Frequency over Quantity
Houston ranks a pitiful No. 72 in job access via public transit according to newBrookings study
Editor's note: Remarks from METRO board member Christof Spieler are taken from a earlier, unpublished CultureMap interview about the future of Houston public transit.
Did you take public transit to work this week? Probably not, as evidenced by a new report by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program that places Houston at No. 72 among the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the nation for job accessibility via public transit.
Compared to the national average, in which 60 percent of residents receive transit coverage to work, the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown region offers only 44 percent transit coverage, and just 30 percent job access.
To conduct the study, Brookings analyzed 371 transit providers in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas. DFW scored a similar 46 percent coverage, yet only offers 19 percent job access. Surprisingly, San Antonio offers an above-average 68 percent transit coverage, with a below-average 37 percent job access.
For the nation's fourth largest city, the low ranking at No. 72 comes as an embarrassment. But Houston is positioning itself as a transit powerhouse in the 21st century as it unleashes a five-line light rail system in the next few years.
"The three lines under construction and the other two that are well into their design phases are going to make some significant changes on the city," says METRO board member Christof Spieler. "You're going to have all of the major activity centers in the core. The major destinations, the major universities and a lot of neighborhoods will suddenly be within walking distance of light rail, which means that there are a lot more people who are able to leave the car at home on an average day. The core of the city is going to be connected in a way that it's never been connected before."
Spieler says effective transit isn't just about commuting to and from one's office, despite the suggestion of the Brookings study. "Good transit is the kind of system that lets you leave your car at home and not just go from home to work, but conduct all average trips. We're not just getting you from your doorstep to your desk, but to lunch, doctor's appointments, the museum after work. The Main Street line works really well at that. We need to offer that opportunity to as many people as possible."
That means more light rail lines than those planned as part of Phase 2. "I don't think those five lines are a complete system," he says. "You can just look at it and see some really obvious extensions. Getting the Southeast line to Hobby Airport makes a lot of sense, not primarily for the airport, but because there is a lot of population density along that route. Then there's a potential Inner Katy line, connecting the Uptown line to downtown. That's an obvious gap in the system."
That corridor (between Memorial Drive and Interstate 10) forecasts increased freight traffic over the next two decades, and without a blank right-of-way for implementing the rail, the neighborhoods will have to work closely with METRO to make sure their area is adequately served. Spieler elaborates:
Spieler references recent outrages over the Ashby Highrise and Heights Walmart as examples of local communities finding their own voices in the face of wildcatter developers. Soon, METRO will have densification of the core covered, but it's going to take greater cooperation to connect trains to outlying hubs. For now, the agency's "Park and Ride" service is remarkably successful. That system can allow more than half of downtown commuters living 30 miles away to commute without cars — and keep in mind that the Brookings study did not consider privately owned commuting services like the Woodlands Express.
But a paradigm shift is in order for connecting activity centers and seeing beyond the commute between work and home. Many of these areas, such as Fort Bend County, are outside of METRO's jurisdiction zone, and lack their own sources of funding. To conduct the Brookings study, researchers also examined the region's disconnected Brazos Transportation District, Fort Bend County Public Transportation and Island Transit. Spieler explains:
The expansion of Houston's public transit isn't necessarily the result of visionaries as much as it is a shift in funding. For decades, the Texas Department of Transportation has widened highways to two dozen lanes based on funding from the national legislature. Those sources are drying up, but METRO has a set system of funding from local sales taxes — which is why the entity was better able to survive the recent recession than other urban transit authorities whose budgets were slashed by city councils and state legislatures.
"If there's good transit, people will take it," says Spieler, referencing the Park and Ride system and higher-than-expected ridership on the Main Street line.
Spieler also argues that we need to examine the entire infrastructure picture: We can built a brilliant strip of light rail, but if there aren't sufficient sidewalks to connect the stations to buildings, it's of little use. "Part of the reason downtown works is downtown has good sidewalks and high density of employment," he says. "When somebody gets off that bus, they can easily get to their desk." Spieler cites such developments as Westchase and the Energy Corridor as places lacking in sidewalks, where a sea of parking lots separate a corporate campus from the street and make it difficult to implement appealing public transit. In places like those, the entire urban fabric will have to be reconfigured, which will be the role of developers rather than a transportation authority.
The Brookings report warns, "With the average commuter in major metro areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Houston unable to reach 800,000 metropolitan jobs via transit, however, rising energy prices and transit cuts in low-income neighborhoods raise significant concerns for those labor markets." What's more, only one quarter of jobs in low and middle-skill industries are accessible via transit within 90 minutes for the typical metro commuter. The same is true for one third of jobs in high-skill industries.
While it's easy to critique thoughtlessness in past planning, Spieler maintains that Houston is on the right track. For example, Houston is applauded in the Brookings study for being among the 18 metropolitan areas with median transportation arrivals under 10 minutes.
"I think that we're building one of the smartest light rail systems in the country," says Spieler. "It's very different from what places like Dallas are doing, which is really trying to connect out to the suburbs. We're building a system that serves the parts of the city that have the highest levels of activity and highest densities of population and employment."
To view an interactive map of the Brookings study, click here.