Houston is often known as a large sprawly city built on the back of some truly massive motorways such as the Katy Freeway which is the world’s widest road and is now up to 26 lanes wide in places – yet more congested than ever after a NZ$4.3 billion upgrade.

Houston Katy Freeway

Despite that this year it will be a city to watch when it comes to public transport. Here’s why.

In 2014 Houston went out for consultation on a re-imagined bus network to completely overhaul their PT network. Helping lead the design was Jarrett Walker who has been doing the same thing in Auckland. He talks in more detail about the network and process in this post. Like Auckland, Houston were running a lot of buses but due to the poor network design many duplicated other services, meandered all over the place or were focused on serving a small population and as such the network was not effective. The map below shows the frequent routes under the old system

Houston Network Before

And here’s what the frequent network looked like after the reimaging. Like the proposals in Auckland there are other services running at lower frequencies too.

Houston Network After

One area Houston have definitely got over us is that after going out for consultation in May 2014 they implemented the entire network in August last year. By comparison Auckland Transport consulted on the idea of the new network in the 2012 Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP), launched consultation on the South Auckland part of the new network in 2013 and aren’t expected to implement it till near the end of this year with the whole network not likely to be rolled out till the end of 2017. I’m suspect one of the reasons Houston was able to make the change so quickly is that the buses were run by transit authority and they already had the interchanges they needed in place.

At the same the city has also been rolling out improvements to its light rail network. In late 2013 it opened an 8.5km extension to their original Red Line and in May 2015 it opened two new lines – Green and Purple with a further extension to the Green Line still under construction.

Houston MetroRail map

What makes Houston interesting to follow is to see particularly what impact the new bus network has on ridership. The image below was being shared around social media last week and Kent included it in the most recent Sunday reading.


When a complete bus network is changed a decline in ridership is is expected early on but it’s expected that over time it will then rise and do so at a faster rate so that after a few years the system is performing better than it was had the change not happened. The results above are surprising in just how fast the change appears to be happening. Bus ridership in Auckland is been growing however if the same sort of improvement in trend was seen it would be very positive.

Looking into the details a bit further one of the reasons for the good result in November was actually due to an extra working day which accounts for about 46% of the increase however even taking that into account the result is positive. Obviously it’s only early days but I’ll be keeping track of what happens in Houston as it might be an indicator as to what will happen hear following the roll out of the New Network in South Auckland. I’m sure many other cities will equally be watching what happens to see the value in moving to a connected frequent network.

In looking into the details I was also able to get ridership results for the city for the last 5 or so years allowing us to the trends that have been happening. One thing that surprised me was how comparing it to Auckland’s. At the start of the period Auckland had around 62 million trips to 69 million in Houston. As of November Auckland had 81 million trips to 74 million in Houston. Things obviously aren’t so comparable on a per capita basis as their urban area has around 5 million people so per capita they are much lower than Auckland

A breakdown of their results as a 12 month rolling average is below and as you can see a lot of their growth is being driving by growth on light rail since the network was expanded – much like how in Auckland the rail network is driving the growth. The big difference is our bus ridership has also continued to grow. Interestingly their Red Line on the light rail network is carrying about 54,000 people a day which is about the same as Auckland’s entire rail network.

Houston Transit Ridership

Given the implications for the new network I’ll continue to keep an eye on what happens as it may be an indicator of what we can expect.

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    1. Less land available means it’s all the more important to use spatially efficient methods of transport.

      The limited number of routes into the city fosters interchangeability, though of course a flat square is easier to run a legible grid pattern on. Swings and roundabouts.

    2. RB: here we go again. Auckland is totally unique in the world and therefore we cannot apply any solutions that work elsewhere to Auckland. Translation: we need MOAR ROADS!

      1. That’s not the translation at all.

        The translation is that we need to take a horses for courses approach. The hilly nature of Auckland means that we are not going to be able to make use of cycling infrastructure to the same extent as a flat city. The nature of the Auckland landscape means that transport infrastructure is going to cost more relative to most cities so we need to take this into account when looking at cost benefit modelling compared with other cities.

        If anything it means MOAR SUBSIDIES

        1. Auckland is not hilly! Ask any Aucklander who moves to Wellington 🙂 Having cycled in both places, I suspect cycle infrastructure in Auckland will make a big difference as a crucial difference between Auckland and Wellington is whether you average motorist is also a regular cyclist and pedestrian in the same area. In Welly that is I think more likely and makes for, on average, slower and more tolerant approach to active modes! Ie I don’t think its the hills so much as the on road experience that affects cycling in Auckland.

