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Houston's MetroRail Alleviates Congestion as Riders Fill LRT Trains

Light Rail Now! Publication Team – March 2004

Houston's brand-new MetroRail light rail transit (LRT) line is yet another new urban rail startup that is on track to fulfill expectations in terms of both mobility and urban development. Passengers – apparently, most of them new to transit, and attracted out of their cars – have been flocking onto the MetroRail trains in the Main St.-Fannin corridor in droves. And, perhaps most importantly of all, LRT is helping breathe new life into Houston's downtown.

These positive developments come amidst continued assaults on the new LRT system from Houston's Demolition Derby – aka the city's motor vehicle traffic chaos. Vehicle after vehicle has been running red lights, making illegal left turns, and bypassing crossing gates as motorists thumb their noses at traffic rules and laws and pay the price in bashed vehicles and, in some cases, personal injuries – not to mention the LRT railcars that have also been battered and, in some cases, LRT car occupants who have been slightly hurt. Nearly two dozen traffic citations have been issued to offending motorists. (See Houston: Epidemic of Destructive Motorists is Accentuated in Crashes With Light Rail.)

To evaluate the design of the rail system's traffic management system and safety measures, Metro, the transit agency, asked Texas Transportation institute to perform a study. in its report issued in early March 2004, TTI pronounced the design of the system safe, although "minor adjustments to signal timing and signage" were recommended.
[Houston Chronicle, March 8, 2004]

"We knew our system had no design flaws, but it's always good to have someone else say it" commented Shirley DeLibero, Metro president and chief executive officer, in response to the safety report. She affirmed that Metro would implement TTI's recommended enhancements before the agency increased rail service, in an effort to encourage more motorists to adhere to traffic laws and obey safety regulations.

Super Bowl ridership soars

It seems to be a struggle for supremacy of the city's surface between private motor vehicles (steered by arrogant or oblivious motorists) and high-quality transit. Fortunately, LRT has a lot going for it – especially in terms of providing vast new people-moving capacity, as well as moving more people much more safely.

On 6 Feb. 2004, Metro announced that it had logged more than 300,000 boardings on its special Super Bowl buses and corridor LRT trains during the Super Bowl weekend of Jan. 29th-Feb. 1st. Of those boardings, more than 125,000 (41%) were on buses, and more than 177,000 (59%) were on MetroRail. The boardings for all four days of the Super Bowl are shown in the table below.
[Metro News Release, 6 Feb. 2004]

Day MetroBus MetroRail Total
Thursday, Jan. 29 1,979 20,360 22,339
Friday, Jan. 30 25,110 40,916 66,026
Saturday, Jan. 31 74,945 55,212 130,157
Sunday, Feb. 1 23,547 61,005 84,552
TOTALS 125,581 177,493 303,074

"This is proof of just what we expected: light rail is already playing a major role in moving people around Houston" said Metro President & CEO Shirley DeLibero. "Super Bowl weekend showed us what an important role light rail can play in handling transportation needs during a major event."

Jeff Arndt, Metro's chief operating officer concluded that one thing was certain from the Super Bowl experience: "If we'd had had more trains, we definitely could have moved more people."
[Houston Chronicle, 9 Feb. 2004]

Passengers leave a northbound MetroRail train at Main St. Square station as other passengers wait to board in early 2004.
[Photo: Mike Harrington]

MetroRail's alleviation of mobility congestion

Arndt noted that the LRT system appeared to have exceeded its own projected capacity at certain times during the several event days. While MetroRail trains have the assumed capacity to move 2,000 to 2,400 passengers per hour in each direction, Arndt explained that this is based on an assumed maximum capacity of 200 passengers per railcar.

But trains apparently were carrying much more than that at times. "We have documentation of times [during the Super Bowl weekend] when there were 250 people in cars" Arndt told a Houston Chronicle reporter. At peak times, he noted, Metro was running two-car trains at intervals of about nine minutes, compared with the usual 12 minutes.

This has interesting implications in terms of the street capacity and roadway congestion. A signalized arterial street such as those which form the route of Houston MetroRail's LRT line has a design maximum capacity of about 600 vehicles per hour per lane, or about 720 persons per hour per lane (assuming average occupancy of 1.2). While Arndt stated that MetroRail trains were carrying upwards of 200-250 passengers per car, even assuming a lower average of 150 per car, 9-minute headways of 2-car trains calculates to an average of about 2,000 persons per hour per direction. That's the equivalent capacity of more than 2.5 traffic lanes (in each direction), which would otherwise have been squeezed into the existing capacity of the street system (if all those trips would have been made by motor vehicle, instead of rail, at all).

In other words, the two lanes allocated to LRT carried the person-movement volume of five lanes of motor vehicle traffic. That certainly sounds like significant congestion relief. And that's before one considers the thousands of additional cars, SUVs, and pickups that would otherwise be competing for expensive and increasingly scarce parking spaces. Furthermore, the Super Bowl experience underscores the point that congestion relief is not important merely in normal weekday, work-commuter rush-hour times, but at "offpeak" special events also – such as Super Bowl.

