November 17, 2007
People like transit

The 2007 Houston Area Survey (PDF) is out, and to some people's surprise, it shows that a lot of folks around here want transit options.

The findings represent a challenge to leaders of suburban counties where transit service is scarce, said Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociology professor who directed the survey.

In an expanded version of the 2007 Houston Area Survey, almost 80 percent of residents throughout the region named public transportation as their first or second choice among three options for easing traffic congestion. The other choices were building bigger and better roads or developing communities where people live close to where they work and shop.

Klineberg said the broad support for mass transit -- particularly in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, where concerns about traffic were the highest in the region -- was striking in light of Houston's car-dependent history.

"Virtually all of Houston was built by, for and about the automobile," said Klineberg, who presented his findings Thursday to the Center for Houston's Future, a nonprofit group focused on strategic regional planning.

His survey, conducted annually since 1982, has previously been limited to Harris County. After this year's findings were released in March, Klineberg expanded his sample to include Galveston, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

Leaders of suburban counties who attended Thursday's presentation said they were surprised by the level of support for public transportation in their communities.

"In our own surveys, mass transit per se is not on the radar," said Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler, noting that a park-and-ride lot west of Conroe closed recently because of lack of use.

"We're getting mixed messages," Sadler said.

Klineberg acknowledged that support for transit as an abstract concept might not equate to a willingness to give up one's own automobile. In previous Harris County surveys, he said, as many as 65 percent have said they would continue driving their own cars to work every day even if better transit service were available.

Fort Bend County Commissioner James Patterson said his constituents are reluctant to give up their cars, but he said this attitude might change if the price of gasoline continues to rise.

I don't find any of this terribly shocking. Commuting is a soul-sucking experience, and the price of gas isn't going down any time soon. Having a cheaper option, especially one that would let you do other things during the time you're en route, is going to look appealing to people. I do agree that some of the favor that transit is finding now is from the folks who want other people to use it, or who have misguided ideas about what it really means. Tory covers some of this, but I think he falls into a trap as well:

The real polling question should be "Should government spend tax dollars on transportation solutions that move the most people for the least cost?" - which I'm sure would enjoy overwhelming support, and, of course, would point directly at road capacity in most cases (although, admittedly, not all - the Main St. LRT is quite popular and successful, and the Galveston commuter rail plan looks not bad if these numbers hold).

The problem is that adding road capacity is frequently not an option. Sure, you can often widen highways, though as we've seen with I-10 that can be a tremendously expensive and disruptive thing to do. And sometimes when you add capacity in one place you just add bottlenecks elsewhere. It's swell that TxDOT wants to widen I-45 north of downtown, for instance, but as I've said before, until someone shows me the plan to add lanes to the Pierce Elevated, I will remain unconvinced that it will help all that much.

But even if you could widen every highway to a point where it never backed up, you'd still have a problem once you exited that highway. To a very large degree, you just can't add capacity on the surface roads. Look at Richmond Avenue, which we all agree is badly congested. How much property would have to be condemned just to add one lane of traffic each way? There's no way that would be economically or politically feasible - the uproar over Metro's takings for the Universities line would look like a garden party in comparison. But unless you live or work on a service road, you've got to get off the highway as part of your daily driving experience, and the odds are you're going to get stuck in traffic just as bad as anything you'd experienced on it.

So the point of transit is to give people who do most of their commuting and recreating off of the highways an option that doesn't involve low-mileage, engine-wearing, exhaust-spewing city driving. We need that option because there isn't anything else that's going to help us get from all our Point As to Point Bs any faster or less stressfully. Increasing road capacity is great when it can help, but it won't do squat for me or for an awful lot of people like me. And with all due respect, we spend a hell of a lot more, around here and all over the state, on road capacity than we do on transit. I think a little balance is both eminently sensible, and long overdue.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 17, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

There's also the hard to quantify costs of roadbuilding. What's the cost of expanding 290 and in the process wrecking Oak Forest, a great and functional city neighborhood? Should we widen 10 more despite the impact that would have on the Heights? Etc., etc.

At least transit offers some benefits to older neighborhoods that it passes through.

One of the interesting things that you hear in this argument in Houston is that transit sometimes takes longer for similar trips (which is true). I think that's a sign of never having lived with mass transit in a place where it works; who wouldn't trade 30 minutes in traffic for 45 or 50 minutes sitting on a train not driving?

Posted by: John Whiteside on November 17, 2007 9:21 AM