre and 717 Texas are only a couple of blocks away.

It’s got beefy infrastructure

You can’t just plonk down a terminal rail station on any old city block. You need room for the traffic it’ll generate: pick-ups and drop-offs, taxis, Ubers, buses. The Grand Central site has the distinct advantage of having already been a train station, so this is all designed in.

Franklin Street is partially elevated over Buffalo Bayou, to make room for seven lanes of traffic. The Smith Street extension, originally designed for six ten-foot lanes, currently carries three:

Smith Street extension has ample capacity for station traffic.

No other site in the Downtown area has this much reserve capacity for the additional vehicular trips generated by a terminal station.

Downtown evolved around it

Here’s the station in 1944, in its heyday:

Grand Central Station, 1944

And here’s what it looked like just a few years ago:

Grand Central site, 2008

Note that the existing overpasses for IH-10, IH-45, and their associated ramps are already configured to make room for railroad tracks. Note, too, that the promenade attached to UH-Downtown is designed to span multiple tracks. Very few potential station sites come with the grade separations already constructed.

What trains would use it?

Recall the reference to Chisholm Trail at the beginning of this post. When land in Fort Worth was being reserved, the route was intended to be a freeway. The era of building principal radial routes as toll roads hadn’t yet started in Texas.

Likewise, it’s not particularly important what train service utilizes the Grand Central site, so long as it’s some sort of medium-to-long distance service. What might use Grand Central?

  • Texas Central’s proposed high speed rail to Dallas, or a later extension of that line
  • An alternate high-speed line to Austin, which has been studied by TxDOT
  • Commuter/regional rail to College Station, which would link multiple A&M campuses (Biosciences, Prairie View, and Main)
  • Commuter/regional rail to Galveston, which has preserved its own historic rail station
  • Improved rail service to Louisiana, which has been a federally-authorized high speed rail corridor since the 90’s.

While the station could conceivably serve several of these services simultaneously, only one need come into existence to justify preserving the land for a terminal. And if we think on freeway/tollway timescales of 20-25 years or more, only one of these lines needs to open by 2040.

It seems preposterous to suggest that a city that’s growing as fast as Houston, in a state that’s growing as fast as Texas, won’t have so much as one commuter, regional, or intercity rail line operational by 2040.

This is especially true if you prefer the Gattis/Kotkin sprawl uber alles vision to the Crossley/GCI garden city one. For the farthest-flung, lowest-density suburbs are only serviceable with fast trains. The commute from Bridgeport or New Haven to Manhattan, at 60-80 miles, is only possible because of 90/100mph trackage installed long ago. The Utsunomiya-Tokyo run, a 70-mile haul undertaken by more than a few salarymen, takes just 54 minutes on the Tohoku Shinkansen – less time than Woodlands commuters spend on the bus.

Who ought to buy it?

The Grand Central site could pass to any number of entities, provided it was purchased by (i) a public or nonprofit agency (ii) for the express purpose of preserving land for a future terminal station. Possible owners include:

  • The City of Houston
  • The Gulf Coast Rail District
  • A dedicated 501(c)(3)

A special-purpose entity seems like the obvious choice. Such a nonprofit could pool funding from the city and county, METRO, management districts, and private philathropists. Houston uses a similar model for parks; the Houston Parks Board, a 501(c)(3), partners with other agencies to move trails and park improvements forward, while the Houston Parks and Recreation Department is a traditionally-organized municipal division tasked primarily with maintenance and operations.


The Grand Central Station site, currently occupied by the Barbara Jordan Post Office, is the best spot for a Downtown rail terminal. The land is for sale and the existing PO may soon be knocked down. If we don’t preserve this land for a rail station soon, it will redevelop at a higher intensity and the opportunity will be lost forever. A special-purpose entity should be created to marshal public and private funds to preserve this unique site for future railway use.

Rethinking Richmond Rail, Pt. I

In Whither the Limiteds, I analyzed a few bus routes which will see substantial travel time increases under METRO’s reimagined network plan, and suggested that where surface light rail pulls buses off of an existing freeway HOV facility, rail may actually increase commute times.

METRO’s University Line, or what is popularly referred to as Rail on Richmond, seems poised to do exactly that. Here, for example, is a portion of the c. 2002 bus map, before any rail lines had opened.

Richmond, c. 2002

Here’s the same corridor, as it appears on the current map.

Richmond, c. 2014-15

And here’s the reimagined network. Note that the park and ride routes aren’t shown, but they’re still there – most are on 59, with one originating at West Bellfort and accessing Greenway Plaza via the Edloe off-ramp.