Average weekday ridership growing

MetroRail's impressive ridership gains have not been confined just to the Super Bowl period – overall ridership has been growing. in mid-February 2004, Metro reported that more than a half-million rider-trips had been carried on MetroRail during the LRT system's inaugural month ... exceeding the monthly totals recorded by the mature light rail systems in Cleveland, Ohio, and San Jose, California.
[Houston Chronicle, 17 Feb. 2004]

Metro released its first monthly statistics on train ridership, which indicated 558,257 boardings on the Main Street line in January 2004, averaging to about 18,000 boardings per day (well on the way to fulfilling Metro's projection of 31,000 to 33,000 daily boardings by the end of 2004). To convert transit boardings to the actual individual persons riding the system in a day, and to account for round trips, transfers, etc., the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) recommends a factor of 45%. That would calculate to about 8,100 individual persons, on average, boarding MetroRail trains each day.

Rail opponents used this issue to disparage MetroRail's ridership, arguing that even 9,000 individual people is far less than Houston's total population (not even half a percent). From this, they argue that the new rail system does nothing to alleviate traffic congestion.

This makes about as much sense as arguing that Houston's wastewater system does nothing to drain the Gulf of Mexico. it may not move the entire population of Houston daily, but, in reality, the 8,100 people carried on an average day by the little 7.5-mile MetroRail line equal about 25% of the 32,000-person residential population of the corridor – obviously, a much more significant (and valid) proportion. Furthermore, by carrying the equivalent of 5 lanes of traffic in peak periods during the Super Bowl, the new MetroRail line demonstrated it can have a critical and welcome impact in alleviating mobility congestion and the parking crunch in Houston's core area.

The January ridership figures were welcome news to Metro leaders, who have been facing an intensifying effort by rail opponents to thwart Metro's rail expansion program. "These figures indicate MetroRail has been very well received by our customers" said Metro head DeLibero. "We are very encouraged that rail will be a key part of our transit system, as expected."
[Houston Chronicle, 17 Feb. 2004]

And, despite the rash of motor vehicle collisions with MetroRail trains, statistical probabilities suggest that MetroRail passengers are avoiding accidents – including many which could result in serious injuries and even fatalities – by parking their cars and riding LRT. The Light Rail Now! article Fatality Rates: Transit Passengers vs. Motor Vehicle Occupants, for example, provides data indicating that the fatality rate for LRT passengers is approximately one-fourth that of motor vehicle occupants. Other research studies which have endeavored to make an equitable comparison among transpoprtation modes have similarly found a significantly lower accident exposure rate for LRT passengers than for motor vehicle occupants.

MetroRail helping revitalize Houston's core area

But new rail transit projects aren't just about mobility. Another major purpose is to bolster urban development goals. For Houston, a major objective of the MetroRail LRT project has been to stimulate or reinforce the revitalization of Houston's core area – especially its downtown.

And, according to a recent article by Mike Greenberg of the San Antonio Express-News, Houston has been succeeding admirably. Greenberg recounts:

We're downtown on Main Street on a Saturday night, and the sidewalks are swarming. Live music drifts through nearly every doorway, where abandoned storefronts have become trendy nightclubs and restaurants. Through the upper-story windows of old office buildings and hotels, you glimpse the telltale track lights and art of expensive apartments. Every 12 minutes, a sleek white light rail train glides by.
According to the map, we're in downtown Houston ... we really are in lively, exciting downtown Houston – a combination of words that the most shameless Houston booster would not have dared utter 10 years ago.
[San Antonio Express-News, 22 Feb. 2004]

A big boost to Houston's core area improvement was given in 1995, Greenberg notes, when the state legislature created the Houston Downtown Management District, with authority to levy taxes and fees to support a wide array of capital projects, planning activities, and services. "The district's work is most visible in the new trees, fountains and street furniture of a much-improved pedestrian environment along Main, several of its cross streets and the area around the ballpark and the George R. Brown Convention Center" reports Greenberg.

While the downtown "growth frenzy" was somewhat interrupted in 2001 with major street rebuilding projects and the start of construction on Metro's Main Street LRT project, says Greenberg, "With the completion of most of the street work and the opening, on Jan. 1, of the light rail line, business boomed again."

As a result of these improvement efforts, Houston's once-moribund core area has revitalized, and people have swarmed back into the area, including Midtown. As Greenberg points out, the 1990 census reported just 490 people living in Midtown – "largely a crime-ridden wilderness, with positive development confined mainly to a pocket of businesses run by Vietnamese immigrants." But by 2000, the population had mushroomed to 8,500, according to the redevelopment authority's executive director, Charles LeBlanc, and the population is expected to continue to swell to at least 15,000 by 2015.

Pointing out evidence of new development permeating the area, LeBlanc told Greenberg he perceived rising interest among developers in transit-oriented projects now that the LRT line is open. "Everyone wanted to see rail up and running, to see how it looked, tasted, sounded. There were a lot of doubting Thomases," LeBlanc said. But those doubts now seem to be dissipating fast.

Now, with LRT trains gliding by and offering fast mobility up and down the corridor, for Houstonians, "living in a real city is a new experience", concludes Greenberg. "They seem to enjoy it."

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/03/28

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