Metro on Friday began the 100-day countdown to sweeping changes in local bus service, conceding that months of work ultimately will be judged by the level of confusion – small or large – that happens Aug. 16, and its effects on riders left with longer trips.
“We cannot miss this mark, and we won’t,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.
To make the change new signs must be hung at around 10,000 Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops across the Houston region. Officials, starting soon, must also hang new route information at each one, along with an aggressive outreach campaign and reprinting bus schedules.
Though it’s taken more than two years to develop the system, the countdown Friday represents that push starting in earnest, officials said. “We’ve jumped off the cliff,” board member Allen Watson said.
Nearly every bus route in the system, which carried an average of 266,000 people daily in March, will be affected by the redesign. Board members in February approved changes that refocus Metro on attracting new riders and restructuring service to better reflect where people live and work in Houston.
As a result, the bus network – which largely relied on routes that weaved through the area and focused on downtown Houston – was revised to create more north-south and east-west routes that operate more on a grid pattern around the region.
Proponents say the system is a vast improvement, noting a Metro analysis found that it connected more riders to more jobs. Combined with two new rail lines set to open May 23, Metro board member Christof Spieler said the new system gives transit riders three rail lines and 22 bus routes that operate every 15 minutes or less.
“That is freedom,” Spieler said, referring to the benefits of faster trips and easier access to the region via transit.
Practically every Metro rider – most of whom have at least one transfer – will have a new routine. To address the potential confusion, Metro will offer side-by-side online comparisons of routes starting June 1, said Denise Wendler, the agency’s chief information officer. The comparison will let someone look at their current route and compare it to the best option along the new network.
When the new system begins, Wendler said Metro will also offer information by text message, so someone standing at a bus stop can use their phone to receive a text telling them when the next bus on their route is coming to that bus stop.
“That will be a prominent part of the information campaign,” Wendler said.
Metro has a big job ahead of it, not just communicating the changes to existing riders and helping them understand how their routines will differ, but also to new riders, the people they want to start taking the bus now that it will be more convenient for them. A big part of this is to increase ridership, and that means converting some number of non-riders into riders, at least for some of the time. I’m a roughly once a week rider – my route will change in August, but it won’t be that much different though I will have a longer walk to a bus stop – and I have to say, a bus that lets you off close to your destination is often a lot more convenient than navigating a downtown parking lot and walking in from there. Cheaper, too. Have you looked at the new bus system map and considered your options?