Houston, Texas is a vibrant and bustling city, with a great economic backbone in the form of its energy sector that perpetuates growth for the city. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Houston’s metro area has grown 26% since 2000, with a lot of the growth stemming from migration in part of people looking for work. The migration to Houston is great for creating a cultural diversity second to none in the United States, but a growing population of workers also assists in perpetuating a problem Houston already has – the constant use of cars for transport, along with the pollution and congestion it creates in the city.
In the latest reports, it can be seen that Houston has a working population of 954,400 (the fourth largest in the United States) of which 74% drive alone as their means of transportation to work. Only 5% of people use the available public transportation and another 2% choose to walk.
Throughout history, Houston has made strategic decisions in connecting to the outside world for business purposes. In the 19th century, there were efforts to make Houston a railroad hub, and in the early 20th century Houston gained access to sea trade via the Gulf of Mexico by dredging a ship canal, which provided huge economic advantages. Recently, Houston added to the transportation mix by adding two airports. Through time, many decisions in regard to transportation around Houston were based solely on achieving economic growth. Transportation was viewed more as a tool to facilitate moving goods around, so there has never been been much consideration and planning for moving its people.
Many factors contribute to the complicated transport issues that mostly facilitate the car as being the number one form of transport. Houston’s distinct character and urban sprawl make other forms of transport unattractive or more burdensome to use, thus creating a cycle of an expanding car culture and no planning for alternative modes of human mobility.
In 2003, the city’s politicians finally decided to take a look at the mobility issues in Houston and took a step to facilitate change by introducing a new light rail system called METRORail. This system was intended to provide another option for transportation that also improves future environmental and economic sustainability of the city. A report from the Mayor’s Task Force on the Metropolitan Transport Authority describes how the new light rail system fits into the city’s transportation scheme:
The light rail system METRO is building is an urban system, serving trips inside and immediately outside Loop 610. It is intended to put major destinations inside the urban core within walking distance of stations. The light rail system is also intended to serve as a high-capacity spine for the bus system, replacing bus lines with higher speed, more reliable, higher capacity service. Once light rail lines are completed, bus service will be restructured to feed into the light rail lines.
The first leg of the light rail system opened in 2004, which was a 7.5-mile track connecting the Downtown area to the Medical Center (two of the main job centers in the city). This initial leg has been a great success for the city, with the second highest amount of ridership per track-mile in the United States. There are currently five additional extensions either under construction or in the blueprint stage. Here is an animation that portrays how transit, auto, and pedestrian traffic would work in and around the different METRORail station areas as well as the the fit of each proposed design in differing site environments.
The main complaints that can be seen with the light rail extensions are their lack of accessibility to the many job/activity centers around the city as well as the suburbs that surround the city. Just a few of the dispersed centers around the city include: Downtown, Uptown/Galleria, Greenway, Greenspoint, Westchase, the Medical Center, The Energy Corridor, the Ship Channel, and NASA. People argue that the light rail network will not help solve any of the congestion issues, but rather only waste a few billion dollars on an inefficient system. The opposition’s proposal includes setting up a rapid bus transit system, similar to what could be found in Bogotá, Columbia, utilizing high-speed high occupancy vehicle lanes that connect all of the suburbs with the activity centers. Busses of different sizes would regularly collect people from their local suburban transit centers and deliver them to the differing activity centers without much change to infrastructure that is already in place. In this system, busses could even circulate within the activity center so that individuals wouldn’t have to walk far and endure the elements of weather.
This alternative to rail can be seen as formidable, but it’s important to look at and weigh the benefits a rail network may have over a bus network in the long-term. In the end, whatever system is adopted and implemented needs to be effective in increasing commuter transit ridership, reducing the congestion of the highways, decreasing the amount of transport pollution, connecting all neighborhoods to job/activity centers, and promoting a more sustainable alternative to the current dependency on cars. The policies that are adopted from here forward should aim to further boost productivity and attractiveness to young, talented people so that Houston continues to thrive, and that means promoting a dense, transit-oriented urban scheme that further facilitates diverse, interesting lifestyles that young active people will be seeking.