Houston Could Point The Way For City’s Buses

(Opinion) Yes, New Haven’s bus system is broken. Hope can be found in, of all places, the Lone Star State.

The critiques of some CT Transit riders—made in this Independent article—are pretty standard fare for transit riders in all but the most transit-rich cities: The buses don’t come reliably on time, off-peak frequency is terrible (and weekend service essentially nonexistent), buses don’t always go to where the jobs are, and the route structure, relying on transfers at a central point (the Green) is incredibly inconvenient for many riders. These are all very valid, and accurate, criticisms.

Meanwhile, state transportation Commissioner James Redeker insisted (in an Independent interview; click on the video to watch it) that “a bus service is scheduled based on demand” and that New Haven’s bus system runs on a fine balance of resource allocation and response to demand, and that sparse off-peak service and the Green-centric route structure are both results of that calculation.

Is New Haven’s transit system actually the best it can be, demand considering? I’d argue no.

Assuming that Commissioner Redeker’s contention that resources for urban transit are severely limited is accurate—and considering CT Transit’s recent fare hike, which seems to have been the result of a legislative raid on dedicated transit funds, I see no reason to dispute the argument that statewide political will for increasing transit bus funding is sparse—New Haven has to find a way to improve its bus operations more or less within the bounds of current operational funding. Luckily, last week also provided a high-profile example of a city which is doing exactly that—and in an unexpected place.

Houston, of all places (yes, the city with no zoning code and massive urban sprawl) is currently playing host to a much-anticipated (among the transit and urbanist world) revamp of its bus system. The regional transit agency hired consultant Jarrett Walker, a favorite of transit purists everywhere, to redesign its system around goals of increasing transit reach and ridership. As with many of his projects, Walker’s plan for Houston is built around the concept of a frequent network, a system of buses and light rail which are assured to come every 15 minutes or less, every day of the week, at all hours during which the system operates. The new plan will place 111 percent more riders within a 1/2 mile of frequent buses, and 55 percent more jobs. You can see a mesmerizing .gif of the transformation here.

The magical part? Houston is doing it with no new operating funds. Operational funding for the system will stay at exactly the same level that it had before. That shouldn’t seem possible, but, as Walker explains on his blog:

• That’s how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people’s demands.

• Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people.  The plan devotes 80 percent of Metro’s resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20 percent to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places. Currently only about 50-60 percent of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome.

This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed. (About 0.5 percent of existing riders end up walking over 1/4 mile for service, and most of them are just over that threshold. Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)

In other words, Houston was able to make some easy decisions (to cut inefficient or wandering routes), but also had to make some hard ones (retrenching service from areas that aren’t densely inhabited and/or are difficult to serve on a logical route).

Paul Bass PhotoThe numbers of people negatively affected are small, if Walker is to be believed, but any city following this model of resource allocation will clearly irritate some people. The key is to make sure that the burden of cuts doesn’t fall on lower-income communities, and to carefully consider whether the demands of certain vocal segments of the population make sense in a regional context.

In addition, some riders might find that their former one-seat ride now requires a transfer, since the system is less core-centric and more gridded, but in theory even they should end up saving time. And again, this transformation is planned with no new operational funding.

It’s not clear to me how exactly the financials of the Houston revamp are to be worked out such that it does not require new funding, but given Walker’s recommendations in his book, I imagine that it consists of:

• The aforementioned pruning of costly, low-ridership routes.

• Projecting that higher ridership means better farebox recovery ratios (the percentage of operating costs paid directly by rider fares, which according to Redeker is around 25 percent in New Haven—not far off from the average in a city this size).

• Eliminating costly “split shifts” for drivers, where drivers get a premium for driving during the busier morning and afternoon peak hours, and not in between.  By employing drivers on standard eight-hour shifts and giving them something to do during the day, the transit agency can actually save money even if it is paying for more hours overall. (This, of course, assumes that labor agreements allow such an arrangement.)  Renegotiating labor agreements, of course, is often a very, very politicized question, which brings me to my final point about how to go about bringing a Houston-style approach to New Haven.

Implementing a frequent network in New Haven would require two things above all: political will and changing the mindset of transit operations from trying to serve demand to trying to induce it. The political question is notably tricky in a situation where the city does not control its own transit system. New Haveners from top to bottom can and have shown support for a revamped, improved transit system, but the city lacks the financial capacity to fund improvements itself, and is in any case dependent on the willingness of  state-run CT Transit to commit to following the city’s lead.

That dependency on CT Transit also means that shifting the agency’s conservative mindset (and I assign no blame there—transit agencies are captive to, and have their tone set by, a political system that values transit little) will require sustained political pressure from both the Harp administration and New Haven’s state and potentially even federal lawmakers.

Capital-intensive, sexy transit projects like improving Metro-North’s New Haven Line,  building out the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail, or even the New Britain-Hartford CT Fastrak busway offer concrete rewards both to transit riders and to politicians who can point to newly poured concrete and newly laid rails and show off what they have accomplished. Doing something as simple as reworking the way a city’s already-existent local bus system works, and making the buses come more frequently, offers no such flashy rewards. It just requires a lot of hard work, and focus on the issues from both the grassroots and the leadership. And that’s hard.

At the same time, though, New Haven’s transit is stuck in a downward spiral where there is only an attempt to match service to demonstrated demand, no attempt to build ridership or move people from cars to transit. If Houston, of all places, can bring together a transformatively cheap and simple transit plan, why can’t a city that was built around horsecars and still longs for its lost trolleys?

