New Haven Should Follow Houston’s Lead on Transit. Wait, What?

Note: A slightly different version of this piece this ran in the New Haven Independent on 5/27/14, under the title “Houston Could Point the Way for City’s Buses.” 

(Opinion) Yes, New Haven’s bus system is broken. Hope can be found in, of all places, the Lone Star State.

The critiques of some CT Transit riders—made in this Independent article—are pretty standard fare for transit riders in all but the most transit-rich cities: The buses don’t come reliably on time, off-peak frequency is terrible (and weekend service essentially nonexistent), buses don’t always go to where the jobs are, and the route structure, relying on transfers at a central point (the Green) is incredibly inconvenient for many riders. These are all very valid, and accurate, criticisms.

Meanwhile, state transportation Commissioner James Redeker insisted (in an Independent interview; click on the video to watch it) that “a bus service is scheduled based on demand” and that New Haven’s bus system runs on a fine balance of resource allocation and response to demand, and that sparse off-peak service and the Green-centric route structure are both results of that calculation.

Is New Haven’s transit system actually the best it can be, demand considering? I’d argue no.

Assuming that Commissioner Redeker’s contention that resources for urban transit are severely limited is accurate—and considering CT Transit’s recent fare hike, which seems to have been the result of a legislative raid on dedicated transit funds, I see no reason to dispute the argument that statewide political will for increasing transit bus funding is sparse—New Haven has to find a way to improve its bus operations more or less within the bounds of current operational funding. Luckily, last week also provided a high-profile example of a city which is doing exactly that—and in an unexpected place.

Houston, of all places (yes, the city with no zoning code and massive urban sprawl) is currently playing host to a much-anticipated (among the transit and urbanist world) revamp of its bus system. The regional transit agency hired consultant Jarrett Walker, a favorite of transit purists everywhere, to redesign its system around goals of increasing transit reach and ridership. As with many of his projects, Walker’s plan for Houston is built around the concept of a frequent network, a system of buses and light rail which are assured to come every 15 minutes or less, every day of the week, at all hours during which the system operates. The new plan will place 111 percent more riders within a 1/2 mile of frequent buses, and 55 percent more jobs. You can see a mesmerizing .gif of the transformation below:


The magical part? Houston is doing it with no new operating funds. Operational funding for the system will stay at exactly the same level that it had before. That shouldn’t seem possible, but, as Walker explains on his blog:

• That’s how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people’s demands.

• Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people.  The plan devotes 80 percent of Metro’s resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20 percent to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places. Currently only about 50-60 percent of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome.

This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed. (About 0.5 percent of existing riders end up over 1/4 mile of service, and most of them are just over that threshold.  Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)

In other words, Houston was able to make some easy decisions (to cut inefficient or wandering routes), but also had to make some hard ones (retrenching service from areas that aren’t densely inhabited and/or are difficult to serve on a logical route).

The numbers of people negatively affected are small, if Walker is to be believed, but any city following this model of resource allocation will clearly irritate some people. The key is to make sure that the burden of cuts doesn’t fall on lower-income communities, and to carefully consider whether the demands of certain vocal segments of the population make sense in a regional context.

In addition, some riders might find that their former one-seat ride now requires a transfer, since the system is less core-centric and more gridded, but in theory even they should end up saving time. And again, this transformation is planned with no new operational funding.

It’s not clear to me how exactly the financials of the Houston revamp are to be worked out such that it does not require new funding, but given Walker’s recommendations in his book, I imagine that it consists of:

• The aforementioned pruning of costly, low-ridership routes.

• Projecting that higher ridership means better farebox recovery ratios (the percentage of operating costs paid directly by rider fares, which according to Redeker is around 25 percent in New Haven—not far off from the average in a city this size).

• Eliminating costly “split shifts” for drivers, where drivers get a premium for driving during the busier morning and afternoon peak hours, and not in between.  By employing drivers on standard eight-hour shifts and giving them something to do during the day, the transit agency can actually save money even if it is paying for more hours overall. (This, of course, assumes that labor agreements allow such an arrangement.)  Renegotiating labor agreements, of course, is often a very, very politicized question, which brings me to my final point about how to go about bringing a Houston-style approach to New Haven.

Implementing a frequent network in New Haven would require two things above all: political will and changing the mindset of transit operations from trying to serve demand to trying to induce it. The political question is notably tricky in a situation where the city does not control its own transit system. New Haveners from top to bottom can and have shown support for a revamped, improved transit system, but the city lacks the financial capacity to fund improvements itself, and is in any case dependent on the willingness of  state-run CT Transit to commit to following the city’s lead.

That dependency on CT Transit also means that shifting the agency’s conservative mindset (and I assign no blame there—transit agencies are captive to, and have their tone set by, a political system that values transit little) will require sustained political pressure from both the Harp administration and New Haven’s state and potentially even federal lawmakers.

