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Why mass transit experts have their eye on Houston’s bus system

October 11, 2015 at 12:52 PM EDT
This summer, Houston officials dramatically restructured the route of municipal busses to streamline service reflecting where people live and work -- all for almost no additional cost. Now, the system may be a possible model for how other cities redesign their public transportation. Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports.

KARLA MURTHY: Janis Scott starts almost every morning on this corner at the bus stop near her home on the east side of Houston. Even though she knows how to drive, she prefers the bus. She rides the bus so often, she’s known as the “Bus Lady.”

JANIS SCOTT: I tell people if you can’t remember my name, say “Hey, Miss Bus Lady!” I said I’ll turn around, I’ll answer!

KARLA MURTHY: Two months ago, the bus routes Janis had taken for the last 30 years changed overnight. Houston’s transit authority, known as Metro, revamped the entire bus system to make the routes simpler and faster with better connections — at almost no extra cost.

JANIS SCOTT: Good morning! Hi How you doin’?

KARLA MURTHY: Our first bus arrives, the number 30. In the past, busses ran infrequently, and many didn’t run after 5 p.m. or on weekends.

CHRISTOF SPIELER: So, essentially we’ve had a long-term decline in bus ridership.

KARLA MURTHY: Christof Spieler is one of the architects behind the new system. He’s an urban planner and sits on Metro’s board.

CHRISTOF SPIELER: So we just asked a question, what would this bus system look like if we started over from scratch.

KARLA MURTHY: The old bus routes ran on a radial system, a hub and spokes, with the high frequency routes going through downtown. But as Houston grew into the fourth largest city ind America, with over 2 million people spread out all over the city, Speiler says, that old system no longer worked.

CHRISTOF SPIELER: The radial system was based on a time when everybody worked in the same place and not a system that really made it easy to move around the city.

KARLA MURTHY: Now those bus routes run on a grid, creating more local transfers and run more frequently all over the city.

Janis is retired. She spends her days going to museums and lectures.

JANIS SCOTT: I’m a volunteer.

KARLA MURTHY: Today, she’s on her way to a public meeting on transportation on the city’s west side. She’s chosen a route that will take us on three different busses.

JANIS SCOTT: Ok, sweetie. Thank you.

KARLA MURTHY: She says it’s not the most direct way but will show us how the new rotes connect.

JANIS SCOTT: Thank you.

KARLA MURTHY: Here’s one of those transfer points. We cross the street to catch our second bus. Before, this would come every half hour. Now, it’s every 15 minutes.

Oh look. There it is.

JANIS SCOTT: There it is.

KARLA MURTHY: That was fast.

Designing the new system took about two years, and Janis served on one of the planning committees.

JANIS SCOTT: If you’re not at the table, you may end up on the menu. And I didn’t want that to happen to me, because at one time, Metro was considering cutting service.

KARLA MURTHY: She says for a lot of people, the bust isn’t a choice, it’s the only option.

JANIS SCOTT: They need to get to grocery stores; there’s a lot of food deserts in this town. A lot of people don’t have access to health care in their immediate area.

Oh here it is right here.

KARLA MURTHY: We pull up to the Eastwood Transit Center for the last leg of the trip to catch the 25 bus. Before, this bus didn’t come here, which is a major hub for people on the east side.

JANIS SCOTT: We had those connections, but we were never waiting more than a couple minutes. It was like bam, bam, bam. That was great.

KARLA MURTHY: Janis and I arrive at our final destination.

Looks like someone’s not happy with the Metro.

On the bus sign, we found a note someone left for Metro. It says, “This is crazy.”

CHRISTOF SPIELER: With a change this big, you’re never going to make everybody happy, that’s the unfortunate reality of it. But we’re definitely hearing that my bus comes more often, I don’t have to look at the schedule anymore.

KARLA MURTHY: Can you call it a success yet?

CHRISTOF SPIELER: No, I mean I think we really need a year, two years to really see how it changes.

KARLA MURTHY: Houston Metro is aiming to boost ridership by 20 percent over the next two years.