Contributed PhotoSandy Johnston (pictured) spent ten years of his childhood in New Haven and comes back to visit every year. He is a graduate of Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Master’s student in Regional Planning at SUNY Albany concentrating in Transportation, and can be found on Twitter @yaquinaboy. He writes the Itinerant Urbanist blog.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 27, 2014  4:37pm

This should do this here.

Brooklyn’s Dollar Vans: Bringing Shadow Transit Out of the Cold



posted by: MichaelBoyle on May 27, 2014  7:25pm

Great article and valid comment. A day and evening, streamlined, predictable bus system, with better street priority for busses as they move through traffic would be far more attractive than what we have today.
Licensing vans and minibuses could help overcome the extraordinary downtown centeredness of the current system. It doesn’t make sense that the only way from Westville to Hamden, Dixwell or Whitney Avenues to State Street or from Hamden to Universal Drive in North Haven is via downtown. Allowing MyRide users and Yale riders going beyond the Prospect-State corridor some kind of credit for using the vans or minibuses would enhance their transit options and mobility at a modest cost.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 27, 2014  11:52pm

What I’d like to see is someone come up with a potential alternate route map.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 28, 2014  12:10am

Also in its current state NH’s bus schedule is confusing as all heck. I mean on all routes you have routes that are sometimes non existent for long stretches of the day. But if you didn’t regularly ride the buses and you went and looked on their website map, some of is highly contradicting. Like there are 2 D lines going in what are nominally opposite directions, one in theory going up Dixwell into upper Hamden and another going into the Heights and Quinnipiac Meadows. If you look up the Grand Avenue line though it leaves out the fact you can actually catch some of those bus lines at the Hamden plaza. Same with the J

posted by: robn on May 28, 2014  7:13am

Activate one good outer loop to this antiquated hub and spoke system and you’ll see a sea change in ridership.

posted by: HewNaven on May 28, 2014  7:19am

That’s how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people’s demands.

This is more unique to New Haven because we have a state-funded system. If it were city-funded, like Houston, there would be no excuse to have a route to North Branford!

posted by: TheMadcap on May 28, 2014  10:11am

“there would be no excuse to have a route to North Branford!”

Most of the L route is on Rt. 80 in EH which is pretty heavily populated. Also I’m biased because I have used the L route to get to NB to see relatives. Really though it’s absurd of how they stop it at that town’s intermediate school. Either just stop the thing in EH, or extend the route the extra 1/2 mile so it actually goes to NB’s two shopping plazas and people might actually use it.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on May 28, 2014  10:32am

Excellent op-ed. Always important to cite real-world examples. It’s easy-ish to come up with theoretical solutions to real-world problems, but showing how these types of problems can be resolved with real-world examples helps tremendously. With any luck, Doug Hausladen is paying close attention.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 28, 2014  1:13pm

Another comment: honestly the bus way is the stupidest thing ever. It’s too short, and Amtrak is just going to tear it up whenever they start building the tracks for their actual high-speed route between DC/NYC/Boston. If we were going to spend $1 billion, I present this map instead
former/current rail lines in CT. It would be more permanent, not to mention sexier to your average non bus riding person to just remake a commuter railroad branch between Danbury-New Britain-Hartford, especially since it’d create a connection of an existing Metro north line to the soon to be opened New Haven-Springfield railroad where passengers could just switch platforms to travel a long distance.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 28, 2014  1:15pm

For the record it’s not an absurd idea and I’m not the only one who thought of it

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on May 28, 2014  1:22pm

I realize the piece says “(Opinion)” at the beginning but as I began reading I didn’t even notice that little flag, probably because (a) it was a follow-up on a recent reportorial article and (b) opinion pieces of any kind are relatively infrequent on the Independent, and when you run them, you usually make it at least somewhat clearer than this.

I have no beef with the content of the article, nor am I implying that you are trying to pull the wool over your readers’ eyes by disguising opinion as reporting.  But I do think that whenever you run an opinion piece, you should flag it very clearly, preferably by including the word “OPINION” as the first word in the headline.

posted by: RhyminTyman on May 28, 2014  2:03pm

3/5 15 passanger vans are incredibly dangerous. The require extra training and unlike Lyft or Uber X probably should be regulated. Why remove bus service instead of increasing? This is what your are advocating.

posted by: RhyminTyman on May 28, 2014  2:07pm

We need more stops, more routes, and more buses. We also need routes that terminate at a train station instead of the Green. Elicker wanted to incorporate the Yale Shuttle into the bus system. We should do that along with UNH’s shuttle services, and SCSU’s.

posted by: RhyminTyman on May 28, 2014  2:10pm

Madcap trains are greater for intercity travel but buses and light rail work much better for intracity.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 28, 2014  4:34pm

posted by: RhyminTyman on May 28, 2014 2:03pm

3/5 15 passanger vans are incredibly dangerous. The require extra training and unlike Lyft or Uber X probably should be regulated. Why remove bus service instead of increasing? This is what your are advocating.

First they are Regulated.By NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC)

A commuter van driver is licensed by the TLC to carry passengers for-hire in a motor vehicle having a seating capacity of at least nine (9) but not more than twenty (20) passengers.   


You have vans that take people from here to the airports In New York and New Jersey which holds more then 15 people.It would work here and it would also create driver jobs.Those vans run 24hrs a day in New York.Also this does not remove bus service.They could run together.