Capital-intensive, sexy transit projects like improving Metro-North’s New Haven Line,  building out the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail, or even the New Britain-Hartford CT Fastrak busway offer concrete rewards both to transit riders and to politicians who can point to newly poured concrete and newly laid rails and show off what they have accomplished. Doing something as simple as reworking the way a city’s already-existent local bus system works, and making the buses come more frequently, offers no such flashy rewards. It just requires a lot of hard work, and focus on the issues from both the grassroots and the leadership. And that’s hard.

At the same time, though, New Haven’s transit is stuck in a downward spiral where there is only an attempt to match service to demonstrated demand, no attempt to build ridership or move people from cars to transit. If Houston, of all places, can bring together a transformatively cheap and simple transit plan, why can’t a city that was built around horsecars and still longs for its lost trolleys?

Hudson, NY and America Before Zoning

G and I spent the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in the beautiful little town of Hudson, NY, about 45 minutes driving south of Albany. Hudson is dense, compact town of a little under 7,000, and the county seat of mostly rural (and beautiful) Columbia County. It is also home to a treasure trove of historical architecture, much of it dating to the decades immediately after the town’s founding during the waning years of the Revolutionary War. As the agriculture economy in the Hudson Valley declined, Hudson entered a long period of economic decline, but has been revived (albeit in an apparently unequal manner) in recent years by a second-home crowd escaping New York City, lured by the town’s diverse, beautiful housing stock and accessibility (Hudson has a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Service). The newcomers have established a thriving art/antiquing/high-end food economy; walking down Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag, feels like nothing more than navigating a slice of Park Slope relocated to Upstate.

Warren Street is certainly the epicenter of economic and social life in Hudson, but some of the most interesting individual homes are found on Union Street, parallel and just to the south. Sadly, Union Street is not on Streetview, so we’ll have to settle for a low-res view from a perpendicular street (get on this, Google! Students of planning and architecture will thank you.):


Walking down Union is like a trip through history; the street is especially known for its 19th century houses, but the oldest I know of on the street is the Worth House, which has been there since at least 1794, when Major General William J. Worth, conqueror (appropriator?) of Texas during the Mexican-American War, was born in it. What one notices on Union is the sheer variety of age and style amongst the houses on the street. Just in the blog post linked to above, architectural styles mentioned include Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Eastlake, Victorian, Italianate, Second Empire, French Second Empire, and Federal. Almost as remarkable as the variety of styles is the variety of sizes. Some homes are quite elaborate, worthy of Hudson’s wealthiest families; others are small and plain. Some are townhouses that would look appropriate in my own Albany neighborhood of Center Square; others could be farmhouses. There are even a few large-city-style apartment buildings sprinkled in. There’s not a shred of coherence of style or size.

The houses of Union Street are a truly remarkable collection that evolved over 120 years or so. And, to channel noted (and regional resident) crank James Howard Kunstler,  it’s a streetscape that would be virtually impossible to build in most places in the United States today. Zoning would, on the principle of seeking to “preserve neighborhood character,” prohibit the presence of houses of such different styles and sizes. Neighborhood and homeowners’ groups have repeatedly shown themselves to be opposed to any new home that disrupts the architectural status quo; had that attitude prevailed in Hudson, the Union Street that exists could never have been built. The last of the historical homes on Union Street were built around 1910, just before zoning began its unstoppable sweep across the American landscape. Union Street offers a useful reminder of the creativity in land use and architecture we’ve lost, and are only now learning to bring back.


A Brief Portrait of the American Highway System at the Point of Breakdown

I drove back to Albany from Sharon yesterday with my partner G and G’s sister. While we were making the obligatory stop at the local dairy, I checked my phone and noticed the photo embedded above making its way around Twitter. By the time we hit the road, of course, what had begun as a two-mile backup stretched for fifteen miles, and seriously blocked our way. We ended up exiting the Mass Pike and taking US 20 around the jam. With all of the diverted traffic, of course, 20 became seriously jammed as well; what is normally an easy trip of 2:45 took us over four hours. I checked Google Maps several times after we did get home, and it appears as if the delays lasted long into the night. And this was on a non-holiday Sunday, heading away from major urban areas.

Despite years of declining Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita, the American road system remains in crisis mode, thanks in no small part to political cowardice about raising the gas tax. We’re at the point where even a relatively small accident (again, no injuries, though I’m not exactly sure how!) on a critical artery can destroy the flow of traffic not only on that road, but on smaller roads around it for hours. And the worst part? There’s no real way around it. There are very few places, and certainly almost none in the Northeast, where we can add more highway capacity. Technologies like self-driving cars may help highway capacity, but that is probably decades in the future. In the meantime, we’re left dependent on a vulnerable transportation system whose reliability is always at risk. And this, in short, is why people need options in transportation. The state of our highway system isn’t going to change, at least not for the better. The state of our rail and bus systems can.