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How Public Transit Can Speed Houston's Recovery


Hurricane Harvey hit one of the most famously auto-dependent places on Earth: nearly 91 percent of commuters in the Houston metro travel alone by car to get to work. [B]etween 500,000 and one million cars were destroyed by the storm, the most of any natural disaster in U.S. history. …

Many Houstonians are grappling with how they’ll get to their jobs, their shattered homes, and to their children’s schools, minus car keys.

“I keep hearing on the radio that people won’t be able to get anywhere,” says Janis Scott. “But this doesn’t need to be end of the world. Now is the time to get with METRO [the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County].”

Scott is known as Houston’s “bus lady.” In a city known for car-oriented design, the 65-year-old native is as passionate a transit advocate as they come. … “People need to know they’ve got options,” she says. “From what I’m hearing, buses are not even on the brain.”

Yet METRO has emerged among the heroes of Hurricane Harvey. After discontinuing service just before the storm made landfall on Aug. 25, the agency gamely positioned vehicles on high ground to ready them for emergency response.

Operators transported some 8,000 individuals … to shelters around the county, according to METRO CEO Tom Lambert. Paratransit operators fielded emergency calls during the storm. Bus drivers coordinated quickly with firefighters and police officers to rescue stranded drivers.

“I’m extremely proud of how our colleagues have worked hand in hand with our partners to support this community,” says Lambert.

As rescue turned to recovery, METRO has positioned itself as a resource for storm victims. …

[T]he agency is working with state and federal relief agencies to distribute schedules and loaded Q [fare] cards to those in shelters and other government-paid housing.

“The cost of getting a new car can be such a huge hit,” says Christof Spieler, a member of METRO’s board of directors and a lecturer in architecture and urbanism at Rice University. “If we can help people out by letting them do what they need to on transit without having to borrow money at exorbitant rates to buy a car that may very well be unreliable—then that’s one of the things we want to do.”

Spreading the word about METRO in the face of a staggering disaster is a magnification of the challenge the agency faces every day, though. One recent survey showed a majority of Houstonians hadn’t stepped on the bus once in the year prior. “It’s amazing how few people are aware of some of our services,” says Spieler. … Now, “there will be people who will suddenly find themselves dependent on transit when they weren’t before,” [he] says.

After nearly a week at a standstill, METRO started running buses along some of its regular routes on Aug. 31. “We carried 43,000 boardings when we brought on limited service,” says Lambert. … METRO will be closely monitoring boarding numbers to add capacity where it’s needed.

Not everyone who lost a car in Harvey will find it easy to switch to transit. … Many of the communities hit hardest by ­Harvey … aren’t served by transit at all. Now that bus routes have been redesigned with frequency in mind, “Maybe the next set of investments needs to have a greater equity lens,” says Kyle Shelton, a fellow at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, “where service is improved in areas with lower car ownership rates or less-frequent service now.”

But once the agency resumes normal service, officials say they will begin to look at how METRO can assist communities that have long lacked transit.

Transit should also take on a more important role in the region’s long-term recovery … With affordable housing stock destroyed throughout the area, discussion will soon turn to where infrastructure investments should be targeted, and whether future floodplain development should be limited.

Encouraging development near transit connections isn’t just about encouraging more Houstonians to opt out of driving alone: Robust transit can help neighborhoods recover faster from shocks and disasters.

“You discover in an event like Harvey that there are development patterns that are more resilient than others,” says Spieler. “In neighborhoods where it’s easier to use transit or walk or bike”—whether it’s downtown Houston or a well-planned suburb—“not having gas in your gas tank or having your car flooded isn’t as big of a deal, because you can get around in other ways.” …

There may always be limits on the quality of transit in a spread-out city like Houston. But Scott believes another kind of transformation is possible. … In the wake of Harvey, “Some people are going to have to learn to live without their cars,” Scott says. “If that involves riding METRO for the first time, and you’re apprehensive, ask someone for help. You meet the nicest people on the bus.”

Laura Bliss is a staff writer at
CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. Her work also appears in the Atlantic, Sierra, Los Angeles, GOOD, the L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.

An expanded version of this article appeared Sept. 5, 2017, on the CityLab website. Reprinted by permission. To see the complete article, click here.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.


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