On increasing ridership at Metro

I’m open to hearing more.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County is under new leadership, but the goal of increasing ridership remains the same.

While the number of riders steadily has increased across the system since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it still does not match pre-pandemic levels.

Enter Elizabeth Gonzalez Brock, Metro’s new board chairperson, who was appointed by Houston Mayor John Whitmire in February.

The aim is to get more Houstonians excited about public transit, but Brock’s vision is focused on different ways to get there: smaller vehicles, carpooling and rideshare programs, and increased police presence on buses, trains and park-and-ride lots.

“I’d like for Metro to be a service that people choose to use versus something that they’re dependent on,” Brock said in an interview. “Looking at ways that we can improve customer service so that we’re easy to use, and that we’re a service that people are excited about using.”

For Brock, the path to boosting ridership involves improved public safety for transit riders. That includes adding to the ranks of the Metro Police Department and increasing their patrol presence.

Let’s pause here for a moment and remember that Mayor Whitmire proposed back in January adding Metro cops to HPD. This article doesn’t mention that, as neither does Chair Brock, and I can’t say I’ve heard anything further on it since then. How might that proposal affect Chair Brock’s plan to add more Metro cops, if it is still in play? We don’t know.


Brock repeatedly used the phrase “meeting customers where they are,” in describing her desire to attract more riders who have the option to use a personal vehicle or to use Metro’s services.

“I view expansion as ‘How do you provide services that are more available for people to use?’” Brock said. For those hoping for an expansion of light rail, the wait may be a little longer.

“In order to get there, we’re really going to have to take a look at technology,” Brock said.

The focus on technology would be both internal and external. For example, Brock said she hopes to grow Metro’s line of customer-facing phone apps to ensure better transit planning. At the same time, she set a goal of improving the agency’s back-end technologies as a fundamental part of expanding on-demand services and introducing new “microtransit programs”.

Improved technology also will be aimed at how the agency analyzes data with an eye toward better ridership projections to ensure Metro’s bus system has an adequate number of routes. It also will include exploration of other transit options, such as rideshare or carpool programs. Brock singled out Uber, the nationwide ride-share service which recently just posted its first year of profitability, as an existing transportation model to both aspire to and compete with.

One potential partner is Evolve Houston, a nonprofit that offers a free ride-share service called RYDE. The service uses electric vehicles to provide connections to grocery stores and healthcare facilities in underserved communities. The city of Houston approved $281,000 in increased funding in late November to expand the program. RYDE originally started in Third Ward last June.

Casey Brown, president and executive director of Evolve Houston, spoke during the public comment section of Thursday’s Metro board of directors meeting where he asked the board to consider funding further expansion.

Other options include expanding services Metro already offers, such as the agency’s “curb2curb” service, a daily on-demand shuttle available for anyone to use in certain neighborhoods without direct access to a Metro bus route. It currently is available only in Acres Home, Hiram Clarke, and Missouri City during the day and in Kashmere/Trinity Gardens at night.

Brock sees opportunity to provide smaller, all-electric shuttles that can address gaps in service to make transit more accessible.

See here for more on Evolve Houston and RYDE. All of this sounds reasonable and interesting and if done with an eye towards expanding the existing Metro network could really do a lot. We’ll need to see what the actual plans are, of course, but I like it conceptually.

And then there’s this:

Alternative programs could have included Metro’s proposed bike share program, for which the board had approved contract negotiations last September. At the time, the plan was for the bike share program to be ready to launch this upcoming summer.

Those plans since have changed.

According to [interim Metro CEO Tom] Jasien, Metro still is reviewing options with a focus on finding other potential partners for a bike share program. There are no firm dates for a launch of the program.

Other initiatives, such as Metro’s autonomous shuttle, bus rapid transit lines, including a proposed route in Gulfton, and an extension of light rail to Hobby Airport are being evaluated against what Brock sees as current rider needs.

Okay, so the Board voted to negotiate a contract with Canadian firm PBSC to develop and operate a new bike-share program, after the proposed merger with BCycle fell apart. What happened with that? Voting to negotiate a contract is not the same as signing one, but it does imply some amount of commitment. Have we scrapped the whole thing and are starting from square one? Decided to just back out? Looking for a better deal? What does this mean?

And that question goes double for that last paragraph. There are many ways one can interpret that one sentence, but in a world where several existing multi-million dollar programs that had been in the works for years are being shoved aside on mayoral whim, one really has to wonder if we can count on anything that we thought was going to happen to actually happen. Voters have already voted for these projects. Is this just some routine tweaking of timelines and details, or are we going to ignore that election? I would like to get some answers, please.

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3 Responses to On increasing ridership at Metro

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    In my opinion, one thing that would make METRO more useful would be to redesign the routes. When METRO introduced the new routes around 8 years ago, they tended to be all east-west or north-south. That made it so that I would need to transfer to go 4 or 5 miles, for example, just to downtown I would need to transfer.

    Transfers make riding more difficult. If one bus is late or early, you might miss your connection and be late for your destination. Or spend a long time waiting in bad weather. So, I would suggest METRO routes that consider the trips people are taking, where are they living and going to work, school, shopping, etc. Connecting the districts that are common destinations directly.

  2. Bill Shirley says:

    re: Mayor Whitmire proposed back in January adding Metro cops to HPD.

    (as you mentioned previously) does that mean that unincorporated harris county and the 14 other cities/towns have to fend for themselves? i think the logistics themselves would cancel this thought.

  3. Pingback: Yeah, it looks like we do have to worry about Metro going backwards | Off the Kuff

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