        2. The usual nonsense, very-partly-true argument. Auckland had lots more cycling (10-20 times what we have now) once before – do you think those volcanoes were added in the last 30 years?

          Also, have a look at the stats, for example the regionwide annual counts. Where are the LOWEST cycling numbers? Places like Mangere or East and South Auckland, areas that are (relatively speaking) much flatter than the areas where cycling is highest, such as the Central Isthmus.

          Why? Because roads in these areas are even more car centric, and development is even more sprawled.

          The hills make cycling useless as a transport mode argument is a false argument, and the fact that you pull it out in an article about public transport seems to indicate that you are just hunting for negatives anyway.

    3. Ans despite being flat and having lots of land (so very suited for motorways) Houston still hasn’t been able to build its way out of congestion. Instead it has had to turn to improved PT and cycling to get the city moving.

      So imagine how little a chance hilly, constrained Auckland (meaning long narrow corridors which are very suited to PT, especially rail) has to get anywhere with motorways. Our best bet is to once again become a great PT city, as Auckland was until the 1950s.

    4. Auckland’s shape is very well suited to PT – all that is needed is a decent PT link north, south, east, west and isthmus with feeder buses and the job is done. A squarer city would need a lot more PT lines.
      Auckland’s shape is not well suited to roads and motorways…

  1. Every additional lane that NZTA adds to any motorway anywhere takes us closer to that city severing abomination of a traffic sewer depicted in that Houston picture above. Time for not only just a rethink but fast action i.e. no more motorways and all money diverted to the provision of quality public transport!

  2. Another interesting effect to monitor is whether good quality PT induces Houston to intensify its housing stock in the neighbourhoods catered for by the upgraded PT network. We all know Houston is famous for its absence of restrictions in going ‘out’ but what about the going ‘up’ factor?

    1. I think Houston is famous for its absence of development restrictions generally which allows both up and out. There was a travel post here on some of the typologies that exist side-by-side in Houston a year or so ago. I imagine that would make TOD easy in Houston from a regulatory perspective so it will be determined by demand.

      1. This raises the possibility that the devil of Houston’s urban sprawl was the transport framework was freeways only (provided not by Houston but by the Federal govt), not the absence of planning restrictions. That if Houston had provided a mix of transport modes in its transport framework that house builders would have used the absence of restrictions to build a combination of up or out to satisfy the various demands in the market.

          1. Jezza it seems you are right about Houston’s minimum parking requirements. Simon’s below linked article discusses that.

            For Houstonites to be free to choose between going ‘up’ or ‘out’ they would need to look at artificial constraints they have which discourage going ‘up’. Like removing artificial density limitations such as parking requirements and addressing congestion in a way that minimises transports demand for land -i.e they need more PT between high volume connections. Rather than building ever more motorway lanes that encourages even more dispersal of housing and induces even more single occupancy driving, which quickly returns the motorways back to its congested state.

            But it is not all wrong for Houston -the affordability of housing means that like Peter Nunn’s brother, people are able to house themselves near where they most frequently travel. It needs to be remembered that housing affordability has a mobility aspect to it.

      1. Thanks Simon. Several commenters including myself made the point in your linked article that it is the nature of transport provision more than planning regulations that determine urban form i.e densification vs sprawl.

  3. What a disgusting waste of concrete! And America still has Republican redneck comments from the likes of John Culberson still blindling supporting the apparent economic benefits of the Katy Freeway that have proven to be the total opposite.
    In my opinion no motorway should ever need to be wider than 3 lanes.
    It’s a good thing that Houston is investing in public transport, which this sprawling metropolis really needs.

  4. The greater urban area of Houston has a population of 2.2 million, so these figures are about two thirds of what Auckland’s are, per capita. Not bad for a city which has invested so heavily in roads and sprawl.

  5. Utah is more republican and has a nice LRT network. They used the games to get Fed help for LRT after it came into action all opposition disappeared and the locals supported more. If they built rail down the centre like Perth maybe Dallas would move more people

    1. Oh course the republicans in Utah supported the LRT network. Republicans are small-government types and rail networks need far less government support than motorways.

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