How will Houston's growing population fare with public transit? New METRO board to address problem

Rosie Nguyen Image
Wednesday, April 10, 2024
What is Houston-area public transit's future with population growing?
The City of Houston is expected to nominate four new board members to METRO this week who will have a significant say in the future of the area's public transit.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The future of public transportation in Harris County will lie in the hands of a new METRO board, as Houston City Council plans to vote on four members nominated by Mayor John Whitmire during their Wednesday meeting.

The new board will need to address the population growth in the Greater Houston area over the next five to 10 years and how our transit systems must adjust to accommodate commuter needs.

Dr. Bruce Race, who teaches architecture at the University of Houston, explained that Houston's bus system used to follow the hub-spoke model of the historic streetcar system. Many routes went through downtown, but as the city grew in pocketed areas and freeway intersections, the bus system returned to an extensive grid system.

"METRO has made big adjustments. Will they need to make adjustments to the routes again? I think it will happen in the first and last-mile services," Race said.

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Ed Emmett, a fellow in energy and transportation policy at Rice University, said METRO has seen fewer people using its buses and light rail systems in downtown Houston after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've seen office vacancy rates rise dramatically. Major companies have moved out to the suburbs to places like the Energy Corridor, the Woodlands, and Katy," said Emmett. "The economic situation of people who don't have their own transportation has moved from just the inner city, now out to some of the suburbs."

So, how does the Greater Houston region need to respond to make sure our public transportation systems adequately accommodate that growth?

Emmett believes it needs to go beyond adding more lanes in traffic for drivers. He anticipates most of the population growth in the next decade will be in surrounding counties such as Fort Bend, Montgomery, and Brazoria. Therefore, he thinks METRO will need to collaborate and connect with transportation agencies in surrounding counties to develop creative solutions.

Some examples he gave include offering a carpool-like shuttle for long routes often traveled by people commuting for work and implementing transportation options that don't require permanent infrastructure like light rails.

According to Race, they must also develop options that incentivize commuters to leave their car at home.

"If we want people to get out of their cars and off the freeways, they still have to provide convenient transportation for people who are going to work every day," Race said.

READ MORE: METRO unveils autonomous shuttle and electric vehicle: 'Next phase of our strategic plan'

Race said the projected growth for Harris County is about 2 million people by 2040. As more high-density projects are built within the city of Houston, he believes there will be a need to make these neighborhoods more walkable and supportive of public transportation.

"We mapped out transportation poverty in Houston and looked at different population needs. There are certain households that are impacted by transportation costs more than others. That's a map that doesn't always correspond with where we're seeing new development," Race said.

To achieve equity, public transportation agencies may factor in climate change impacts and evaluate how that plays into their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint.

"Some routes have a heightened amount of fuel use per ride. By electrifying those routes, it reduces the diesel health and environmental impact on some of these communities," Race said.

Race predicts that in the future, we could see METRO make their 30 park-and-ride sites into transit hubs for different neighborhoods in the region. He also anticipates that we'll see changes in how the public uses and views transportation.

"We're not going to be seeing the traditional auto ownership, bus ridership, or electric scooter/bike rentals. All this to me is going to change," Race said.

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