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Wendell Cox, Thomas Rubin, and other anti-rail proponents of "rubber-tire transit" have repeatedly sung the praises of Houston's bus system especially its system of HOV lanes – as a superior and less costly alternative to light rail. But, while the HOV lanes are said to carry some 90,000 person-trips a day, the vast majority of traffic carried on HOV lanes tends to be private automobiles, not transit. This means traffic which produces additional demands on the street system and parking capacity downstream, especially in the central city and other compacted areas.
In terms of actual transit passengers, Houston's achievements have been important ... but far less spectacular than those in cities with light rail. A comparison with Portland's light rail system is fruitful, for several reasons:
• Both Portland's MAX light rail and Houston HOV lane express bus system were installed at about the same time
• Both have been expanded
• Both cities' transit systems are offered as models of one kind or another
As the charts below indicate, the factual evidence indicates that Portland's light rail system – installed in a city of considerably less population – has tremendously outperformed Houston's HOV-bus system (impressive though Houston's ridership achievements are).
it should also be noted that Houston Metro – which operates the bus and HOV network – has opted to implement a light rail system, even without federal assistance (federal aid was obstructed by "Road Warrior" US Rep. Tom DeLay). Construction is slated to begin in the spring of 2001.
• Population 3,100,000
• HOV lane system constructed 1984-1999
• 6 routes totalling 86 miles
• Total transit bus ridership = 36,300 per day
Note: Only actual transit ridership included; carpools and vanpools excluded as traffic vehicles increasing load on street capacity and parking facilities
Source: Houston Metro (transit agency) 2000
• Population 1,340,000
• MAX light rail system constructed 1986-1998
• 2 routes totalling 33 miles
• Total light rail ridership = 74,100 per day
Source: Tri-Met (Portland transit agency) 2000
Portland's MAX light rail carries more than twice the daily transit ridership on 1/3 as many routes running on less than half the route-mileage serving a population base less than half as large.
LRT: More Riders per Route-Mile
As the graph below indicates, Portland's MAX light rail system carries more than 5 times as many daily transit riders per route-mile as Houston's HOV-lane bus system. (Graph data calculated by LRP from data provided by Tri-Met and Houston Metro.)