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Turns out it’s not great debuting a transit service in a pandemic

What are you gonna do?

The future of Houston transportation is not moving many people, even as traffic rebounds to pre-pandemic levels and ridership returns to many Metropolitan Transit Authority lines. The Silver Line, billed as a viable alternative to light rail using its own lanes and stations along Post Oak through the heart of Uptown, carried fewer riders in January than 40 of Metro’s bus routes. The line, which comes every 12 minutes and avoids Galleria-area congestion, is a vital route for those using it, but carrying less than 10 percent of the riders it was built for on opening day.

“Every bus that goes by, it’s empty,” said Mike Riley, 61, who lives and works in Uptown. “After all that work, you see maybe three people waiting for a bus.”

Despite stark use of the Silver Line — Houston’s first bus rapid transit project — transit officials are not pushing the panic button, on Post Oak or any of the other 75 miles of bus rapid transit planned in the region.

“These are 50-year projects,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, acknowledging the line has lower-than-projected ridership but has faced near-constant headwinds since opening in August 2020.

After Uptown officials spent $192 million rebuilding the street to develop the line, operated by Metro, to carry 12,000 riders per day, bus drivers are ferrying fewer than 800 on many work days.

The 60-foot vehicles use a dedicated busway along Loop 610 and their own lanes along a 2.3-mile stretch of Post Oak to deliver bus service more like light rail, stopping only at stations between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 and then Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center near Interstate 69 along Westpark Drive.

Every expectation of Houston transit in the coming years makes those two transit centers major transfer points for buses within the urban core. The Silver Line, built to connect them, is projected to carry more than 30,000 trips daily in 2030 — more than the Red Line light rail does today.

Currently, however, it does a fraction of that, even as the routes around it see a resurgence of use.

[…]

The first few months of Silver Line service have been unprecedented, with a combination of factors hurting transit ridership in general and the Silver Line in particular. COVID dropped transit use, along with most driving, by half in the Houston area. Riders were advised to stay off transit at the exact time Metro otherwise would have offered free rides and a blitz of advertising. Park and ride service, which was expected to be a big lure for commuters into Uptown to hop the Silver Line, dropped from 33,000 trips on a typical day in the region to fewer than 4,000 when the BRT began operating on on Post Oak.

In many cases, those park and ride commuters still are not back. Kastle, a building security data firm that has been tracking office use, estimates only 51.3 percent of office workers in the Houston area have returned to their pre-pandemic desks. In Uptown, where park and ride use long has been tied to tight parking limits in office garages, fewer workers and staggered shifts make it more convenient for some to drive, at least until traffic turns terrible again or plentiful parking dries up.

Not really a whole lot to say here – those last two paragraphs really sum it up. Let’s see what the numbers look like when the park and ride is back to something like full strength. The Silver Line, which will always be the Uptown Line to me, will eventually connect with the Universities and Inner Katy lines, and that should be a boost as well. The timing of its debut could not have been more unfortunate. All we can do is wait it out.

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