January 17, 2005
One year of light rail

So we've had one year of light rail, and there's some development along the line but not as much as maybe there could have been. And rail ridership is great on a per-mile basis though it's still a small number in absolute terms, and rail critics aren't satisfied because, well, they were never going to be in the first place. I think that about sums up those two articles.

Personally, I've been happy with the light rail line when I've taken it. I just wish there were more opportunities for me to take it. I do a lot of my driving inside the Loop. I know that the Powers That Be spend a lot of time thinking about how to build more roads so as to move more people into and out of the inner city each day, but I have to tell you, as someone who's here all the time, moving around once you're off the freeways and on the main drags is a growing pain. Have you driven Kirby or Shepherd anywhere north of Holcombe lately? How about Bissonet, Richmond, or Westheimer? I can't quantify it (though I'm sure someone can), but it wasn't nearly this bad ten or even five years ago, before the inner-Loop renassaince took off. What are we doing about this?

What we need to do is give us city dwellers some options for navigating our daily tasks that don't require driving everywhere. I've already harped on a Rice Village shuttle, which would expand the area served by the existing light rail line. The point to remember here is that unlike the outlying freeways, you can't just pour more concrete to widen main roads like Kirby and Richmond, at least not without buying up and condemning a whole lot of pricey residential and commercial property. The only realistic option is to reduce the number of cars back to a level the route can bear. Unfortunately, the same space constraint means you can't easily lay down rail tracks along those roads, either (though adding a line along the Southwest Freeway from downtown into the Galleria, which has been part of the Metro design and should be feasible, would go a long way towards alleviating the east-west thoroughfares). So what's the plan? It ain't the RTP 2025, that's for sure. What will there be for people like me?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 17, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I hope that your plan for the Rice light rail shuttle gets a hearing at Metro. It's not in their plan, though.

Since you mentioned Richmond, you may be interested in knowing that a Richmond light rail line is the fourth of the four new lines Metro wants to build. It's supposed to go from Wheeler station on Richmond to Hillcroft. The planned date is 2012.

It can't happen soon enough for me. I ride from the southern end of Houston every weekday to Richmond and Kirby. From Fannin and Bellfort to Wheeler Station (Richmond and Main) it takes me 18 minutes to go 4.7 miles by light rail. There's some fairly heavy auto traffic during rush hour, particularly in the Medical Center, but light rail still makes pretty good time. To go only 2.5 miles via the Richmond bus from Wheeler station to Kirby, however, takes fifteen minutes. Thus the light rail car does 15.6 miles per hour versus the bus doing 10 miles per hour, both including stops. This is huge difference in passenger throughput. It's even worse than it sounds since the bus is five minutes late or more about one-third of the time. In the 7 months I've made this daily trip, light rail has never been late, not once. The Richmond bus splits off at Hillcroft, one trip going to Mission Bend and the other going to Sharpstown. More often than not, due to lateness, the two buses end up coming together. Buses only work if you don't have any auto traffic on the streets.

Light rail is actually quite a money saver for Metro. One operator can move up to 200 people, or 400 if they couple two cars together. The most a bus operator can move on Richmond is about 65 people. If they get crush loads on bus lines, they have to pay another driver on the extra list to pick up the excess.

Beware of the misleading statements made by several right-wing anti-rail people. They point out that the light rail line cost $324 million dollars, which they call a boondoggle. This was all done through local funding, by the way, since Tom Delay blocked federal funding for the light rail line in Houston. Anyway, the actual depreciation on the light rail line is pretty insignificant. Buses only last 10-12 years before they need a major overhaul, or, are more likely scrapped. Light rail cars last 30 years at least. Light rail track and the power supply are depreciated over 50 years. So, $45 million for 18 light rail cars depreciated over 30 years is $1.5 million per year. The rest of the $324 million is for the track, overhead wires, conduits, signals, and the MetroRail maintenance facility. Let's say the average life of these improvements is 45 years, 30 years for the building and 50 years for the track. This comes out to $6.2 million per year. Car depreciation of $1.5 million plus right of way and facilities depreciation of $6.2 million is $7.7 million. This is pretty insignificant over the course of a year, considering that the line is carrying 30,000 people on a weekday and about half that many on weekends.

Light rail cuts costs by replacing heavy bus lines. It also provides a faster ride, which attracts more passengers. If you look at Metro's transportation plan on their website, you'll see that they are targeting some of their heaviest bus lines for replacement. This will cut costs and increase ridership. It is a good business decision.

Pearland, TX

Posted by: Mike Harrington on January 17, 2005 10:27 AM

My biggest beef about Metro since we moved here nearly two years ago is the tardiness of their buses. I've had buses be as much as 20 minutes late. I'm hoping to get a job that, if I take the bus, would require two transfers and I'm already having visions of a bus leaving just as I'm getting to the intersection or a bus being so late I don't have any hopes of making my connection at all. It's the best motivation I've ever had to learn to drive, though, so I guess it's not all bad.

I just hate that a city this big has such lousy mass transit that it makes you have to drive. I love light rail, but it'll never reach where we live, so it's not likely to be of much use to me. I still think they should have put in a line along the Katy, instead of expanding it.

Posted by: Sue on January 17, 2005 12:33 PM

rail-as-substitute-for-highway-commuting will always be a qualified succcess at best. To really change development patterns you really need to reduce the number of cars per person/household, and to do that you need to have enough transit that being carfree, or at least having fewer than one car per driving age person, is a realistic scenario..

Posted by: Atrios on January 17, 2005 4:01 PM

I agree with Atrios. The argument of the highway people that transit doesn't reduce traffic is essentially true, but they don't mention the reason. The amount of high-investment transit lines like light rail and commuter rail is woefully inadequate to make any dent in commuter traffic. Even Dallas' planned 93 mile light rail system and 50 miles of railroad commuter lines is a drop in the bucket.

Los Angeles is a good case in point, With 150 miles of light rail and commuter rail put in since 1980, when there was none, it sounds like they have made a significant investment in mass transit. But go back 60 years, and compare that period to today. Then the Pacific Electric suburban and interurban trolley system had 1,200 miles of track covering the Los Angeles metropolitan area, going as far east as San Bernardino. GM bought out the system and had it entirely junked by 1960, over the protests of transit riders. The buses that they substituted were slower, and riders left the transit system in Los Angeles in droves.

Transit investment needs to be an order of magnitude greater than it is today in order for it to significantly reduce congestion, pollution and wasteful energy consumption. Americans use about 25 barrels of oil per capita per year. Western Europeans use less than half of that. The difference is mainly attributable to better rail and bus service.

Posted by: Mike Harrington on January 17, 2005 6:10 PM

Richmond Avenue is too highly traveled to be disrupted for upwards of a year to install a light rail. This does not take into consideration the long-established businesses that will perish because their patrons can no longer access them.

Putting a rail down Richmond will cause more traffic problems than it poses to remedy. And let us not forget the main reason why public transportation will never take hold as it has in other cities: Houstonians have an eternal love affair with their cars.

Posted by: McGee on February 17, 2006 11:45 AM