We’ve touted the Houston redesign of its bus transit system before. In 2015, our southern neighbor tossed out its hub-and-spoke bus routing — a bus system similar to the one Dallas Area Rapid Transit operates — in favor of a more intuitive and reliable grid-route system, with bus frequency boosted to once every fifteen minutes. The hope was that the increase in legibility and reliability would drive more public transit use. At first, ridership remained flat, sparking doubts that the redesign could work. But now, a new report by Mobility Lab shows that bus ridership is indeed on the rise in Houston, increasing by 6 percent in the last 6 months of 2017. It just took time for people to catch on.
Why should we care? The Houston model shows that providing reliable, quality public transit in a car-driven city isn’t rocket science. And yet, over the past 30 years, DART has managed to bungle its operations, building out one of the biggest light rail systems in the country that is, at the same time, one of the worst public transit systems in the country. The simplest way to explain this disconnect is that the people who are designing the DART system and the people using it have conflicting criteria for measuring service. DART officials think success is measured in dollars spent on rail. Riders see success as being able to get to work, appointments, and back home again in less time than it would take to fly to Europe.
The Houston model shows that a simple re-calibration in the criteria in how you measure a transit system’s success can help turn around a poorly functioning transit system. For Houston, this meant sacrificing some system reach in favor of usability. The headway times on the bus service are key. As urbanist Jeff Speck once said when addressing a conference in a small American city, if you don’t plan on having headway times of 15 minutes or less, don’t bother building public transit.
Unfortunately, that has not been DART’s attitude. It has opted instead to make sure there are bus stops in every nook and cranny of their coverage area, even if they are sometimes dangerously located and riders must wait forever for buses to arrive. The good news is, however, that DART’s attitude may change. New leadership on the DART board is pushing the agency to rethink its approach to bus transit, the criteria by which the public transit system evaluates success, and the possibility of moving toward a Houston-style grid-based bus routing system. Some of the early evidence of this behind-the-scenes work may begin to roll out by late summer.
If Dallas does go down this path — and it should — then Houston’s experience will offer another note of encouragement: introducing a grid bus system won’t change a city’s attitude toward public transit overnight. But given some time, it works.