Richmond, c. 2016

Richmond Rail is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Riders in federal transpo bills prevent funds from being allocated to it, and even if that were changed METRO currently lacks the cashflow necessary to issue more debt. But the line remains on a map, and Houston history suggests lines on maps tend to eventually get built.

Who is impacted by Richmond Rail?

Analyzing the impact of Richmond Rail on the existing ridership base is tricky; one must predict the ridership distribution on the reimagined network, then look at how that will itself be altered by the rail. We can’t be exact, but we can make an attempt.

Many buses won’t be impacted by the University Line. Routes that cross it, like the 27-Shepherd, will stay the same. The park and ride routes will likely stick around, as they have in the IH-45/North Line corridor.

Current routes likely to be impacted are as follows:

9 – 1400 riders
25 – 6000 riders
53 – 3900 riders
132 – 2300 riders
163 – 9600 riders
274 – 450 riders

Of these routes, #9, #132, #163, and #274 are principally commuter routes, while #25 and #53 are long local routes which eventually make it to Wheeler Station and Downtown, respectively. The reimagined network makes the following alterations:

9 – Stays largely the same, but loses one-way running in the Gulfton area and picks up a bit of route among the thicket of inexpensive apartment complexes behind the Sharpstown Mall / PlazAmericas.
25 – Stays largely the same. Is through-routed across Midtown to Blodgett Street, providing one-seat rides to TSU and UH.
53 – Deleted. The Briar Forest/Westside segment is rerouted via Harwin and the 59 HOV Lane to become the 152.
132 – Replaced by the 151, 152, and 153.
163 – Becomes a crosstown route. The fastest route to downtown involves a transfer to the 152/153 at Fondren/Westpark. The 151, 152, and 153 combined take over the Hillcroft-Downtown commuter run.
274 – Replaced by the 151.

If Rail comes to Richmond, the following route changes are likely:

9 – Is shortlined at Bellaire Transit Center. All downtown-bound riders transfer to Richmond Rail. Peak-hour, peak-direction riders may opt to transfer to a park and ride route, in exchange for an extra fare.
25 – Is shortlined at Greenway Plaza. Alternately, is sent south along Buffalo Speedway and then through Rice Village, providing a frequent route to that area.
151/152/153 – Shortlined at Hillcroft Transit Center, providing most of the operational cost savings after LRT opens.

Travel Times

A detailed travel time analysis of the University Line would take into account curvature, acceleration profile, and driver decision-making to create a likely time-space profile. Absent this effort, a reasonable approximation can be made by seperating the line into two segments.

East of Weslayan, the line looks like every other Houston light rail line. Street running without gates is limited to 35mph by AASHTO, and attempts to minimize right-of-way acquisition will likely lead to 20mph station approach and departure zones, as found on the East, Southeast, and North lines. Likewise, 90-degree curves in Greenway Plaza and Midtown will likely be flagged at 10 or 15mph. Average speed in this segment will likely be 14-15mph, in line with other Houston LRT lines.

West of Weslayan, the U-Line operates in an exclusive right-of-way inherited from the Southern Pacific railroad. With four-quadrant gates, speed limits can be set at 55 or even 65mph, and absent gross civil engineering incompetence there should be no reason for station approaches slower than 35mph or so. Average speed in this segment will likely be 23-25mph, in line with Dallas’s DART.

Using this back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests the following travel times; changing trains @ Wheeler is assumed to incur a 3-minute transfer penalty:

Possible travel times – University Line / Richmond Rail

Certainly, there are some improvements. Hillcroft to Greenway, at 10 minutes, is substantially faster than the current #25 bus, which takes 17-18 minutes to traverse the same distance.

Other trips are a wash. The run from Timmons to Wheeler is a bit faster than the current 16-minute bus trip, but riders changing from the 25 will see that improvement eaten up by the transfer penalty. 9-Gulfton travel times increase by 5-8 minutes, but this is balanced out by increased reliability; the 9 routinely gets stuck in 59 traffic, since it enters too late to use the HOV lane.

It’s on the expresses from Hillcroft to Wheeler & Downtown where the pain will be felt. Current scheduled Wheeler-Hillcroft times on the 132 are 15 minutes in the peak, 13 minutes in the off-peak. Downtown-Hillcroft times on the 163 are 17 minutes peak, 15 minutes off-peak.

For the TMC crowd, Richmond Rail will add 8-10 minutes to the Hillcroft-Wheeler Station leg. For Downtown commuters, Richmond Rail will add 14-16 minutes in each direction. The present #163 is Metro’s highest performing route*. When the existing 53, 132, 163 and 274 are consolidated into the 151/152/153 series, it is likely that total ridership will be in the range of 12,000-16,000 daily boardings. Increased travel times due to rail thus represent a loss of three to four thousand person-hours each day.

Other Alternatives

METRO previously considered a strict Westpark alignment, which was supported by the same suburban politicians who have blocked federal funding for Richmond Rail. This option was rejected because it would miss Greenway Plaza; the stop would be on the wrong side of the freeway.

A monorail was proposed in the late 80’s, under the Whitmire administration. Opposition from residents of Afton Oaks was a major factor in the proposal’s defeat, which is why the current Richmond Rail proposal jogs south on Timmons.

Reconstructing the US 59 HOV lane as a bi-directional facility and adopting a truly dynamic pricing based on a 45mph average speed could provide rail-like travel times and reliability to the proposed 151/152/153 routes. Service to Greenway Plaza could be provided with a median express bus stop, or what Seattle brands as a Freeway Station.

The no-build alternative, mandatory in any environmental study, would ensure no one sees increased travel times… and no one sees improvements, either.

In Summary

Richmond Rail’s substantial travel time increase between Hillcroft and Downtown derives from two factors. First, the Richmond Rail alignment is notably slower than the existing HOV lane; this adds about ten minutes. Second, forcing riders to transfer at Wheeler is slower than operating direct to Downtown via Smith/Louisiana Streets; this adds about six minutes.

It is unlikely that any service which requires a transfer at Wheeler can match the current #163. However, opening a second LRT line parallel to Main Street would be wasteful, and would be a mistake given commute patterns in a multi-polar city like Houston. That, then, leaves three options:

(i) Build Richmond Rail as currently envisioned, with 15-minute commute time increases for residents of Sharpstown, Chinatown, and Fondren Southwest.

(ii) Abandon the idea of rail, and operate multiple concurrent bus services with some going direct to Downtown. Focus on improving the HOV system.

(iii) Attempt to design a Hillcroft-Wheeler rail alignment which is sufficiently rapid to get total travel times (including transfers) within about 3 minutes of the current schedule.



*If the 81 Westheimer-Sharpstown and 82 Westheimer-West Oaks are counted as a single route, the 163-Fondren falls to second place. On Saturdays, ridership on the 2-Bellaire exceeds the 163-Fondren.

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.

Cultural Undertones in HSR Opposition

Kuff reports that opposition to the Dallas-Houston Shinkansen has coalesced at NoTexasCentral.com. And I have to say, I’m intrigued by what they’ve done with the logotype.

The standard TCR roundel consists of a stylized white Texas with a red line representing the railway. The state is represented by a neutral color, while the rail line line is red, representing speed and vitality. The Symbolism Wiki informs us that dark red is associated with vigor, leadership, and willpower; all appropriate connotations for a 220mph train. A blue background ties the logo into the Texas state flag.

The standard TCR roundel.

By contrast, the opposition renders Texas in the same dark red, and uses dark blue to represent the rail line. The color palette remains identical, and one can be forgiven for not noticing the difference. But the symbolism is clear: Texas is a red state, and the rail line is a blue interloper.

No Texas Central’s version.

This ought not to be the case; HSR’s core ridership base is the professional classes, and a privately-financed train could be seen as by and for the capitalists. But tribal boundaries don’t always hew precisely to economic ideology.

I’ve previously argued that cultural bias against the other tribe’s preferred transport is often unconscious. But here, it’s pretty overt.

Forgot About Delin

When Seattle’s Sound Transit looked at extending Tacoma’s LINK light rail, they nixed a Tacoma Mall alignment early on, because the grades on 25th and Pacific were too steep.

Thing is, the streetcar companies figured this out 120 years ago, which is why they carved out a diagonal street to provide a low-grade route up the hill to South Tacoma. The Lincoln District formed where it did because that was where all the car lines converged to Downtown.

Similar bits and pieces exist throughout the city. Baker Street was carved out as a switchback to allow 6th Avenue cars to make it down the hill to St. Helens. 45th at Orchard was realigned for streetcars, as was Tacoma Avenue; note the still-visible trackway.

All of which is to say, if you’re considering a new rail alignment, you oughtta find an old map or three and familiarize yourself with what the original system looked like. Your problems may have already been solved.

Sound Transit’s commitment to “sub area equity” ensures that as Seattle’s rail is extended to Bellevue and beyond, Tacoma will continue to see rail expansion as well. And if there is to be a train to the mall, why not take the direct route?

It’s worth considering.